One of my fears as a leader is becoming isolated or disconnected from the people I aspire to lead. I am constantly asking for feedback, criticism, guidance. After each speech, I ask someone I trust, “What did you think? What could have been better?” Similarly, in meetings, I ask the assembled teams to challenge our collective thinking. I try to end every college meeting with a question and answer session.
Despite these efforts, I am still surprised sometimes when someone expresses disagreement. My first impulse sparks defensiveness; I combat that synaptic firing with a superego scold that this is exactly what I asked for. In my best moments, I listen, deeply, to understand what I can learn from the sortie.
And so I found myself reeling a bit in a recent job interview. I was the interviewer. In customary fashion, I asked the candidate if she had any questions for me. She responded, “Not really any questions, but some comments, if that would be OK.” I said sure.
She then launched into a discourse on the ills of the college. Some recommendations were practical, helpful, and actionable. For example, we ought to install mirrors in the corners of the 8th and 9th floors so that lab assistants pushing carts of chemicals can see who may be approaching around the corner and so avoid toxic collisions. Others cut deeply into the differences between the kind of the college I want to lead and the reality of people working within it. “People are not listened to.” “We are not treated with respect.” “I don’t feel my department respects my efforts.” My defensive shields went up. I took a deep breath, and overcame the initial impulse and sought to understand. She had examples. Many of them, about the specific interactions and frustrations she has encountered. Some were institutional and therefore under my control, like the inefficiencies in our procurement processes at the college in obtaining supplies. Others were attitudinal, involving interactions between people and reflecting divisions between faculty and staff, different unions, and perceived hierarchies, whether real or imagined.
The interview ran over its allotted time, by a lot. We talked about what I could do better, and what we as a community needed to do better. Through it all, she maintained a defiance and righteousness. She had thought about these ills for a long time. This was her shot – maybe in her mind her only shot – to speak directly to the president. And while I appreciated the candid feedback I seek but rarely receive, a question arose in my mind.
“With all of these problems, do you really want this job?” Her reply was, “The only way I am going to fix these problems is if I am working at the college. We need to and can be a better place. I want to play a role in making that happen.”
I flushed. I felt myself in the presence of greatness. It was clear she wanted the job. At the same time, she wanted the job on her terms, and she had the courage to share those terms. Her words had more power because of the context. She was not some anonymous blogger nattering away about my shortcomings on the internet. She was in my office, putting a job she wanted on the line, willing to sacrifice a hoped-for career for what she believed in. Her fearlessness humbled me. I had never lived through such a visceral example of someone speaking truth to power. My heart swelled, knowing people like her work at our college.
She got the job.
And the mirrors are going up as soon as Rich can work out the logistics.