Happiness When Done Right — Part 15
Learning to Survive in the Vortex
I begin this longer segment with a note on naming. Part way into this experiment of releasing the memoir on my hard drive out on the Internet, I decided to remove names of most individuals. The Facebook breaches of privacy were raising many questions and it seemed respectful to leave to others the telling — or protecting — of their own stories. Even though no one had objected, I went back and removed most of the names in early installments I had posted.
But this chapter (it was originally a “chapter”) is different. I am going to name the “consultant from Connecticut” introduced toward the end of part 14. He is Richard S. Nodell (here’s his LinkedIn profile). When I started working with Dick he had a busy practice of management consulting and psychotherapy but was not working in higher education. In the ten years we worked together we improvised a model of higher education leadership for which each of us has become known, a model that grew out of a strong partnership we two forged, and took out across the Wellesley College campus.
Moving out into wider circles during our “post-Wellesley” decade, each of us has continued to carry outward the essential elements of this partnership model — to other colleges and universities, and a variety of other kinds of organizations and ecosystems. And we have remained close colleagues and friends. Although many others from the Wellesley years remain close friends, the work Dick and I did together is central to his livelihood, just as it was central to the leader I became. It is only fitting, then, that I honor it fully here.
Warren Bennis, one of my favorite writers on leadership, tried his hand for seven years at running a university. He didn’t much like it and, nearly twenty years later at the pinnacle of a successful academic career, he wrote in a 1994 memoir that he left the presidency of the University of Cincinnati newly aware of “an important personal truth. I was never going to be completely happy with positional power, the only kind of power an organization can bestow. What I really wanted was personal power, influence based on voice.”
My own experience, so similar to Bennis’s in the early years of my presidency was, by the end, miraculously different. I walked out of a presidency having found my personal power — and my voice — through the painstaking process of learning to survive in the vortex of positional power. And I found there a state of mind approaching complete happiness.
Warren Bennis’s disaffection with the presidency came from an experience I noticed constantly when I started out, the feeling of being “held hostage” of others’ projections.
“The perceptions of other people can be a prison,” Bennis wrote. Being president made him begin to understand for the first time, he said, “what it must be like to be the victim of prejudice, to be helpless in the steel embrace of how other people see you. People impute motives to their leaders, love or hate them, seek them out or avoid them, and idolize or demonize them independently of what the leaders do or are. Ironically, at the very time I had the most power, I felt the greatest sense of powerlessness.”
When I arrived at Wellesley, I often felt powerless and misunderstood — confused, inarticulate, stupid. I blamed my inexperience, called it ineptitude. At times during the first year I felt as though the college didn’t really want a president, as though the organization was running on autopilot, content to have a leader who was nothing more than a cardboard cutout. At other times, paradoxically, I felt as though the college wanted a leader who was omnipresent and omnipotent, that the president was expected to catalyze every committee meeting, legitimate every event, render every decision, validate everyone’s worth, as though nothing of meaning could happen until she arrived.
It was in the work with Dick Nodell, who tutored me in the dehumanizing effects of the echo chamber of projections, that I found solid ground on which I could stand apart from the expectations of others without losing my connections to them. He taught me to see the ways in which what he called “the system” was tripping me up. He was a consultant who was splitting his time about evenly between therapeutic work with individuals and “systems work” with whole organizations. As a therapist, he was trained to recognize transference and counter transference, concepts on which I had a tenuous hold at best.
Of course I’d read Freud and the post-Freudians and had a superficial understanding of the stylized dance between therapist and patient. But I’d never imagined myself standing in a “field of projections” as this hybrid consultant-counselor taught me I was doing every day. Nor had I realized, as he pointed out, that what he labeled my “natural receptivity” was both my greatest asset and — as he would name it — my most impelling “growing edge.” Even before we started talking overtly of “language games,” and the insight of Wittgenstein, one of his favorite philosophers, that “words create worlds” I could tell that this brilliant bear of a man was going to clear away the underbrush and blaze some hidden trails that would offer me unimagined pathways for navigating the world.
I knew I would have to make changes to survive in the job. That was obvious. And I knew one of the biggest changes I had to make — and fast — was to pull back from managing details so that I could begin to live into the wider arc of my role. What I hadn’t anticipated was how profound a shift this would be, a total transformation in how I saw myself. I would have to sacrifice the pleasure I had always taken in mastering minutiae — the sense of intellectual integrity that came with delving deeply into an issue, luxuriating in the nuance and building the large synthesis inductively from the data. I would have to claim the freedom not to have all the answers. I would have to be content imagining myself leading a trek through a thicket of unanswered and fertile questions.
Dick would reassure me that cutting my teeth on this different — and difficult — job would offer its own rewards. He said it would teach me to stay present in the moment, to recognize heated conflicts as invitations to deeper learning, to monitor waves of movement throughout the college as much through sensory and emotional cues as through analysis and intellect. The ultimate payoff was the possibility of a new kind of life, a life that would be surprising, whimsical, delightful — a life that would be free. I would listen at first to these tantalizing words and record them in the extensive notes I kept of our conversations, without accepting the fullness of the promise they conveyed. If I could learn to find unalloyed pleasure in this larger role, I would try to convince myself, perhaps I would become a more integrated person, wiser, more autonomous, with a broader view of the world and my place in it. After all, I’d remind myself, isn’t this the possibility that drew me to take on this job?
Our first order of business would be to rewrite the script for my inner dialogue. It was time to suspend what Dick called the “warrior discipline” with which I had led myself all my life, time to ease up and end the war in my head. I told him I wanted to be practicing what I thought of as “a leadership of peace,” a goal that may have reflected my family’s roots in Quaker traditions but rested as well on two convictions I had reached over many years of studying and experiencing organizational life.
First, it seemed to me that a healthy organization, by definition, was one that supported its members in making and sustaining connections — within themselves, with one another, with their clients or customers, and with the larger and deeper meanings and contexts of their work.
From this it followed, second, that managers and leaders responsible for organizational success would themselves have to be working self-consciously to resist the pressures that would otherwise drive them into isolation, disconnect them from themselves.
I knew how it felt to withdraw at times of confusion or pain — or to harden in the face of attack — and I knew what an effort it took me to find my way back to myself. To work in this purposeful way to preserve connections, was, I felt, to lead in the service of peace, which I wanted above all to be doing.
But the first minefields I was going to have to disarm were the ones I had laid for myself. I asked my administrative assistant to schedule regular hour-long phone calls with this unorthodox new consultant twice a week over a trial period of six months. I had some reservations about how much help he would be, and more still about the extent to which I actually wanted to submit to his kind of help. We started to work together in mid-July, 1996. I know this because I still have scribbled notes I took during our first telephone meeting, and every one thereafter.
An old joke about graduates of the seven sister colleges starts with a professor entering the classroom and making an assertion. The students at Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, and Vassar challenge the professor with varying degrees of intellectual aggression and social finesse, or its opposite. The Wellesley student dutifully writes the assertion down. As much as I’ve always minded that unflattering comparison, the truth is that I am an inveterate taker of notes. Perhaps the invidious joke harbors an interesting question about different ways in which women find their voices. For me the practice of making notes bought time I needed to think. I told myself I wanted a record because I mistrusted my memory, and I did, but it was more than that. I evolved the note taking as a means of capturing someone else’s perspective so that I could absorb it fully, take it in, mull it over, test it against my own knowledge and experience, and gradually incorporate parts of it into my own perspective. Writing things down enabled me to size up a situation from different angles before drawing a conclusion. It was an essential step in my creative process, as I gradually came to appreciate.
My first board chair, a no-nonsense lawyer, cautioned me not to make a permanent record that could come back to haunt me. I was careful after that not to keep notes that might have legal ramifications. My second board chair, a stylish investor, bought me a monogrammed red leather binder to dress up my notebooks. Unlike the private journals I had kept when I was younger, the system of work notebooks I developed at Wellesley summarized significant conversations and recorded follow-up steps. Interspersed with the pragmatic entries, though, were more reflective ones: notes to myself from myself as I was digesting bits of data and opinion I was gathering on the fly.
Just picking up a random notebook now from the fall of 1994 and leafing through its pages brings memories flooding back, as though the feelings of tumult and inadequacy from those early years have seeped into the paper with the blue and black ink that has blurred on the fronts of pages and bled through them. It’s hard to decipher the occasional pages on which I wrote on both sides, surreal green shadows of my handwriting in backward-leaning mirror images of itself are warring with the hapless words on the opposite sides. The book is one of those mottled green “Comp Books” sold in convenience stores, a barcode printed on the front. No price sticker, but it probably didn’t cost much more than a dollar or two, maybe less. I smile affectionately at the memory of my caring assistant who gamely went through each notebook before I started using it and numbered each page. And I smile ruefully at myself for the typed index I taped to the first couple of pages after the notebook was full, so I could put it away and begin another one. Did I really foresee myself combing back through these notebooks as though they were research records from the empirical studies I used to do? The index, in columns, lists dates and pages and people and the purpose of each encounter.
Many are meetings with individual members of senior staff, vice presidents and deans bringing me issues with which they’re grappling: a faculty department chair who’s “very distressed” that the college lawyers aren’t supporting her adequately, she says, in managing a nasty legal battle being played out in her department; a technology project that’s falling behind, holding up work and causing tensions; a building that desperately needs to be renovated but we don’t have the money; questions about how we should budget for capital projects, when and how we should bring proposed renovation plans to the trustees for their consideration; a trial balloon from the deans to see if I’ll support their effort to convince the board to relax the “cap” the trustees placed years ago on the total number of faculty the college would employ. My answer is no and I know it won’t be popular.
I see a brief entry in which a vice president mentions a journal article he’s just read, and — some fifty pages later — three densely packed pages of my own reading notes from that same article, punctuated with jottings to myself about ideas in it I’d like to put to use. Trustees appear on the pages to offer advice and ask tough questions, with marginal admonitions to self from self to scramble for the answers. Consultants and lawyers show up now and then, as well as the occasional faculty member who has made her or his way past the gatekeepers to the president’s office to lobby or buttonhole her on a pet project or peeve.
Frequent meetings of the senior staff are recorded in the notebooks. Encountering notes from one of them transports me right back into the space where we nearly always met, seated around a heavy oblong wooden table that almost fills the narrow room framed by four sets of leaded dormer windows. I can hear the hollow metallic noise the windows make when pulled closed and can feel the effort it takes to lock the old metal handles. The heating system was antiquated and erratic so we opened and closed the windows often, summer and winter. The walls are paneled in decorative dark wooden wainscoting that covers the crawlspace under the eaves. All the chairs are heavy wood, with arms.
No one else dared sit in the threadbare green leather-covered wooden chair with the high back, so it served as the president’s ersatz throne, positioned at the end of the table closest to the entrance to the room, blocking a carved stone fire place too old to be safely used. Entry into this sanctum sanctorum at the rear of the president’s suite of offices was through four Gothic doorways, with ornately carved wooden doors, oval and peaked at the top, in a regress leading back into a cul de sac.
At this particular meeting, my scribbled notes would indicate, the discussion was a dead end too. The leadership team of the college, with its new president, seems to be scaring itself about pretty much everything. One person comments on a posting on the electronic bulletin board about the tuition increases we have just announced to the campus community after the trustees have voted them, on our recommendation.
“When the students come back in February, it’s all over,” the dean of students laments. Others start worrying about what we’re going to say to the trustees if students rebel and suggest that we need to send representatives to meetings of the various campus committees that may “go off the rails.” Someone then comments about an article in the Boston Globe about the rising costs of college.
“Are we the best of a dying breed?” she asks pointedly.
“We have to be clearer about what we think about Wellesley and who is here — about the students we get and what we do for them,” the long-time dean of students insists, wearily.
“Do we even believe in the mission?” interjects the newest member of senior staff, in a tone that makes no effort to mask her skepticism. “We seem uncomfortable with our identity, ambivalent about all these marginalized groups we don’t know how to handle.” This is the person I have just hired to advance the affirmative action agenda, already standing apart from — and challenging — the rest of the “team”.
The academic dean nearly explodes.
“We know what we’re doing. We believe in it. What is this?” she splutters.
The conversation stalls and so do the notes, but at the top of the page I’ve written TERRIBLE MEETING! and circled the words, as if to exorcise the feelings of despondency I vaguely recall now having felt at the time. The notes go on with brief allusions to some of our other chronic worries: the toxic waste problem, the incendiary book problem, the two lawsuits against the college, a speak-out the students are having that night that may blow up, and a deficit in the financial aid budget that has to be closed. I close the book now, disinclined to read on, and return it to the open carton atop three cardboard “bankers” boxes stacked in the corner of my study.
And I pull out a few others from early talks with Dick Nodell. Those notes are sometimes in special journals I set aside for the consultations with him, sometimes interspersed in ongoing chronological notebooks that happened to be handy, and quite a few appear on sheets of paper I’d later clip into some other journal roughly where they fit in the time order. We generally spoke in the morning, at eight-thirty or nine. If possible, I’d call him from the president’s house before going over to my office. I preferred keeping these discussions separate when I could. Reading back through the notes now reveals the rhythms of a partnership that helped me grow myself into the leader I became, and finally into the person with new-found freedom.
The first thing to note about the notes and the hundreds of hours behind them was the organic process through which we evolved our partnership. The notes have an odd dreamlike quality, shifting from first person to third person and back, often in mid- sentence, from “you” and “yours,” referring to his observations about something I had told him I had said or done, to “I,” “me,” and “mine.” They trace an ongoing dance we were doing of oneness and separateness. We were explicit about our distinctive roles and our separate tasks, a clarity that was reinforced by the fact that each of us occupied our own realm of knowledge. I knew Wellesley College and Dick never pretended to know what I should do or say in any situation. He stayed on the outside, observing, commenting, remembering, weaving themes and threads. I never gave up my authority or my responsibility to make my own decisions.
As a woman, I was intent on developing my own authentic leadership. As the leader of a women’s college, I was especially chary of yielding my autonomy to a man, or even appearing to do so. I had to ask myself repeatedly how I could be sure I wasn’t simply adapting a male model. And so I always tried to find the place I felt I could stand with confidence, the position I knew from my personal observation to be right and true.
I was testing that constantly in this private partnership, tracking what was his, what was mine, and what was ours. And this primary partnership became a laboratory for growing other partnerships through which I led the college, re-creating in each one the choreography of self-responsibility and interdependence — two values that were central to my work, and to my vision for Wellesley College and the education I wanted to be certain we were offering our students.
I had briefly recounted the story of my life in mid-July on the telephone, before we began our consultation. Even on the very first pages of notes, I can see that Dick had taken my measure and understood me well. The oneness in our partnership developed over time, in the depth with which we came to know one another, as different as we were, as distinct as we knew our separate tasks to be. In that initial telephone call, I told him I was beating up on myself for feeling awkward in meetings I’d been having in my office that week with individual members of the faculty.
On advice of legal counsel, we had tightened the policy prohibiting sexual harassment and had circulated the revised version to the faculty. All hell broke loose. Faculty were outraged. I and my administration had overstepped our bounds, they said. The academic dean was distressed about the backlash and asked me to meet with a few faculty leaders to learn what they were hearing, and to solicit their advice.
The meetings were going nowhere and were making me self-conscious. I was wincing, still, from a gaffe I’d made at the end of one of them. It was mid-December, just before winter break. At the end of a forty-five minute conversation that had gone on too long, aimlessly and inconclusively, the professor, a former dean, had uttered something sympathetic about how hard it is to please the faculty. I thanked him and stood up to signal the end of our meeting. I walked him to the door and put my hand on his shoulder.
“Thanks, ” I said, feeling grateful for his sympathy. “I hope you have a good Christmas.” He looked at me quizzically, then paused as though weighing what to say next.
“I’m Jewish. You know that?” He said this with a grimace that I took as his embarrassment for me.
I grimaced back and felt the blood rushing up my neck and into my cheeks.
“Of course, I do.” I replied in as light a tone as I could summon through the veil of shame I felt enveloping me. “I’m sorry. Have a good winter break.” I opened the door and he left.
Off and on through that day I berated myself for making such a stupid, insensitive mistake. I was still replaying the moment.
Dick spotted the problem instantly.
“You got lost in a fog of false intimacy, in a murky interpersonal space,” he said, “because you were out of your role. You’re not feeling empowered to inflict this change on the faculty. You feel as though you’re not authorized to intrude into their lives, so you’re casting about frantically for affirmation from them. The system sets you up so that you’re trying to act like their peer, and then they can keep appropriating your power. They draw you out of your role as president and into an interpersonal exchange that is inappropriate and, therefore, awkward.”
Dick said our task together — his and mine — would be to differentiate my role from that of others, like the faculty, so that I could stay on my task, which was to “enfold them” into my vision.
“Imagine that you are enfolding them into your dream, rather than appealing to them to follow you,” he said. “You’re consulting them, not joining them, and you’re not seeking their approval. You are the person leading them over to the new vision. The kids have to move to the new house and your job is to help them manage their feelings.”
“Fine, but how am I going to imagine that when I’m feeling so wretched and clumsy in these meetings?”
I was sitting still in the swivel chair in my home study, oblivious of my surroundings — all the comforting and familiar notes and cards taped on the wall behind my computer just below the four rows of my favorite books in bookcases the college carpenters had built especially for me. There were quotations and photos and mementos all around the room, reminders of who I had been in other parts of my life, of what amused me, defined me, inspired me, what I loved, what made me laugh. All of that had faded out of my field of perception.
“How to feel comfortable is not the issue,” Dick replied and explained that what I needed to do, instead of second-guessing myself was to pay more conscious attention to “what’s going on in your own body.” He paused.
“So, what is going on in your body? Right this minute? Where are you feeling the tension?”
My chair was now turned sideways toward the window, my right elbow on the desktop balancing the telephone at my ear. The lake just outside my study window came slowly into focus, early sun dancing on the smooth surface, sparkling like evening stars. I didn’t have the slightest clue what I had been seeing or feeling.
“Nothing. Nowhere. …”
This with a plaintive edge, mixed with irritation. I was mystified, maybe worried. Where is this guy going with his excursion into the state of my body? It struck me as, at best, a waste of our time.
“ If you are in charge of your breathing,” he went on, “you are autonomous. You’re letting them literally steal your breath away, steal your inspiration.”
At the heart of this first interchange with Dick was the essence of the work we did. I would begin by describing an issue or an incident that was troubling or puzzling me — another meeting that had bombed, a conflict I didn’t know how to resolve, a challenge to my authority, a gap in my knowledge, disappointment in someone who was working for me, disillusionment about what I could possibly hope to accomplish.
After a few minutes, he’d start asking questions that would point us toward meaningful information in the story. Other incidents and ideas would come to my mind — questions that had been percolating since our last conversation, and I’d mention them in an associative flow that would take us down an unexplored path. Together we’d notice themes and weave a coherent story that would deepen our understanding of some aspect of the college.
Ah, we’ve seen this before. This is another example of jealousy run amok. Or grief has just morphed into grievance again, or empowerment into entitlement. And here’s another employee telling me one more time that the college exists exclusively to meet his or her needs. And here, once again, is resistance to change, that voice of opposition that keeps rising up, sometimes crafty and hard to recognize, sometimes blustering and hard to oppose. Or remember that time you set yourself up like this with a target on you back, and opponents came storming across the bridge to take you on? Do you want to face that onrush again?
By the time the hour was over, more often than not, we would have arrived at an interpretation that provided me a new insight into what had happened, and why, and what options had opened up. Frequently the new understanding had the additional, restorative, effect of taking me off a hook of self-recrimination on which I’d impaled myself. I’d feel lighter and more optimistic as I’d hang up the phone.
“When you’re feeling self-conscious,” Dick said in that first conversation, and repeated often, “it means that something is going on around you, that there’s a tremendous overcharge on what is being unspoken.”
If I were ashamed at having said or done something foolish, he would attribute it to the “terrible pressure to speak the unspeakable.” At first these alibis seemed too facile and I found myself resisting.
“That’s all well and good,” I’d argue, “but I should have known better.”
Over time, though, I began to see patterns that did point to dynamics within the larger “system” to which Dick looked for the origins of pressures on any leader. We’d pay attention to what had happened in a situation where I’d reacted too quickly and he’d press me to wonder whether somewhere in my unguarded reaction there might have been a kernel of intuitive wisdom from which we could learn. There generally was and learning to see it helped me trust my instincts more. And he would suggest new tricks I could use to slow myself down — taking a step backward, leaning back in my chair to open a space in front of me, inhaling deeply, blurring my gaze.
“Imagine that you are a great cat,” he said one day, “at rest and yet acutely aware of everything around you. We’re making the outside world safe for you to go out and be yourself.”
I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who saw the world as a dangerous place. Quite the contrary. I was usually the last one to give up hope that things were going to work out. I said just that.
“True. But this is different. You are an introvert and that means you have to find the nurturance you need from within yourself. You won’t get it from social contact.”
I knew this was true; I’d known it all my life and it had been reaffirmed during the Kellogg fellowship. Among the battery of tests we’d taken to sharpen our leadership skills was one called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a well-known instrument used to measure personality. One of its four scales locates people on a continuum from highly extraverted to highly introverted, based on their answers to a series of questions about their preferences and habits. Extraverts, as the Myers-Briggs paints them at least, prefer to process information externally in interaction with others. Introverts need time, alone, to reflect. I scored as a strong introvert on that test every time I took it, a quintessential absent-minded professor, the printout labeled me. That descriptor was entirely consistent with my experience of myself. It wasn’t that I was absent minded, I had been telling people for years. I’m present-minded — just someplace else.
“This is why you need to learn to modulate your inner dialogue,” Dick insisted.
He explained that what I was saying to myself would dominate not only my worldview but also my morale. I had told him earlier about my father’s volcanic anger. Without belaboring any of my family history or dissecting it, he would remind me that I had turned my own anger into the harsh voice I was using against myself.
“Your anger wasn’t allowed when you were a child,” he would say, “the aggression that you needed to defend your individuality. So it became the drill sergeant you used to make sure you would survive on the battlefield.”
I needed my anger back, now, against the critical voice, “the dark critter,” he sometimes called it, an image that always made me smile.
“Tell it, ‘that’s not useful,’” he would say. “Just kick it out. Or if you’d rather bring a feminine voice, imagine you’re putting your arm around its shoulder, with empathy, saying ‘Good try’ or ‘This is hard but we’re going to do it.’” Anger can be an expression of love, he wanted me to learn, if used in the service of progress or health. “This is a legitimate growing edge,” he’d say. “You can be tough on people without hardening your heart. You can speak past the struggling personality and into the person’s soul.”
He was freeing me to practice what I came much later to know as the highest pleasure of being a leader, the opportunity to carry my colleagues and co-workers in my heart, their gifts, their values, their doubts, their hopes, the whole of who they were.
The voice of self-blame — the internalized anger — is “your enemy now.” Dick told me this in another early conversation. “It creates a blaming cycle where you chastise yourself first but then, inevitably, end up blaming others and making yourself a victim, the antithesis of who you want to be. Treat it like an enemy.”
He had three rules for managing a destructive force. “Do not look for an alliance. Do not try to understand. Do not open yourself to attack.” He was equally absolute about managing fear. One morning I was telling him about a series of increasingly nasty posts that had appeared straight through the previous night on the electronic “community” conference to which everyone on campus had access. I was afraid they were going to flare into a full-scale racial incident.
“You’re still in the throes of fear.” He had cut me off in mid-sentence. “If you’re in fear, the first thing you have to do — no matter what — is to get out of it. Then you can decide what action you want to take. But when you’re in your fear, you’re disempowered.”
He normally took pains to avoid framing any question in either/or terms. He said they impeded dialogue by polarizing people. But fear was a special case for him. Fear called for an absolute response, and an aggressive one.
“If you don’t fight fear, it will define your world. Either you are in it, or you are not. You become the feelings of fear. When you’re frozen in fear,” he would say, “you simply can’t think clearly. It’s physiological. You’re literally not breathing, not taking in new breath. You can’t find new inspiration. You can’t find a creative move. And you don’t want to default to reaction and do something you’ll later regret. So you’re paralyzed.”
How do you get out of it, I would press him, and he’d review, again, the protocol we were using. I was working to find a balance between being so open and receptive that I gave my power away, on the one hand, or, on the other, reverting to the disciplined warrior by trying to shut down my feelings.
The emotions are there, he would stay, there’s no shutting them off, so you need a place to express them, to hear yourself giving them their due. That’s akin to the work of therapy. Leaders need a private place to take their feelings so they’re not leaking them all over, making themselves vulnerable, inviting others to push their buttons. But beyond that issue of self-management are larger questions of strategy and how leaders can advance their goals for their organizations.
The strategy required a third step that we always took, mining the emotions for information, putting them up on a figurative blackboard and sorting them out. There we’d ask what I, as the leader, had brought to the emotional brew — my characteristic responses — and we’d bracket them out. We’d remember other situations where I’d been provoked and ask what about this particular instance was similar or different. In essence, we’d be reading the choreography of the moment. We’d explore what might have happened if I had followed my emotional impulse, what outcome that would have produced. And we’d construct a story about what this moment might mean in the longer narrative of the college’s movement through time, and the changes I was trying to orchestrate.
Once, for example, when the trustees intervened in an administrative decision, we asked ourselves what had happened, and why, what the consequences had been, and what we could learn for another time. In this case, the chair of the board had phoned to tell me that two other influential trustees wanted me to assign my executive assistant, to a pet project of theirs that I had already delegated to the vice president for finance, the appropriate person to handle it. I swallowed my irritation and acquiesced, then called my executive assistant in to discuss her new task. She was angry at me.
As we sorted out what had happened, we discovered that the chair’s call had thrown me and my assistant, both, out of our respective roles and had driven a wedge between us. I should have spotted my irritation during the original call as a signal that a boundary was being transgressed. Instead, I was taking orders from the board on an administrative matter that was my responsibility, and I was diverting a key staff member from doing her job, asking her, instead, to compensate for a perceived inadequacy in the work of a vice president I had already assigned the task. Rather than ask myself why this boundary had been breached, and how to deal with the vice president’s shortcomings, I had gamely accepted the “work around” the board chair had offered. The real problem was that the trustees had lost their confidence in the vice president, who, in turn, had retreated into hopelessness about whether he could get the job done.
This analysis freed my executive assistant and me to move beyond our irritation and blame and to begin exploring the phenomenon of hopelessness. How to recognize it. How to absorb it. How to avoid the trap of acting on it. Hopelessness presents as a crisis demanding decisive action. But if the action is taken without adequate consideration of the context (in this case the assigned roles and tasks of everyone involved) then the action will fail, perpetuating the feelings of defeat, feeding the hopelessness. My assistant and I agreed that from then on, we would become barometers of the hopelessness in the system, noticing it, speaking it to one another, not allowing ourselves to be driven by it.
Dick would often point out to me that I had picked up feelings of defeat or fear that were swirling around me, emotions that were “in the system.” He’d take me back to my state of mind just before someone had come into my office loaded up with anger or fear. I’d be infected by the negative emotion and the other person would go away feeling relieved. He wanted me to watch this dynamic and to be aware when feelings were coming at me from outside myself.
“Charismatic leaders stir up emotions as they invite people to change,” he said one day.
“Charismatic? Right,” I cut him off with a sardonic laugh.
I was feeling far too much the amateur to be tagged with a grandiose label that struck me as preposterous.
“Your leadership is based on emotional power,” he countered, “on a vision that comes from your heart. People see that and they also feel it. It’s those feelings you’re stirring up, and they’ll attach to you if you’re not careful. That’s why, whenever you’re loaded up with fear, you need to ask yourself whether it’s your fear you are feeling. If you’re picking it up from the system, you need translation skills to prevent it from infecting you.”
His voice was gentle now and I sensed a lump rising in my throat, a signal I came to welcome as a sign of relief and gratitude. It happened most often as I experienced myself shift from resisting a picture he was painting of a strength he saw in me to accepting a possibility I was suddenly able to know and feel as true.
On another occasion I was feeling sheepish about how irritated I was at the same vice president for his repeated retreats into helplessness. I liked him a lot and didn’t want to be blaming him. Dick encouraged me not to deny my feelings but “to harvest the blame for its meaning.” We traced the events that had triggered my response, what had happened and how, and Dick encouraged me not to judge myself for being judgmental. My irritation was justified. As long as I was in control of it, and not “in reaction,” I would be free to choose the most caring way to bring my disappointment to to this vice president so that he could perhaps hear it without having to put his defenses up. I was learning more effective uses of my emotions in the service of my leadership.
“You lead naturally with your emotions and your heart,” Dick said on another occasion. “Now we need to bring your official authority into alignment with the collaborative, heartfelt, and forgiving leadership you want to develop as distinctively yours. We want you to be able to stand in your own soul and say, ‘This is what I bring.’”
Of all the personal characteristics Dick taught me to recognize in myself, the most surprising and, ultimately, most liberating for me to understand, was the degree to which I “begin in receptivity,” as he would often say. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was unusually open to people around me, but this receptivity was a quality Dick and I shared. As a seasoned organizational consultant, he was an astute and curious observer, but his openness to what others brought was more than just intellectual or analytical; it was visceral and deeply intuitive. He actually took in, and processed, and fed off of the ideas and the feelings, or what he would call the “force fields” in any environment he entered, even in a telephone conference call. He could shut these distractions out when he chose to. But he had an enormous capacity to take in a whole palette of ideas, pressures, and emotions swirling around him, without being pulled off center, troubled, or overwhelmed. I wanted that equanimity.
Dick led me to understand and manage the ways in which the receptivity that I shared with him was both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, it opened a door to valuable information when I kept my wits about me. On the other hand, it made me susceptible to the influences of others. As I was assimilating the emotional charge in a situation, I learned, I needed to focus sharply on the task I was seeking to accomplish so that I wouldn’t be diverted from it into an interpersonal dance of tending the feelings of others — their anger, defeat, confusion, or hurt, or for that matter, their elation. I had to teach myself to really believe that there are times when confrontation is a more caring response than palliation. It took me time, and practice, to learn to harvest as useful my experience of the emotional baggage people were hauling into the president’s office, to notice it, assess it, and be appropriately influenced by it, and — at the same time — to keep a safe enough distance from it not to take it on as my own.
I was also learning to avoid traps people were laying for me — sometimes unconsciously — through their expectations, projections, or judgments about what constitutes effective leadership. People at the college were constantly sending me signals about what I would have to do to win their approval. These signals served the purpose of making me, personally, the focus of attention in order to divert my leadership team from the work we were seeking to accomplish together. To avoid these traps I had to become better attuned to ways in which emotional upheavals were weather gauges of what was happening in the college. They were evidence of forward movement. They were flags on the field marking flare-ups of resistance to change. What I had to do was to learn to interpret them in the context of my long-term goals, which I needed to keep clearly in mind.
I did learn, with time, to stay sharply focused on my role and my task, to ask myself, especially when I was feeling pressured, what do I need to be doing here to be useful, effective, constructive? How much of what I’m experiencing here is not my work to do but that of others who are using familiar tactics to resist having to change — fighting among each other, playing “get the leader,” falling into despair or victimhood, staging a coup? How can I redirect them toward more constructive work and resist their ploys to cut off my sources power?
There was more, of course, much more, in the conversations with this man I grew to trust and treasure as we labored together to write a chapter in the history of Wellesley College by first rewriting the scripts in my own head. It was I who was always the author. There was never any doubt of that. I was writing the history forward in real time by living it, the story of the college and my story too, intertwined as they inevitably were. He was my editor. I would bring him the raw narrative as it was taking shape and we’d work it over together, looking for themes and meanings, winnowing away the chaff, noticing the patterns, dwelling on what seemed essential to the unfolding story in a fleeting moment, detail or seeming diversion. Like any good editor, he would lure me deeper inside what the work was all about and provoke me to reshape and restructure it. He would encourage me to put a stake into the ground and say: Here. Pay attention here. This is what matters. This is what’s alive and full of juice. If something wasn’t intelligible yet, he would push me deeper into the mystery of it and we would wander around together there for a time.
Learning with Dick became a study in the cultivation of a partnership. Each of us entered each of our conversations with separate pieces of a larger whole, and the synthetic unity was something we discovered together, as we sifted through the challenges that were coming at me from the college. We would observe how hard it was for others at Wellesley to confront the uncertainty and contradiction that would stimulate their healthy growth, and that of the college, even as I was coming to terms with my own habitual defenses. We would notice how the people around me had different levels of tolerance for uncertainty and risk, and how some, when pressed, fell back on unconscious tactics to avoid the work of venturing into the unknown, just as I would catch myself losing my nerve when the pressures on me were mounting. We would talk about what I could do to affirm and reinforce the positive self-images of those on whom I depended, encouraging them to live up to their best impulses, to reach for higher levels of integration, insight and wisdom, even as I was consciously reaching higher for myself.
Dick continued to play a central role throughout my time at Wellesley, with me, and with my senior staff, and with widening circles on the campus, including, in my final years, the chair of the board of trustees, Vicki Herget. Since my departure, he has remained a very close friend. And he’s become my husband’s trusted friend as well, an evolution without which it would have been unthinkable for me to continue to work so intimately with another man. That was one possible pitfall, and there were others.
I worried for a long time that needing this help would be perceived as a weakness on my part and I’m sure there are some who saw — or who will read it here — that way. But I no longer care. I know now with absolute certainty that working in this way with Dick enriched my experience of the presidency and that of many of my colleagues. I know that it made me, and many others, more potent in our jobs, more insightful, more flexible, tougher and more resilient.
I’ll never know how successful I would have been as the twelfth president of Wellesley College if I had never met this man, but I do know that with his partnership I amazed myself by growing into one of the college’s legendary leaders, one who presided over a dream team that accomplished many things, and who emerged with a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the art of leadership.
In retrospect, the partnership worked so well because it built from a natural strength I had always had, but one that was outliving its usefulness and holding me back. All my life I had grown myself by seeking out feedback, taking in harsh criticism, feeling its sting, retreating alone in the pain of self-recrimination, then pulling myself together and finding the kernel of learning and, with it, a way forward out of despair into hope. That’s what the journals had been all about, a private place in which to wrestle the dark critter to the ground.
Through the work with Dick, I learned to take this earnest self-teaching process and lighten it up. I learned to lead myself with empathy and respect. I learned to have a good time. I gave myself permission to amuse myself privately. If people were being ridiculous, instead of becoming tense and annoyed, I’d find a playful way to let them know I saw them, while, at the same time, being careful not to set myself up for attack.
Part of the trick was to be clear about my task — what it was that I wanted to accomplish, and to use that awareness as a device to resist being drawn out of my role. When it was not at all clear what was happening, when I’d given away my power and felt confused and lost, I learned from Dick, the chances were that I had lost track of my task, and my role.
What’s my task in this moment, I learned to ask myself, and what’s my role? I held on to the aspirations for Wellesley I had developed and refined, beginning in the conversations with the presidential search committee. I came to perceive my responsibility as articulating the vision, not carrying it out. I wanted to be leading a community of strong, self-sufficient, honest women, intellectually and emotionally resourceful, actualized, mobilized … excited about the contributions they can make. I was always very clear about that. And so I came to see that what I would not be doing was telling anyone what to do, because the whole point was to foster their autonomy.
I was also clear from the start that I wanted to see collaboration at every level, and not to be the person calling all the shots. It was my job to set the aspirations, others to bring their creativity to the process of discovering steps that would advance us toward this vision of where we wanted to be. That was the beauty of a collaborative processes. In return, though, it challenged those around me to suspend their natural unwillingness to dwell for any length of time in a fog of not knowing what lies ahead. And so a part of my job was managing their defenses — covert resistance driven by emotion but cloaked intellectually. I learned to listen to strenuous objections and odd reactions as metaphors for an emotional response no one would be willing to express directly.
With time and Dick’s encouragement, I came to view my time at Wellesley as simply a stage in my journey. I started out believing that I could make the work of leading Wellesley my next intellectual project, but what I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which the demands of the job would call on every resource I had. I couldn’t have imagined at the outset the depth of the work I would have to do, completely remaking myself. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to take the plunge. The job became the playing field for me to explore my authority as a woman, my understanding of spirituality, and my philosophy of learning — how those three themes weave and interweave through my life’s story. The old preoccupations and sensibilities of the social scientist had become too confining.
In the past I had been the author of many scholarly studies. But this was entirely new. The specific invitation that came out of the work at Wellesley, with Dick’s guidance, was to become a different kind of author, the author of a life that I could enjoy. It was in learning to enjoy my life at Wellesley, and finally to love it, that I became a successful president, but, more than that, it was in this crucible that I overcame my demons and learned to love my life.