Conversations with Kathleen: Leading Generously (Part 1)

It’s been an extraordinarily long time since I’ve written something explicitly to be published in blog format, so… I feel a bit rusty. But the best way for me to begin writing (again) is usually when it’s in conversation with something I’m reading. Right now, I’m reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s third public book writing experiment tentatively titled Leading Generously. If there’s anyone who leads by example, she’s really it. Not because she writes about change, but because she chooses to practice it. I started writing a long and probably premature comment on her announcement post, and much of what I said there was addressed in her next post, which was already up. So, this might turn out the same way, as I’m reading to catch up. If so, sorry for that! Meanwhile, some ruminations….

First of all, I wish “leadership” as a subject didn’t feel like an uncomfortable thing to write about without a sense of irony or self consciousness either as a woman or as an academic. In fact, I wish more people who were not traditionally considered leaders would write–constructively–about leadership. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to have more conversation about what people wished leadership was? I mean, in one way, shape, or form, don’t we all have something to say about leadership, even if we are more inclined to describe ourselves as a follower? or a consensus-builder? or even an anarchist? (I mean, apparently whole cities and states fit into that category, and I feel like those of us in “anarchist cities” right now could talk for hours about leadership….) But the fact is, for academics that term feels… dirty? Is that the right word? We have opinions about people who want to lead. They’re “administrators” or “climbers” or “ambitious.”

My point is that one of the first issues that we run up against when we talk about Leading Generously is leading at all.

An introduction about the improbability of the author writing or speaking on the topic of leadership is a trope in writing about leadership. It’s effective, because it creates a sense of connection with a reader. It says: “Don’t worry, I’m not ego-centric. I am really just like you.” It’s effective because ultimately the author is going to ask you to do something you probably will find difficult, and knowing that someone relatable did it makes that change easier to accept. Nevertheless, in the case of writing for an audience that may include those outside the academy at “mission-driven” organizations, is the career trajectory of tenure track assistant professor to non-profit and academic leadership all that improbable? Aren’t most university leaders at some point assistant professors? In fact, many leaders of other mission-driven organizations also hold Ph.Ds, and many held faculty posts at some point. What’s improbable isn’t that a once tenure track assistant professor of media studies has become a leader. It’s that she’s writing about leadership. In other words, despite how predictable it is that someone with a Ph.D. with a tenure-track assistant professorship will grow into positions of leadership, we still treat it as if it is improbable. Despite the fact that we should all receive training in graduate school on leadership, we insist that leadership is not the goal.

That leadership wouldn’t be a topic of concern to someone whose career began as Fitzpatrick’s did is, in fact, part of the problem. The profession (and I mean this quite broadly as those who work in higher education) is changing, and unless we have the courage to admit that leadership is something we need to address as soon as the first year of graduate training… well… we’ll continue to be surprised that assistant professors turn out to be university administrators.

Academia has an uneasy relationship with the word leadership, but faculty most of all. Generally, we* recognize, aspire to, and reward authority (even as we seek to become more publicly-engaged… which is of course a challenge for publicly-engaged work for many “authoritative” humanists… but I digress…), but leadership as a term has the tin-thin ring of neoliberal desire to it that makes most academics who probably should lead head for the hills instead. What’s worse is that academics (tenure track assistant professors) quite frequently turn out to be leaders: of centers and institutes, scholarly societies, grant projects, non-profits, foundations, universities, etc. But so far as professional development advice goes, a sign of a good tenure-track assistant professor is that she doesn’t go to workshops on leadership. She writes her book. The same can be said of non-tenured folks in academe. First of all, they’re not often allowed to “lead” so much as “direct” or (more accurately) “associate direct.” Second, they’re already supposed to know how to lead in order to get that alt-ac or similar position.

Alternatively, isn’t the point that it’s entirely predictable that higher education produces leaders? I don’t mean within higher education, but in all sectors. In college brochures, we like to say that we are educating the “leaders of tomorrow.” Is that just a slick slogan created by admissions offices, or is there something in it? Perhaps the real danger of the “improbable leader” narrative is the fact that we don’t acknowledge the high likelihood that our students and ourselves will hold leadership positions at some point… and consequently that it should be something we consider in every discipline? at every level?

Fitzpatrick is well positioned to speak with authority, experience, and empathy about leading generously, and she deploys the term leadership more variously than most are accustomed to using it–not a position or status or job title but as a frame. It is a choice that even within the confines of limited agency we can determine how we make change that is necessary and impactful with the resources available to us. At least, before reading her definition of leadership, that’s my take a way at this early stage (remember, I’ve only read the first installment!).

In this formation, then, leadership shouldn’t be improbable. Least of all from someone who is a teacher, administrator, writer, thinker, director, media-maker, professor… If the argument is that we all have moments in which we are asked to demonstrate leadership, even if leadership is the courage to make a choice because of the impact the choice could make, then perhaps it would be helpful to rethink the authorial stance. Perhaps we’re not improbable stories after all. Perhaps we are predictably leaders, and the real change is accepting that responsibility, limited as it may be, as something that we need to cultivate rather than shirk because the mantle feels wrong or uneasy. If leadership is making choices that lead to beneficial change, then being a leader is not the same as being a CEO, or even the President of the United States. And, frankly, vice versa.

By deploying “leading” as the frame for institutional change, I think what Fitzpatrick is trying to describe is a flexible understanding of the term leadership such that it is responsive to the situation or position of the reader. I genuinely like that idea. It resonates with my own experience. And yet, the word leadership has a connotation that is overwhelmingly individualistic. I know we talk about “senior leadership teams” which generally includes more than just one person, and there are also philosophies of leadership in which the person who leads is deliberately collaborative and coalition-oriented (think: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t). And yet, we often think of those as leadership styles.

If leadership trends back toward the individual, then what we know about individual agency within systems of power further complicated the term. That point isn’t lost on Fitzpatrick. She writes:

This conviction places a lot of emphasis on individuals, in ways that may seem a bit at odds with some of today’s most important ideas about the ways that power operates. Those critical ideas — including arguments about race and racism; about sex, gender, and misogyny; about class and power — understand the issues they explore to be systemic rather than individual. That is to say, they argue that real change requires social transformation. It requires building institutions, creating governments, enacting laws, transforming economies in ways that work toward equity rather than supporting privilege.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick “LG1: Introduction

Of course, as she points out: “institutions won’t change themselves.” Institutions are comprised of individuals, and it will take individual leadership to create the movement toward cultural, systemic, and institutional change. I admire that point. It echoes the kind of arguments that those like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sarah Ahmed, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore make.

But I wonder if leadership even in the context of collective action doesn’t eventually come back to a reliance on individuals. Here, I don’t just mean as a burden on one person to change a system, but also on the singularity of a personality or name. More coalition-based action might use terms like “mutual aid” or “coalition” or “advocacy.” But none of these seem sufficient to me either to really meet Fitzpatrick’s aspirations.

What Fitzpatrick seems to want to unpack is the actions we take to make that change and the courage that it will take both individually and collectively to make the change in the academy and in “mission-driven organizations” happen. If we’re having a crisis in leadership, I admit, growing better leaders is something we need, but that seems to depend on first convincing people to be leaders and then to make the change. Is it possible that change is how we get to more generous institutions, and leadership is why we get there? If we’re changing generously, we focus on actions rather than roles. Change can be both individual and collective. It requires collaboration and depends on leadership. What I think Fitzpatrick is getting at, and what really resonates with someone in a position without much authority, is that leadership is making choices you have available to you that create change. Those choices are personal and collective. They are brave and difficult, and also something we all have to do. It shouldn’t feel improbable to anyone that there will be times when they need to make choices between what is easy and what right. If we learn to get comfortable with making choices that make changes, then we may all discover ourselves to be improbable leaders.

* I use “we” variously, sometimes in combining my voice with tenure-track faculty, which I am not. I suppose it’s because as someone who is not tenure track faculty, I have learned to read and to feel as if I were, since that is where what is valued in the academy still seems to reside.