Happiness When Done Right — Part 14
“Tomorrow is Today”
The prologue to part 10 of this blog series speaks of a visit on April 3–6, 2018 to the University of Denver (DU), in Colorado, for what was billed as a “DU Gathering of Courage and Renewal.” I was invited to be part of it by a long-time friend from our long-ago Kellogg Fellowship years, Rick Jackson, who, with his wife, Marcy, later founded and co-directed the Center for Courage and Renewal, advancing the work of Parker Palmer. The gathering turned out to be an inspiring time for us all.
At the end of our stay, just before heading to the airport for flights home, we spent 30 minutes with one of our hosts, Professor Paul Michalec, to record an interview reflecting on the meaning of our encounter. Paul has just sent us this link to the video. It offers an interesting complement to the story I’m telling here — part counterpoint, part continuity.
A thread running through my work has been the mounting wish that there might be a feasible way to transform the academy from the inside out, to import into academic culture with all its complexity, beauty, and potential some additional possibilities, side-by-side with the drive for excellence that is, and must remain, its most fundamental aspiration.
Can we open spaces for a more collegial spirit to mitigate the forces of competition, a spirit of appreciation to accompany the commitment to critical thinking, a loosening of the perfectionism that leaves us wearing masks as armor? Can we show up for each other in new ways, listen deeply, be more playful, more forgiving, see and reflect the essential goodness we see in our colleagues, in our students … in ourselves?
The DU gathering began on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, and his prophetic words from more than a half-century earlier were very much with us as we were meeting:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
But now we turn the calendar back a quarter century, and continue the painstaking process of putting some pieces together, bit by bit, from the inside out.
Some experiences are lost, and thankfully so, in the healing fog of lapsed memory. Had it not been for a lifelong habit of routing painful failures by writing them down, my memories of the initial phases of my presidency would be far sunnier than the privacy of my journals suggests they actually were. Then again, how reliable are the journals, really? I retreated to them, usually, when I was under siege, berating myself for a misstep I couldn’t shake off, responding to the “second arrow” the Buddha saw as the source of suffering inflicted by an unskilled mind. As a sensitive child of a volatile father and an insecure mother, I had taught myself to resort alone to the written word when I needed to pull up from a tailspin of self-recrimination. Eventually I became adept at converting a humiliating moment into a bracing lesson I could write off … and move on.
I wrote sporadically in this vein through the years at Wellesley, in entries I would make in chronological notebooks I was keeping to track the many details, questions, and conversations that made up the substance of my administrative work. When one of these notebooks was filled, after three or four months, I would go through it once to distill out information I wanted to carry forward, then place the spent volume on a pile on a shelf in a vacant closet deep in the cavernous basement of the president’s house. I never returned to them and, when it was time to go, nearly marked them for the incinerator. At the last moment I decided to seal them in a box for the moving vans.
So now there’s no ignoring the one-sided story they tell, a saga of blunders recorded during bouts of misery. If it was bad, it was consigned to the journal; if it was good, I steamed along happily on my own. In retrospect, the journals reveal that in the solitude of my stern self-improvement campaign I was having a few very big doubts at the end of a few very bad days. The other side of the story — the learning and the joys — gradually crowded out the journaling, which fell by the wayside over time.
The incidents, mostly minor, are in retrospect curiously trivial. Some were brief interchanges in my office or my house that left me feeling stupid, awkward, tongue-tied — passing moments hardly worth remembering but for the damage they were doing my confidence that I would succeed at the job. And — not but — and it was also true that I never once regretted having taken on the job; pleasure and pain co-existed, neither canceling the other out.
Years earlier as a Wellesley student, I’d kept journals too and had impulsively destroyed them all just before my wedding day, two weeks after graduation. Now back as president, I wished I had them still. Students were asking me what college had been like then — what I, and my friends, were like. I had only the haziest of recollections so I would fall back on tales of social restrictions and technological deprivations that did amaze and amuse contemporary students, so facile with technology, so free of confining social norms.
But I often wished I could go back and find the person I was, a girl (we were girls then), an unformed, fragile self I was just getting to know. She never for a moment imagined herself as a future Wellesley president, but did have dim dreams extending beyond her mother’s narrow world in which the absence of a social security number was a badge of honor, a sign that a good husband was supporting the family well.
My ambitions in the mid sixties were tentative and vague. It would have been laughable to have staked out a hoped-for future as bold as the Wellesley presidency, even though my friends and I did appreciate that the college had been led by women continuously from its founding in 1875. I was amused when first reminded, as the new president, how far removed my own experience was from that of students I was meeting in 1993. Their world was much more distant from my own generation’s, I was discovering, than mine was from my mother’s.
I was hosting a reception for the “first-year” class. I was learning not to slip and call them freshmen, although I never did find out exactly when the word “freshman” had succumbed to gender politics. I liked to point out that the affectation raised interesting questions for a person named “Chapman.” Anyway, I was chatting with “a first-year,” an animated young woman who was relishing everything about her new college. She was gushing about how beautiful the president’s house was.
“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “We had an interior designer help us spruce it up.” I gestured toward the massive Oriental rug on the slate floor in the hallway where we were standing, next to the grandfather’s clock.
“Good, I know what I want to be,” she said, squaring her shoulders and smiling broadly.
I smiled back. “A designer?”
She shot me a glance. A look of disbelief. “No! The Wellesley president!”
Oops, how retro of me. I laughed off my gaffe and long remembered her as the first of many students who overtly threw their hats into the ring to become a successor of mine in some imagined future that far exceeded my ambitions at their age. At least I thought it did.
I wasn’t sure, and my undergraduate journals might have clarified this, and other questions the students were asking about my past. At another reception at the house, I struck up a conversation with a member of the English department, Alexandra Johnson, who was writing a book on the keeping of journals. She titled it Leaving A Trace: The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories. I confessed to her my regret at having destroyed my college journals. She knew of other women, she said, who had fallen into that trap. We grew up at a time when entering into marriage meant starting afresh and putting aside supposed childish concerns and longings. After marriage, we thought, there would be no place any more for the “pages of self-indulgent drivel,” Annie Dillard reported finding in her pile of journals, as all of us do, along with the rare flicker of spiritual light.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand my journal writing as a makeshift spiritual practice, a form of contemplation that provides me the space I need to still the rancorous chatter when it’s colonizing my head and to work my way back to a center that feels solid and true. But it took me time to arrive at that view of what they are. What I knew at the start of the presidency was that I was an introvert in an extrovert’s job, a perfectionist making dumb mistakes I had to keep under wraps, a rookie playing in the major leagues under klieg lights. In the first few years of my presidency I often found myself groping in the dark for the help I would need in order to learn what I now consider the cardinal law of good leadership, how to become a trustworthy leader — first, and foremost, of oneself.
One ally who saw me in this labor was the dean of religious and spiritual life, an Episcopal chaplain who led a vibrant multi-faith team Wellesley had initiatied the year before I arrived. This dean reported to the dean of students but also to the president and we met privately every other week or so. He would offer encouraging perspectives on my leadership, as though he were a scout out into the hinterlands whose job it was to collect bits of evidence that would point the way. His observations were a refreshing salve on the grim pull-up-your-socks approach of the management consultant with whom I was working then, and an antidote to the self-admonishments that dominated my journals.
In November of my second year the dean of religious life and I both spoke at the annual plenary meeting of a group of alumnae members of Wellesley’s “business leadership council,” or “BLC.” He entitled his evening talk to the BLC “wholeness not perfection,” and in it encouraged this accomplished group of fifty or so hard-driving and successful businesswomen, mostly my contemporaries, to ask themselves whether they had their priorities right. Were they taking adequate care of their souls, attending to their friendships and their families, the non-instrumental relationships that had nourished and sustained them, made them who they were? If they weren’t, the chaplain said, it mattered.
Inspired by his words, as everyone was, I enumerated the next morning in my scheduled talk to the BLC some of the ways his question mattered to me. Even if we were foolish enough to think we could somehow press onward and upward without becoming testy, at least, or, more likely, depleted, run down, even sick, I said, there remained for us the immediate question of effectiveness. Was it really possible to lead others well without taking time out, regularly, to renew ourselves, to replenish, to read and think and reflect? A vacation once a year in July probably wasn’t enough.
And even if we were brash enough to believe that we could remain effective while maintaining a brutal schedule that afforded no time alone, no time to go inward, to regroup and relax (no time for the dean’s “wholeness”), there was still the question of what sort of message we were conveying to younger women — to the students in my case — and to colleagues, friends and families, indeed everyone who was watching our every move. By assuming the mantle of leadership, we had traded the glass ceilings for glass houses into which everyone was peering all the time, trying to get a glimpse of how it was going for us in there … truly.
It mattered, then, what we were doing in there: all of us who were blazing these trails. It mattered even more, as the dean had said, who we were being in those demanding, competitive, crazy lives that we had chosen, or had had thrust upon us, or both. It mattered because, as we used to taunt President Lyndon Johnson many years earlier, “the whole world” was watching.
The world was watching our generation of feminist trail blazers to see if we could do it better. Yet women who reached the levels that most of the BLC members had attained were spending intellectual and emotional capital they had amassed over the years. The reserves were all pouring outward with few new deposits to trickle back in. Such were the demands of leadership, I said. Or at least the demands of the solo, macho, controlling models of leadership we were trying to transcend. The question, then, was could we dismantle the destructive, competitive and stressful structures we’d inherited, and invent new ones that were healthier and more humane?
It wasn’t going to be easy. I was sure of that. I had the management consultant’s recitation of my failings to keep me humble and I also had mounting evidence that my posse wasn’t mounting up briskly to follow me over any cliffs. At the instigation of the search committee for the affirmative action officer, I had hired a tough, experienced lawyer who was making waves in senior staff meetings. She had been one of three candidates the committee had brought to me at my insistence; I wanted to have the final say on who to hire. At the meeting when they brought me their finalists, a member of the committee, a gruff professor of Africana studies, had put me on notice.
“If you’re serious about diversity,” he announced in stentorian tones that conveyed his certainty that he was speaking for the whole group, seated behind him, “then you will chose the strongest candidate and it’s obvious who she is.” It was obvious whom he meant, but I didn’t appreciate the dare. So I said I wanted to speak personally to people with whom their choice had worked. From those conversations I learned that her credentials were impeccable, and that she would be strong minded — would be strong medicine, perhaps, for genteel Wellesley. It turned out that she was, and after several rocky months, she and I agreed that this wasn’t a good fit. With legal help I assembled a severance package that convinced her to move on and I agonized over what felt like a serious debacle.
I had made another misstep in my selection of an administrator from within the college to be my executive assistant. She came highly recommended by the vice president of finance and administration, and his close colleague the vice president for resources, two members of my senior staff I trusted were on my side. Her principal experience was in managing events and she did a fine job organizing my inauguration. After that, though, I had to face the fact that she was overwhelmed by the rest of the job I needed her to do, functioning as a chief of staff, weighing competing priorities, making quick judgments, placing fast-breaking events into a larger context. I myself hadn’t really known what support I would need, and neither, apparently, had the two vice presidents, or they had misjudged her. Whichever it was, extricating ourselves from the mismatch was disconcerting for us all. I was determined not to put myself or anyone else through that again.
When I spoke about this with my consultant, he told me about an interview technique he had invented — a “power interview,” he called it, and declared it far superior to ordinary recruiting approaches. “More than half of all hires turn out to be mistakes,” he said to my relief since my record so far seemed pretty dismal to me. He assured me that his technique would increase the odds of getting the right person. I decided to give it a try. I assembled a search committee of five adventuresome colleagues, including a professor of psychology, two members of the senior staff, plus the dean of religious life and my warm and unflappable administrative assistant. We read the consultant’s handbook on the power interview, and he helped us craft simulations of situations we thought the new executive assistant would need to handle. The committee sifted through dozens of written applications and selected eleven semi-finalists for interviews. From there we winnowed the eleven down to three and conducted the power interview with those finalists.
Following the protocol, we had written five scenarios and, for each one, had discussed the kinds of responses we were looking for. We had worked out how the committee members observing each exercise would evaluate each candidate’s performance, using standardized scoring sheets we created. In advance of the interview, we mailed the three finalist candidates copies of my goals for the year, the next five months of my calendar, the objectives of the senior staff team, and an outline of our first scenario, a one-page role-playing exercise in which we would ask the candidate to simulate a fifteen-minute meeting with the president, as though s/he had accepted the job and were beginning to work out a plan for how s/he would spend the first month, based on the materials we had sent.
We were looking for a give-and-take discussion in which we hoped candidates would ask probing questions to get at my needs and to gauge how, and how well, the office was functioning. Also, we wanted to see evidence that candidates thought clearly, conveyed and inspired honesty, elicited information well and didn’t jump to conclusions or become prescriptive right away. We were looking for an appreciation that the primary focus of the job would be the president, supporting her agenda and needs, helping her lead from strengths and compensate for weaknesses. It was critical of course that the “chemistry” between us be right.
We had three more scenarios. In one, we asked candidates to work with my assistant on a plan to mollify an irate former trustee who had called about a donor we had inadvertently upset by failing to answer not one but two of her letters over the summer. In another, we simulated a four-person meeting in which the candidates were asked to deal with a conflict among deans and vice presidents, played by members of the search committee. In each of the scenarios, members of the committee who were not assigned roles were sitting on the sidelines observing and scoring.
The third, our piece de resistance, was an intimate exchange between the candidate and the president at a round table in my office, the five members of the committee sitting at a remove, in arm chairs and on a sofa, observing the two of us and making notes. This was the moment that stayed with us all. The set up was that I would begin by telling the candidate three things about myself that I thought could be problematic for the person in the executive assistant role. Then I would ask each candidate to reciprocate with three things about her that might get in the way of our working relationship. The idea was that I would lead with candor and self-awareness and see how well the candidates could follow suit.
So I was completely honest. I said, first, that in my initial eighteen months as president I had essentially been doing both jobs: mine and the one she would be taking on. I had been staffing myself, writing memos and correspondence, designing meetings, tracking progress on projects. I was quick with a computer and the words flowed easily. I predicted that it would take some adjusting before I would learn to give up what came so naturally, to make way for other parts of the job that did not. Also, I said, I would probably be something of a stickler about the written word, trying to hold in check a tendency to look over her shoulder and edit her writing.
Second, my relative inexperience as a manager caused me to worry, I said, that I wasn’t tough enough. My predecessor had been larger than life and people pushed my buttons when I sensed them concluding that I was indecisive. When I made a hasty decision, trying to appear certain about an issue on which I was still of two minds, I sent confusing signals. I knew this as a weakness and was trying to manage it, but I also knew I needed help being more deliberate, responsive, and consistent all at once.
My third “truth” was that I was trying too hard to do everything and to please everyone. I wasn’t saying no enough and I was absurdly overcommitted. And I was saying yes out of a need to be liked. I was working hard to learn to be more guarded and circumspect, I said, and making progress, but this was an ongoing effort with which I would need support.
“The good news,” I concluded, before inviting a response, “is that I’m aware of and working on these deficits, and I do have compensating strengths.” I don’t recall how the other two candidates responded to this unorthodox interchange with a potential new boss who was laying her insecurities on the table and asking to be met there, but I do remember how brilliantly the woman we hired moved through all the scenarios, particularly the last one. She had already served as an executive assistant to two presidents and knew that job better than I did — knew both jobs better, really, the assistant’s and the president’s. She was self-aware, and smart and quick, and exquisitely insightful with an easy manner and a delicious sense of humor.
My concern was that we wouldn’t be able to persuade her to take a job so like the ones she had already done; as one of her “truths,” she had admitted that she was still on the fence. But she could tell from our unconventional interview that this one could be different and, after a week or so of deliberation, she accepted the offer.
In retrospect, the work of thinking through so fully the criteria for the job and of dreaming up scenarios that would test for the qualities we wanted was as important to the success of the process as was the actual interview. But the interview was a unique experience, for us and for the candidates. It was emblematic of the yin and yang of working with this particular management consultant. It was creative and effective — it was indeed powerful — but it made emotional demands that bordered on excessive.
Yet the individual who came through the ordeal head and shoulders above the rest was the ideal person for a role as a trusted partner to me because of the flexibility and honesty she brought to that first encounter, and to every one thereafter. The power interview was a rite of passage that she and I and the committee members joked about for years. Still do.
Our successful candidate became an indispensable partner to me throughout my presidency, in increasingly responsible roles to which I promoted her. She also became a valued friend. In the early years, it was in my constant interactions with her — not always easy — that I developed greater ease with the authority of the president’s role while I evolved an approach to leading that built on my values, predispositions, and strengths.
Right away, I assigned her the responsibility of managing the consultant’s leadership program, since he had been telling me I had to learn to delegate. I asked her to keep an ear to the ground and assess how the program was going. She soon began picking up mixed reviews. Most of the participants were saying they appreciated the college’s investment in their professional development and the chance to work in new ways with colleagues across departments and divisions. A few of the more adventurous managers were excited by the content — and the hands-on quality — of the consultant’s inventive exercises. But others were finding some of the experiences arduous, intimidating, even, some said, invasive.
“This is like therapy,” a senior staff member complained one day. “Looking at the ‘why’ of leadership behaviors is creating ‘safety issues’ for participants. Some people left the session almost ravaged emotionally,” she said, because the sources of their behavior sometimes came from serious childhood wounds. “They have nowhere to go with issues the program has stirred up.” My executive assistant thanked her for her input and reminded her that the consultant, and his wife who was co-facilitating with him, had encouraged participants to feel free to sit out any aspect of the program that made them uncomfortable and, at any time, to call either of them with concerns. This provoked an even more fervid response.
“They are not trained psychotherapists! This is a work situation. We should be allowed to separate our personal and work lives.” She added that “they may have their own, new-age, agenda, but it should not be the college’s agenda.” I was puzzled by this impassioned put down, communicated through back channels. In public, the facilitators had received nothing but praise for being careful and attentive to everyone’s needs. From the outset, they had said explicitly that their goal was not to force anyone to change, but rather to offer participants new data on their behavior so that they would be free to make more informed choices about the impact they wanted to have.
But some participants were threatened. Even as I absorbed the reality that the program was stirring up complicated feelings, I remained convinced that it was bringing the administration together in common purpose and was improving the quality of our meetings, our planning, and our collaborations. It was also teaching me lessons about organizational resistance to challenge and change.
I also knew I was investing a disproportionate share of my energy into a small slice of my new job — the uber-manager role I was learning on the fly. Within less than two years, I had promoted the new executive assistant to a larger role and then, in 2000, to a much larger one, vice president for planning and administration. A few years after the leadership training program and partly as a result of what we had learned, we re-designed the position of human resources director and hired a more senior person who created a robust system of performance review and supervision, together with training opportunities for the whole administration. This was in many ways the culmination and codification of the leadership development initiative we had begun in the early years of my presidency.
With my new partner, my executive assistant, I was able to begin concentrating on those things only the president could do: speaking for the institution, working with the board chair to make sure we were calling forth the best the trustees could bring; collaborating with the academic deans to engage the faculty in preparing for the future; inspiring students and alumnae to live the college’s values; connecting with major donors; and leading the senior staff team and, through them, managers and administrators throughout the college. And I knew I had to become more adept at leading myself.
In November, the BLC was due back for their annual plenary meeting. Their planning committee had requested that I pick up the theme the dean/chaplain and I had introduced the year before. They wanted to hear more from me about what I was doing to maintain a semblance of balance in my demanding job. Since their request reminded me of Parker Palmer’s charge at my inauguration to “keep my poetry alive,” which I felt I wasn’t doing, I decided to speak to them about an early essay of Parker’s entitled “Leading From Within.”
I summarized his message about the violence leaders can do when they are “living a divided life,” their inner selves disconnected from who they are in the world. I then described some of the disciplines that helped me “guard my spirit,” a term I had picked up from Parker. Afterward, an older trustee, a medical historian I especially admired, rushed up to me to deliver a judgment that I knew she meant kindly, even as it set off alarms in my head.
“That was amazing,” she said, in a tone of admiration tinged with disbelief. She was shaking her head and furrowing her brow. “I don’t know how you did it. I could never have been so open with this group, so painfully honest.”
I smiled and thanked her, trying hard to mask my concern that she had witnessed me crossing a line, being inappropriate, exposing too many of my uncertainties, giving my power away. I rushed off to catch a plane.
The plan for the BLC program had been for the group to spend the day after my lecture in small groups discussing themes from my talk. To facilitate the discussions, staff from inside the college had brought in reinforcements from outside. One of the program directors at the women’s research center had worked with a consultant from Connecticut and had invited him to help design and facilitate the follow-up session. I heard later that the day had gone well, that the BLC members had spoken to one another with a candor they hadn’t achieved before, that the conversation had taken them to new levels.
Still later, I was invited to submit the talk I had given that day for publication in a volume of essays on leadership sponsored by the Drucker Foundation. By then it would have been clear that my initial worries about being too personal or self-revealing could be laid to rest, had they not been long forgotten, subsumed in the preoccupations of running the college. But I continued to experiment with the question of what conditions were necessary for me to allow myself to be vulnerable without giving away my power.
Four months after the BLC meeting, the dean of religious and spiritual life told me he had been working with the Connecticut consultant who had been one of the outside facilitators the day after my talk. On the heels of the BLC meeting, the dean had contracted with this new consultant for advice on questions about his authority as dean in the dual-reporting structure in which he was feeling whip-sawed. He wanted to know if I’d participate in a three-way meeting as the final step of this consultation. I agreed and invited him to schedule a time to bring the Connecticut consultant to lunch at the president’s house.
When the day arrived, we sat in the breakfast room and enjoyed a delicious lunch while discussing the origins and structure of the role of the dean of religious and spiritual life. We identified a few changes that would clarify the dean’s situation and I assented to those. I appreciated the straightforward tone of the discussion, and as our dessert and coffee were served, we had a few more minutes. The consultant turned to me with an easy smile. He was a big bear-sized man with a deep voice that was disarmingly gentle.
“How are you enjoying the job? Do you mind if I ask?”
I didn’t. I knew he had been standing in the back of the room when I had given the revealing talk to the BLC and I knew how much the dean was learning from him. I spoke briefly about the work I had been doing with my current consultant and some of the challenges I’d been facing and doubts I’d been having. When I finished, he paused, then replied in a soft tone, more a reflection than an assertion.
“It doesn’t have to be so hard.”
We finished the conversation without pursuing what he meant, but I filed the comment away with others like it in my life that had stopped me short and set me, eventually, on a new course. The next time I saw the dean I asked about the work he was doing with this man. He described him as an organizational consultant with fifteen years’ experience, who simultaneously conducted a private practice of psychotherapy. He had offices in Connecticut and New York and consulted by telephone much of the time, but also made visits to the campus. He was unusual, the dean said, deeply insightful. After our meeting, he e-mailed me with his consultant’s telephone number, which I tucked away. This was April.
It wasn’t until July that I finally called this man and asked him to describe his background and the nature of his work. He had been an internal consultant at AT&T and then had founded his own company with a partner, consulting with Fortune-100 companies in leadership training and team development.
“I grew tired of working with corporations,” he said and described an elaborate training for upper and middle management they ran in two different companies. “We got the whole system in place, then the leadership changed and the new regime threw it all out.” He had come to the reluctant conclusion, he said, that the corporate fascination with “flat organizations” was masking a desire “to exploit people more.”
Before the corporate consulting, he had directed a Reichian psychotherapy institute. He had studied Zen Buddhism and Cherokee medicine. He was a graduate of MIT and had gone on to graduate studies there in history and philosophy, but had vectored off in different directions before completing his doctorate. He continued to read history and philosophy as an avocation.
“What are you good at?” I asked.
“At understanding the ins and outs of a whole system and helping folks envision their own leadership — in lighter, more paradoxical ways.”
Later he introduced me to the work of Milton Erickson, a master of the use of paradox, with whom he had studied. His business partner was active in the Tavistock Institute, and he, too, was well versed in the systems perspective on organizational behavior.
“I like to focus on the overall health of the organization,” he said, and on “protecting the soul’s journey through life,” in part through “the selective use of mistrust.” He said he wanted to be defining and offering “new leadership to the culture at large.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what all of this meant or what it might be like to work with someone like this, but I was intrigued. I trusted the dean’s judgment and my own instincts, and I liked his thoughtful demeanor. He was markedly different from the conventional management consultant; he was a true intellectual with a big spirit. He said he would encourage me to develop the practice of “looking at everything that happens as meaningful, and perhaps even enjoyable.”
That sounded good to me.
When we began to discuss a consulting contract and a fee structure for what he called “a system intervention” at Wellesley, I started to back away. I had wanted to hire him on the side and pay for his services out of my own pocket. I knew that some faculty and staff were talking about the current consultant: Who was this guy who seemed to have the new president’s ear? Faculty tended to disapprove of spending the college’s money on outside management consultants whose intelligence, expertise and “corporate” values they disdained. Some staff were resentful, I could tell, that I had turned to a man for advice. But this man insisted that the contract between us had to be “clean and out in the open,” or it would be based on a false premise that would compromise our working alliance.
“The structure of our agreement has to recognize what you need as legitimate,” he said. “And so do you.” This was not some remedial help I could sneak off on my own to secure. “The work we will be doing is in the service of your role as president. It won’t be good for the college if you are pushed so profoundly by the job that you lose the chance to learn.”
In time I came around to the view that the contract would not be a luxury on the side or private coaching, but was going to be central to my work for the college. We agreed on a six-month trial period, and I called my current consultant to tell him I wouldn’t need him any more as an executive coach, although we would continue with the training program for the administrative staff.
Much later I asked the new consultant what he had seen that had prompted his comment that my job could be less hard. He said he and his wife had stood at the back of the room as I spoke to the BLC and had watched me “calling people into a different way of being.” As an alumna, as the president, as a woman leader in the world, I was, he said, advocating and embodying what he and his wife both saw as radical change.
He knew then that I would need “the armament” to stand up to the emotional reactions my leadership would surely provoke. What I sensed from our few interactions was that this large man with a ranging mind and a searching spirit was going to help me test and refine my emerging notions of the leader I could become. I didn’t know then the important role he would play in helping me forge myself into that leader, one who would eventually learn how to “do happiness right.”