Wishing our Leaders Would Dig a Little Deeper

 

shovel2

I’m a sucker for vision. When a bold leader lays out a plan that is clear, compelling, and resonant, I find myself tingling with anticipation. But when the moment of visioning passes and the focus shifts to implementation and administration, I always sigh with disappointment. Another missed opportunity to commit to the standards of quality and integrity that we so desperately need.

As a person who works in the vast spaces between vision and outcomes, I could use a little help. For once, I would love our leaders to dig just a little deeper, clarifying commitments and standards in addition to goals and objectives- a value, a promise, a commitment to something real and authentic, something that we can hold on to, that will not shift or move.

Of course I can understand their reticence. In a world that is constantly changing with new threats and obstacles emerging by the moment, any promise of quality seems risky and naïve -especially in the world of higher education, with systems comprised of diverse campuses, programs, and faculty all prizing their respective freedom and independence.

So when visions are set, it is the highest and broadest metrics that are employed, essentially inventorying and counting impacts, highlighting stand-outs, while implying consistency and quality through messaging and story-telling.

To be clear, I’m not some accountability or assessment freak. Nor do I inherently like being told what to do. But I know that the very act of defining quality in a way that is meaningful and clear is often the most powerful part of the visioning and leadership process.

If we turn to the world of manufacturing, this point becomes clearer, with the specific widget or commodity dictating the design of production. Ultimately, it’s an insistence on consistency and fidelity that refines the internal mechanisms, calibrating and realigning, until the desired product is not only achieved but guaranteed.

But when we look at our own system of higher education with its disparate campuses, programs, and teaching faculty the challenge of consistency and fidelity become both daunting and critical. When a leader boldly sets a vision for the entire system, it- by definition- has the potential for great impact, but only if it is clear and consistent enough to be implemented with fidelity.

Without this assurance from the very beginning, we will continue to define quality through our own respective lenses and tendencies, failing to leverage our full potential as a powerful engine for change.

As someone who designs courses, programs, and initiatives I know that virtually anything is within our reach, especially when we have compelling and resonant goals to help inspire and guide us. But for once I wish we would just go for it, setting a high standard for quality and fidelity to which we can aspire and rise. Not only will such a standard ensure consistency and impact, but it will help us to be a better, stronger, and more relevant system, thus ensuring our sustainability for decades to come.

we are so very small

alice

Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?

For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.

So here it goes…

During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.

But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.

When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most.  It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.

It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves.  How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth.  How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.

 

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

candy

Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Keeping Up With a Dynamic New Rotary Club

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I’m a sucker for beginnings. So when I heard about the recent launch of a new Rotary club in our district (7090), I was more than just a little excited.

As a past Club President and current PETS 1 Chair, I am well versed in the challenges of membership and retention. Without sufficient Rotarians we can neither actualize our potential nor leverage our impact in communities around the world. And as a trained psychologist and mediator I also understand the challenges of transforming – or retrofitting- existing clubs, addressing historical patterns, interpersonal dynamics, and contextual issues that can inhibit growth.

So when a new club launches with exuberance and vigor, it is certainly worth celebrating and taking careful note.

Here’s the set-up. Buffalo, NY, a Rust Belt city in the midst of reinventing itself. Palpable energy around new construction projects, a growing cultural and tourism sector, and a burgeoning biomedical core, including a relocating medical school, new start-ups and research centers, all co-located in the heart of the city. And at the very nexus of activity is the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), an exciting destination attracting talented physicians, researchers, students, and staff, and just maybe the most perfect home for a brand new Rotary Club.

When members of my own club- Buffalo Sunrise- announced the idea, we were all hopeful that there would be sufficient interest. But when the charter ceremony commenced with over 50 official members, and numbers rising to nearly 100 within the first 2 months, it was clear that they were on to something huge. Talk about beginnings.

My chance to visit the club came just this past week when I was asked to co-facilitate an orientation into the bigger world of Rotary. As an opening exercise we passed around an assortment of articles from past Rotarian magazines. Rather than traditional introductions we had participants summarize their article while sharing any details that had resonated.

Within minutes we could feel the energy of Rotary. The new members described stories from around the world featuring fundraisers, service projects, and extraordinary impacts implemented by clubs, most smaller than theirs. Their areas of focus were as diverse as the projects- from animals to children, disease prevention, clean water, to agriculture.  But for me the most exciting part was the reflections following the exercise. Members commented that they hadn’t known there was so much room for creativity, so many possibilities for projects, and opportunities for support.

Imagine all these amazingly talented and connected people joining the world’s best service organization without any idea of its latent potential.

It struck me that new clubs such as the BNMC in many ways represent the promise of Rotary. But they also reflect the significant challenge of connecting Rotary resources and structures with individuals and clubs that are in a constant state of motion and change.  Clearly, we all stand to benefit from our ability as districts, and a unified organization, to stay relevant and connected to individual members and clubs. But keeping up with their talents, interests and potential is not for the faint of heart.   As district leaders we had better strap on some speedy new running shoes, because the new BNMC Rotary Club has certainly taken off.

Thank You Global Explorers

marble

Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.

I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.

The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.

In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.

As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way.  I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.

Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities.  This integration  is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.

Our Time in the Canyon

 light

We are all so very small. This was the message I took away from the Canyon, and somehow it brought me a sense of great comfort and warmth.

We had hiked down into Canyon de Chelly, battling the heat and dryness, our bodies still unaccustomed to the desert sun. The petrified sandstone was smooth and slippery with undulating contours and dizzying heights. Dazzling blue sky against terracotta painted contrasts so striking that they demanded adoration, leaving us speechless.

When we finally spotted the homestead, it was nestled within an oasis of green, snug within the canyon walls. Our guide mentioned that for some the Canyon can evoke feelings of being trapped along with an intensity of emotion that is both cathartic and powerful. But for us, the Canyon rocked us in a gentle embrace, lulling the children into blissful happiness while whispering songs of wisdom and comfort.  

Our hosts were Kathy, the keeper of the family’s land and legacy, and Ravis, a Navajo guide who grew up in the Canyon and worked to preserve its culture and traditions. Each shared their stories and gifts with the children.

Kathy welcomed us as only a grandmother could. She spoke of growing up in the Canyon , the rhythms of life and work, and the sense of clarity and purpose with which she toiled. She soothed wounds with plants and herbs, taught the children how to spin wool and weave, and made delicious fry bread, hypnotizing us with stories, humor, and kindness. Her grandson, Montay, played joyfully with the children, running through the orchard and scaling the Canyon walls, enchanting us with his innocence.

Ravis was more commanding. He spoke with a quiet yet authoritative voice, referencing spirits, tradition, and the Navajo ways. He spoke to the children before they went to sleep, lying together on the Canyon floor under the vast blanket of stars, singing them a low and beating melody. He spoke of the age of the Canyon, the vastness of its history, and the briefness of ours. He shared the four words with which parents teach their children, the rhythms of nature, and spirits that occupy all living things.

In the morning, as the sun was rising and we were contemplating our impending departure, Ravis asked the children to introduce themselves. He spoke of the importance of identity, sharing our lineage and celebrating our parents and grandparents and the families or clans from which we come. He explained that by knowing someone’s family you know a great deal about their character and what to expect. We are all shaped by those before us, connected through family, traditions, and the spirits who watch over us.

And in the end we are all 5-fingered people, inhabiting the same earth, cherishing and tending it for the next generation and their children and grandchildren who will follow. 

When we left ,the children were sad but Kathy urged us to feel only joy. In Navajo there is no word for goodbye, only the happiness that will come when we meet again.

Adventure Awaits

Adventure

Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.

In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.

I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.

But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.

When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.

I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara

Steward Your own Growth

In my last post, “Check Your Professional Baggage,” I suggested that asserting your needs or accomplishments directly to your supervisor is not necessarily the best way to create opportunities for growth and fulfillment. Rather than leading to the validation and compensation that we crave, such actions can instead lead to self-destruction or marginalization, both of which should be avoided at all costs.

So what is the better way, I’ve been asked. And am I really suggesting that women should simply allow ourselves to be taken for granted or underutilized, rather than standing up for ourselves and asserting our value and self-worth?

I’ll begin with the second. Of course it’s not right, or necessarily fair for professionals to be pigeon-holed or constrained by jobs, expectations, or leaders that are overly narrow or restrictive. But fairness, or the actualization of human potential for that matter, are not the primary lenses employed in the workplace- or at least not the workplace to which I’ve been exposed. While our professional histories with all that we’ve accomplished, endured, and contributed blaze like beacons in our own minds, they may barely register with leaders who control access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

So what can we do if we are not getting the support or supervision that we need to grow and be successful? Many suggest that in such situations we should leave our positions in search of healthier environments with better leadership. For me, the notion of equating my own success and growth with effective supervision suggests a perpetual state of vulnerability and searching with no guarantees of rest.

Consider the following assertion. Growth doesn’t happen through validation, appreciation, or being handed an opportunity.   Clearly, all of these conditions can support and even expedite growth, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make it happen.

Growth is an internally driven process that involves expansion and evolution of skills, knowledge, and contributions. As you grow it’s natural to seek new opportunities and challenges through which to flex your talents and maximize your impact. Although many of our jobs feel restrictive and tight, we can usually find spaces in which to grow, developing new skills, insights, and connections that correspond with our areas of interest and goals.

And regardless of whether we’re expanding and evolving where we are, new opportunities are developing all around us, even though we may be completely oblivious or disconnected- especially if we are consumed with our own “stuckness” and misery. Being able to capitalize on emerging opportunities involves a sense of timing and sensitivity to shifts in circumstances, priorities and contexts, along with an ability to leverage your specific skills, experiences, and relationships.

Interestingly, while you ready yourself for these emerging opportunities, it’s actually the big categories of perceptions that can matter most. Rather than the specific historical details about what you’ve accomplished and endured, it’s the relationships and reputation that you’ve created- are you perceived as pleasant, competent, a team player? Although these categories may seem overly simplistic and even insulting in light of all that you’ve done, issues of collegiality and interpersonal dynamics are a major influence in securing the opportunities and positions we seek. I have seen leaders go to unbelievable lengths to avoid dealing with women who are perceived as emotionally fragile or needy (my words, not theirs), even if they are extremely competent and valuable from a human capitol perspective.

Based on my own experiences, here are some high-impact investments to consider with regard to your own professional growth and fulfilment.

  • Work on the values of humility and gratitude. These lenses will ground you and see you through periods of transition and dysfunction, no matter how long-lasting.
  • Cultivate your skills and knowledge. We can always expand our understanding of the world, and education is an investment that always pays off.
  • Build real and authentic relationships. In the end it’s the relationships that will lead to opportunities and fulfillment. While popular, the notion of networking is superficial, always go with real relationships that are built on respect and trust.
  • Find your passions and interests. This is often harder than it sounds, but figuring out what you really care about and what moves you will help you find the path for growth and fulfillment.
  • Lead from the middle. Regardless of how far up (or down) the food chain you find yourself, there are always opportunities to support others around you.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that women – or men- should stay in unhealthy situations, or positions that constrain our growth and potential. There is much more to say and write about this topic, but my point here is simply that if we are serious about fully contributing our gifts and talents, we must begin to empower ourselves to steward our own growth.

Check Your Professional Baggage

luggage

It’s not surprising that so many talented individuals are seeking professional growth and advancement. And based on my own experience I can certainly understand the sense of urgency and despair that can go along with feeling stuck and underutilized.

But as I interact with professionals from varied backgrounds and positions I am seeing a common pattern that is both troubling and dangerous.

On one hand, I see professionals (mainly women, although not exclusively) who are yearning for the recognition and validation that they deserve. In addition to their talent and potential, they seek appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices that they’ve endured for the good of the organization or unit. These yearnings, when unmet, can be so strong and compelling that many turn to the promise of new positions or employers as the only viable solution.

But interestingly, while staff members are seeking validation, recognition, and opportunities for growth, supervisors are focusing almost exclusively on high level goals and priorities, with little focus on cultivation of talent, innovation, or professional development. Obviously, this observation represents a sweeping generalization and is offered not as a gesture of judgment or acceptance, but only to point out what I see as a significant disconnect.

My concern is that when professionals (often women) feel underutilized and undervalued, they are often counseled by well-intentioned colleagues, friends and family members to assert their worth. They are encouraged to point out their various accomplishments and contributions, clarify how they are working beyond specified expectations, and in essence stand up for themselves, demanding the recognition and opportunities that they deserve.

My concern is that these types of self-empowering behaviors can run directly counter to the leadership environment, inadvertently putting the professional at risk.

Here’s how I see it. All of the details about our individual jobs and what we’ve accomplished and endured over our careers and lives are highly personal experiences and memories that are closely connected with similarly charged details that are easily triggered (see my post titled “The State of Being Stuck” for further explanation). This is why we often get emotional at work when things are particularly bad or stifling.

Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders tend to function primarily at more abstract and less personal levels. Their interactions with staff and employees easily get filtered through polarized labels leading to overly simplified distinctions such as “team player vs. loose cannon”, or “pleasure to work with vs. needy or unstable”. These labels in turn can become even more powerful than our actual accomplishments, talents, or the sacrifices that we’ve made, thus affecting future opportunities for growth or advancement.

My point is that given the leadership environment, the act of directly asserting our needs and personal/professional histories may not be the most effective way to gain the recognition and opportunities that we seek. I know this assertion may fly in the face of conventional guidance or wisdom, but frankly, I am tiring of seeing so many talented and capable women self-destruct around me. There are better ways to ensure our growth and fulfillment.

 

Make Room for the Unicorns

 

unicorn

My daughter Natalie can’t be burdened before she goes to bed. Any mention of schoolwork or summer reading is quickly dismissed. She explains that there is simply no room for serious thoughts. She must keep her head clear for the unicorns and other fanciful creatures that fill her dreams.

 Not surprisingly, Natalie loves to go to sleep. She tackles her nighttime ritual with gusto, cozying under her covers and shooing me away after a quick book and kiss goodnight. And she always rises with a dreamy faraway look, slowly transitioning into the world of wakefulness and the promise of a new day.

 Like Natalie, I too enjoy sleeping. But sadly, no unicorns visit me during the night. Perhaps my mind is too cluttered with serious thoughts. Perhaps there is simply no room for them to play.

 Over the years I have worked at readying for sleep. I have trained myself to relax, replacing anxious worries with soothing calm. And most nights I am able to drift off into nothingness, a restful reprieve between busy days.

 Yet the quality of my slumber pales in comparison to Natalie’s. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse her unicorns, to stroke their downy white fur and feed them sweet treats from my hand. But even more than her unicorns, I envy Natalie’s ability to slip into the world of magic and fancy by simply opening her mind.

 Is this a blessed gift of childhood, or a secret all her own? I shall prepare my mind for unicorns and hope that they will come.

 

 

 

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