Reflective Essay

In the life of every leader, there is time when one reflects on the past, concentrates on the present and thinks about future goals.  During my time in the Educational Leadership program at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM), I have been present in all three areas.  I began the program with the thought that it is practically a free education by using the tuition waivers available to me through the labor union contract that I have with my job as the Assistant Director of Event Services in the Comstock Memorial Union at MSUM.  However, as I maneuvered my way through the course work, meeting and networking with other students and faculty in the program, I began to realize I was a part of something much larger.  I started to realize that by applying myself to the program, I was able to open new doors in my career that I never knew were possible.

The following essay provides my definition of leadership, an outline of my leadership style, and my views regarding all aspects of leading in an organization and of organizational behavior.

A leader is someone who has the ability to influence, encourage, listen, and nurture. A leader is able to inspire, stimulate, persuade, shape, and have an effect on others.  According to John C. Maxwell in his book Leadership 101, “Everyone is a leader because everyone influences someone.  Not everyone will become a great leader, but everyone can become a better leader.”  Maxwell challenges us by stating, “The question is not WHETHER you will influence someone, but HOW you will use your influence.”  I would like to know in my life that I have influenced someone in a positive way.  In higher education, we have the opportunity to accomplish this nearly every day.  What matters most is what we do as leaders when faced with a “teachable moment” or at a minimum the conversation we have with those we lead.

Definition of Leadership

Leadership by my definition is planning and the ability to see the long term vision when leading a group. Rather than being a task-focused manager who puts process above people, I would like people to see me as a leader who is not afraid to make a decision, give direction and is able understand the wants and needs of those I lead.  As a leader, I would first seek to understand before being understood when faced with difficult situations.  I also would do my best to think critically while being mindful of all sides and situations surrounding a big plan or decision.

While working in Student Affairs, I have found that giving students the opportunity to grow and learn within their own paradigm is as important as the curriculum established for their learning in the classroom.  Each person has an individual set of beliefs.  It is when people are able to search outside those beliefs that people become active learners in their environment.  Kurt Lewin states that behavior is a function of the person and their environment. I believe in forming a supportive, open environment where students are free to find their strengths and passions as they become a productive part of the team and the community around them.

Providing students an environment conducive to learning is only one part of a larger puzzle.  To lead one or many, a leader should be able to clearly see the strengths in students and others.  Leaders in higher education should encourage students and peers to master the skills, which are seen as strengths and help them understand personal weaknesses and grow in those areas.

Leadership Style

In talking about my leadership style, I rely partially on my strengths based on the Gallup Strengths finder.  My top strengths according to the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment are, in order, Empathy, Woo, Communication, Harmony and Includer.  Previously when I have taken the poll, I scored highest in Communication, then Includer, Woo, Harmony and lastly Developer.

My top strength of Empathy has emerged over the past two years in my personal life through my lived experiences.  I am highly aware of who wants to be my friend and who does not, and I know I place a high priority on being liked and accepted.   I have found that many people feel very comfortable opening up to me about feelings they have and on topics they do not feel comfortable discussing with anyone else.  I take solace in knowing that others trust me with their innermost secrets, ambitions and feelings.

Woo is one of my favorite strengths.  I look forward to situations where I can practice this strength.  I draw strength from being able to have conversations with many people.  I am usually comfortable in a crowd of others and hope to put them at ease.  I am able to treat everyone as they are a long lost friend even though I may have just met them.

Communication by nature is the ability to contribute to a conversation.  By nature I am naturally open and honest about who I am, my experiences, what I am able to do, and where I tend to fall short.  In my professional life, I am quite comfortable telling others personal stories and it is in these moments where empathy can be confused for storytelling.   The goal of telling others about personal experiences is to hopefully have them relate to what I am communicating.  When others are able relate to you through story, it opens up a higher level of trust and communication.    I can quickly and easily put others at ease in a situation by just talking with them.

In harmony as a strength, I like to keep the peace between all of those around me in my work and life situations.  I tend to find conflict difficult to work through at times.  Personally and professionally, I want each person around me to carry their share of the responsibility.   I frequently use task lists to keep track of my work and find it comforting to be able to check items off the list.  I like to see projects through from start to finish and hope and expect each person on the team to share the work.

My includer strength can tend to take on many traits from the previously mentioned strengths.   I am generally even tempered and remain composed under conflict situations or when things do not go to plan.  As an includer, I look to be a part of a group as opposed to being solitary in all I do.  I can quickly make friends and connections that last by finding the good qualities in nearly everyone I interact with.  I can easily involve many individuals with other strengths in groups and activities.  In short, this strength can be seen as a sensitive personality trait.

To know my strengths within a leadership position in higher education is a fundamental part of being able to effectively lead others.  By knowing and understanding the best role I can play in a project or task, I am able to look to others to fill out the areas I am most need of help.  One area this has become evident is in working with our campus Event Management Systems (EMS) Users Group.  When it was started, there were many personalities involved with little understanding of what others could contribute.  We had all been working in “silos” by ourselves.   I believe now that when my then-supervisor, Karen, asked me to lead the group, she knew what she was doing.  Not only is Karen an active participant in Stengths Finder learning, she is also is trained as a facilitator.  At first I thought she brought me in to the group because of my knowledge of the EMS system inside and out, from the user experience to the backend database and how it all worked together.  I later came to realize that she not only asked me to join the group for my knowledge, but she also asked me to co-lead the group because of my strengths.  When I first started to co-lead the group, I found myself up against what felt like brick walls between people in the room.  Slowly as we continued to meet, I started to realize that we were all frustrated with many of the same issues, and while each of us talked and communicated them differently, I could still see the similarities.  As I started to explain to everyone what I was able to see and hear from each of them, I could see the walls start to come down, brick by brick.  Soon we were able to communicate as a group to identify issues and address them one by one.  I believe it was my empathy that helped me see past the words to spend time figuring out what the root of the problems were.  I expressed interest and concern for the issues brought forward as well as how it affected the people in the room.  In short, I have a highly tuned skill in being able to bring diverse groups of people together and help them understand each other and the individual roles we can play as well as how to best work together.

Views regarding leading

Leading is never easy.  Good leaders possess many attributes. Depending on the situation, a different type of leader may be needed to accommodate different work cultures.  While followers may love leaders for their style, charisma, or attitude, followers may not always agree with what the leaders do.  Each organization goes through stages where different leaders are needed.  Often in large organizations, there is a need for different types of leaders in different roles.  I believe that a great leader is one who is able to recognize the areas he/she needs help and then are able to fill those positions with the right people to help lead. In these situations, I am reminded of my favorite leadership quote from Rosalynn Carter, “A leader takes people where they want to go.  A great leader takes people where they don’t want to go, but ought to be.” Bearing this quote in mind, I reflect on my own experiences in the Student Union over the past year.  We have become a lean staff, downsizing from a staff of five in our office to a staff of three.  Our current Student Union and Activities Director has been with our organization for close to fifteen years in various roles.  Only now with our current director have I been able to interact, watch and reflect on the choices we have made to bring our facility renovation to fruition.  Our director’s first goal this year was to create the best work and organizational culture that he could.  By Strengths Finder measure, he is strong in Deliberative.  I know he has put a significant amount of thought into having the right players in key positions within our organization.  He then brought us through many challenging conversations as a larger Student Union and Activities staff to lay the foundation for a strong collaborative culture.  Without the right culture in any organization, any amount of strategy will become useless..  Peter Drucker stated it best when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Every leader can have great strategies to accomplish goals, but without the right culture, that strategy goes to waste.  I am thankful to have such a great supervisor, leader, mentor and friend in our current director.

Conclusion

I believe each person is in a position to make a difference in the lives of the students and staff.  A leader is someone who is given trust by those he/she leads.  I hope to inspire trust in those I lead, so when push comes to shove they believe that I can make the best decision while keeping the interests of the group or organization at the center of decisions.  I hope to be a great mentor to others as so many leaders have been to me.  Some people say that great leaders are born; I believe that great leaders are aware of their surroundings and have a great understanding of people’s fundamental beliefs. Great leaders are able to harness the good in each person to create something bigger than just one person.  Great leaders can successfully attain goals set forth with the help of those around them.  I plan to be a great leader and with work, practice and patience, I will accomplish my goal.  Great leaders do not lead for the sake of leading, they lead because they care about others and love what they are able to help others accomplish in their own lives.

References

Maxwell, John C.. Leadership 101 . Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002. Print.

Kurt Lewin, Organizational Behavior in Education, Adaptive Leadership and Reform, Ninth Edition, Robert G. Owns & Thomas C. Valesky, p. 19

Organizational Behavior in Education, Adaptive Leadership and Reform, Ninth Edition, Robert G. Owns & Thomas C. Valesky, p. 33

Gallup Press (2008). Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York: Rath-Conchie