Category: Uncategorized

Be a Leader Who Changes Things That You Cannot Accept

Last week, in my president’s update message to the students, staff and faculty of Forsyth Tech, I shared my personal heartbreak and sadness over the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd earlier in the week in Minneapolis, and the other incomprehensible deaths of so many other black and brown citizens.

As I write this, it is now Sunday, May 31, 2020. In Winston-Salem, NC this morning, the day dawned with beautiful sunshine and a gorgeous blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. It is the kind of day that naturally inspires a smile and calls out for lightheartedness, happiness and joy. Yet, the beauty of the day is no match for the shadow of despair that blankets our nation, and the pain and bitterness borne from unfathomable injustice that envelops our hearts.

We are almost halfway through this year. While 2020 began with all the hope and anticipation befitting the start of any new decade, we quickly realized this year would be unlike any in our lifetimes. Our country continues to be shaken by the novel coronavirus COVID-19, which created its own unique flavor of dissonance and division, impacting us emotionally, mentally, and economically, even as we all experienced the impact of the virus in disparate and inequitable ways. In the midst of the continuing toll of the global pandemic, our nation was laid bare by three separate racist acts causing the deaths of three African Americans — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

On this Sunday morning, across our state and our country, we are struggling, and it is heartbreaking. I believe we want to accept, own, and overcome the discrimination, oppression, and inequities which have long threatened to destroy our democracy, but the roots are deep and the healing and transformational pathway forward will be long and difficult. We must focus on eradicating the root cause behind the heinous actions that have brought us here rather than placing blame on entire peoples or professions. We are fighting another disease in this country in addition to COVID-19 — the disease that is tearing us apart is borne of prejudice, racism, hate and evil — and unfortunately that disease can afflict any individual and it transcends all demographic groups and professions.

Today, amidst all the heartache, anger, strife, and dissonance, I want to share words of wisdom and comfort for my Forsyth Tech family. I want to understand the incomprehensible and lead us through that which may never be truly understandable with courage and compassion. I want to be the leader that my college and my community deserve and need.

In 2019, my first year as your president, our college community created a new shared vision: “Forsyth Technical Community College is a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities.” We also worked together to build our Vision 2025 strategic plan and we adopted our first ever equity statement: “At Forsyth Technical Community College equity is grounded in a culture of belonging. We will intentionally design the college experience to ensure that each learner receives what they need to be successful.” As an institution, we have established our core values: excellence, learning, innovation, diversity, and integrity.

Everything we did together over the past year has positioned us to be leaders, and moreover, to lead boldly and bravely. If ever there was a time when our students and the communities we serve needed us to lead, and to do so fearlessly and courageously, that time is now.

As I reflected on all of the things I “want” this morning, I came across this blog by Dr. Krishauna Hines-Gaither: 10 Tips for White Allies Regarding Police Brutality: From the Heart of a Black Woman…I found Dr. Hines-Gaither’s tips to be insightful and extremely relevant for me personally as I strive to lead through these painful, confusing, and difficult times. When thinking about Forsyth Tech, I am drawn especially to number 10:

“Having difficult dialogues across differences is not easy, but necessary. While doing your work, also be open to constructive feedback. As James Baldwin said, ‘If I love you, I must make you conscious of the things you do not see.”

Dr. Krishauna Hines-Gaither

Perhaps one place we can lead is through advancing dialogue — real, hard, courageous, respectful, honest, and healing dialogue. Despite everything that has happened this year, and perhaps in spite of it all, I still have faith. Many years ago, Charles Spurgeon said:

Faith goes up the stairs that love has built, and looks out the windows which hope has opened.”

Charles spurgeon

At this critical moment in our nation’s history, perhaps our leadership imperative at Forsyth Tech is to advance courageous and difficult conversations to create productive and systemic change. Perhaps our values of excellence, learning, innovation, diversity and integrity can frame our conversations and lead us to action that expands our institutional culture of belonging into efforts to build a world of belonging. Perhaps our dialogue can be grounded in our work to be a catalyst for equitable economic mobility and we can use the power of knowledge to empower our students so they can be a part of transforming our communities.

I have faith that stairs built by love lead to windows opened by hope. I have faith in the hope of a better tomorrow for our country and a nation where all men and women are truly equal and free. I have faith that we as a country want to be better than we have been. I have faith that we, Forsyth Tech students, staff, and faculty, can be the change that we want to see in the world, and as a college community we can be a model for systemic transformation and healing.

I am privileged to lead Forsyth Technical Community College. This year, as we celebrate our 60th year as a life-changing institution of higher education in North Carolina, I pledge to be the leader you and our community deserve and need. For me, that means being a leader who does not accept that some things cannot be changed, but rather is a leader who strives with her whole heart to lead change for the things we should not, cannot, and will no longer accept.

I leave you with the hauntingly poignant words of 20th Century African American Poet, Langston Hughes.

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —

I, too, am America.

Embracing Our “Brave New Normal”

Brave: “showing courage; enduring unpleasant conditions without fear.”

New: “not existing before.”

Normal: “conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.”

Yesterday, March 30, 2020, our Forsyth Technical Community College students will “return” from their Spring Break.

Normally, our students, faculty and staff would be returning to our campuses.

Normally, the energy would be almost electric, particularly for our seniors who are nearing the end of their higher education journeys at Forsyth Tech and preparing for their next journey – a new career or transfer to a university.

Normally, we would all be excited and eager for the end-of-year celebrations, award ceremonies, and especially Commencement – the apex of our school year and a culminating moment in the lives of around 1,500 or more Forsyth Tech students each year.

Sadly, this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the return from Spring Break is anything but normal.  All of us at Forsyth Tech, students, faculty and staff, are searching for a new normal in the face of our uncertain, short-term future.  Frankly, our entire country and almost every other country in the world is at the same place – trying to figure out what normal looks like during a pandemic.

The number of people who have become sick with this virus worldwide is approaching one million with over 35,000 deaths, with almost 136,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and that total is rising rapidly.  To say people across the world are “anxious” would be a gross understatement – people are naturally afraid.  Yet, examples of bravery in the face of this frightening and unprecedented crisis are abundant.

At Forsyth Tech and at colleges, businesses, and homes all around the world, people are showing incredible amounts of courage and I believe we are all doing our best to endure this situation with as little fear as possible.  This is definitely a new situation for us all – a time that has certainly never existed before in most of our lifetimes.  We cannot count on anything conforming to a standard or being usual – everything seems to be atypical and unexpected.  We have been thrust into a new normal and we are not backing away, but rather courageously forging our Brave New Normal

As I was thinking through the most important things that I wanted to share in this blog post today, I came across the quote below from another blogger.

Trust the WaitEmbrace the uncertainty.  Enjoy the beauty of becoming.  When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”

Mandy Hale

For many of us, waiting is hard.  We live in an “instant” society.  If we need an answer to a question – any question – we simply ask Google or ask Siri and we get an answer . . . in an instant. If we are hungry, we run through a drive through and grab a quick meal . . .  in an instantIf something happens in our hometown, our state, our country, or anywhere in the world, breaking news delivers it to all of us wherever we are . . . in an instant

In our 21st century world, it is difficult to accept that we cannot find a quick fix to this problem.  COVID-19 has thrust us into an unpredictable and unfamiliar place — whether we want to be there or not, we have no choice but to live through and wait out this very uncertain time.  We want to find a solution and we want everything to just be normal.  We find comfort in our normal – we know what to expect and we know relatively what our days will be like. We have set routines and we like the predictability of the familiar.

Creating a Brave New Normal

Right now, the entire state of North Carolina, and many other states, have been ordered to “Stay-at-Home” – for that matter, whole countries around the world are on lockdown.  We find ourselves in a precarious, unpredictable and unfamiliar place.  That is a hard place to be and we are naturally fearful of the unknown.

There is no instant solution for COVID-19 that will get us back to normal, and as hard as it may be to comprehend and accept, we may never get back to the same normal we had before.  This pandemic is causing a lot of fear – understandably so for many reasons – and I believe one of the things we fear more than anything else is that we will not get back to normal.  The thought of things being permanently disrupted and never returning to normal is creating, at least some small measure of fear in most, if not all of us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said,“Do the thing we fear, and death of fear is certain.”

I have found this to be true in my life many times.  Fear can be paralyzing.  Of course, there are times when fear is justified and we are rightfully afraid, but I have also found, fear of what will happen is often is much worse than the actual result.  Regardless of whether we are right to be fearful or our fear is overblown, I think Mr. Emerson had it right – one sure way to kill the fear is to face it head on . . . rip the band aid . . . take action and move past whatever it is we fear . . . be brave.

There is nothing easy about creating a new set of expectations that never existed before, a new normal, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and there will certainly be consequences and trade-offs.  For example, we know from years of research and data that college students who are engaged and connected in meaningful ways outside the classroom in academic and non-academic clubs and activities, are more successful.  At the moment, the new normal for our students is all instruction and support services being delivered remotely.  Opportunities for in-person connections and engagement are not possible right now and our students are forced to complete their coursework at a distance.  If they engage with faculty and staff or with each other right now, it is primarily if not solely, at a distance.

I am often asked as a president what I lose sleep over. Right now, I am losing sleep over the impact of the new normal on our students.  I am worried about equity.  Many of our students do not have Internet access at home and many do not have computers at home – they may already be taking online classes, but they are using our computer resources to complete their coursework – when we are closed that option is not available to them.  Many of our students have never taken an online class and I know they will struggle to understand how to be successful without the structure and direct contact of the in-person classroom.  Many of our students are adults who work and are responsible for families and now, they are out-of-work and struggling even more than normal to make ends meet.  Many of our students depend on day-to-day personal and in-person interaction and engagement with faculty and staff to keep them moving forward, and now, that is not part of their new normal.

As Forsyth Tech’s president, my greatest fear is the impact of this pandemic on our students’ success.  Our faculty and staff share that fear – they too are worried about how our students will be able to successfully navigate this COVID-19 storm. However, rather than letting the fear paralyze us or de-motivate us, we have decided that we can do more than just accept a new normal.  We are embracing our vision of being a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities.  We are creating a Brave New Normal. 

All around the world, in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic, we continue to see examples of people coming together like never before to support each other and help each other.  Personally, over the past few weeks, I have intentionally chosen to ignore the bad examples of how people are handling COVID-19 and focus on the positive and uplifting stories that continue to rise out of this unimaginable, scary time (perhaps it my “coping” mechanism).  I have been amazed by the “good” that is coming out of this incredibly “bad” situation, and I have been blown away by the response of the community colleges in North Carolina and higher education community throughout the country, and I am especially proud of the way our Forsyth Tech family has responded.

We could have simply accepted the disruption to our “normal”, put content online for those students who could access it, and accepted the fact that a lot of students would be forced to withdraw.  We. Never. Even. Considered. That. As. An. Option.

Instead, so many others around North Carolina and throughout our country, the amazing faculty and staff at Forsyth Tech stepped up and showed off!

  • We challenged the status quo by refusing to accept predetermined consequences – you will not find a “what will be will be” attitude at our college.
  • We embraced the mantra that we would get through this together by loving and serving our students and each other.
  • We refused to merely move everything online because we know that will not be a good solution for many of our students, and because we live our vision that is built around and grounded in the foundational principle of equity of success for all students.
  • We believed that our students and our communities needed us to be leaders and we calmly, confidently, courageously and compassionately built remote learning and support services aimed at keeping every student on their pathway to their dreams.

We created a Brave New Normal for ourselves and our students, recognizing there is not quick fix and there will not be a “one and done” solution.  We will have to remain fluid and flexible, adjusting our Brave New Normal when and as needed.  That is how we get through this strange and crazy moment in time that we did not anticipate – with courage and compassion – bravely building our new normal together.

Leading Through A Crisis: Be Calm, Be Confident and Courageous, and Be Compassionate

Leading to Make a Difference Live Your Purpose Logo

“It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would still be more foolish to lose heart and courage.”

Winston Churchill


The past 3 weeks seem almost surreal. Last Saturday, we had less than 30 cases of the COVID-19 virus here in North Carolina — the total now is 270. Yesterday our Governor said, “we know this will get worse before it gets better.” This pandemic has certainly moved beyond anything any of us could have imagined just a short time ago; an unprecedented event within our lifetimes. The virus spreads quickly, there is no vaccine or medicine available to shorten the sickness, and the only thing we can do is wash our hands and essentially stay away from each other. Social distancing and limiting groups to no more than 10 people in any given place at one time have become one of our new normals.

Our public schools and all dine-in restaurants and bars are closed by executive order of the Governor. Most retail stores across the country are closed or open for very limited hours. People around the world are anxious and even panicked as this global pandemic explodes. Entire countries are sheltering in place, even as residents in 4 states in this country have been ordered by their governors to stay at home or shelter-in-place. There is a national shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and even baby formula and diapers, and the stock market continues to tumble.

Our community college and university campuses are almost ghost towns as we have been ordered to move to all remote instruction and mass teleworking with only designated personnel allowed on campus and very limited services available in-person. Our students are frightened and disheartened — on Friday we postponed our Commencement Ceremony — the biggest celebration of the year for any educational institution.

Leading without a Playbook

It is hard enough to be a good leader under the best of circumstances, when you have precedence and guidance available to support your decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic did not come with a leadership playbook to guide decision-making or to help leaders plan strategically. In fact, it is essentially impossible to make strategic plans since the situation evolves and changes rapidly, and the guidance and directives from health and governmental officials is a moving target.

I saw a post on social media yesterday that said: “Do you think we can unplug 2020 and plug it back in again?” I agree! An option to start over would be welcome right now. Nothing is normal, we keep trying to find our “new normal” but things are changing too quickly, and we don’t have a clue how much longer it will be before we can get off this roller coaster. Leaders are scrambling and struggling with what feels sometimes like the weight of the world, literally, on their shoulders. Leadership is tough under normal circumstances, and again, there is very little normal in our daily lives right now. We are all tired, anxious and afraid.

In full disclosure: I am not a seasoned President having only been in this role for 15 months, and I do not profess to be an expert in leading through a crisis like this — I am not sure even great crisis leaders have ever seen anything quite like this challenging situation. However, I am a student of leadership theories, practices and history, and I pay close attention to the actions and philosophies of successful and great leaders of today and yesterday. As I make my way through the COVID19 pandemic, I am relying on all I have learned about leadership, my 24 years of experience as an executive higher education leader, and the examples from great leaders that I respect and trust to navigate these uncharted waters. To help me lead my Forsyth Tech family through this storm, I am working hard to BE: Calm, Courageous and Confident, and Compassionate, and I want to share my ideas on why these 4 C’s can help leaders weather the COVID19 storm.

Only through hindsight & history will we know if we have over or under reacted.
If my decisions are deemed to be overreactions, I can live with that.

Be Calm

British actor Michael Caine said: “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” This has become my mantra during COVID19 — Be like a duck!

I don’t believe that people in leaders are “natural” when it comes to dealing with stress and remaining calm under pressure, but I do believe that good leaders understand how important it is to “never let them see you sweat” (a famous slogan for Gillette underarm deodorant from the 1980’s). Please note, I am not suggesting that leaders should be anything less than authentic and genuine, what I am saying is it is critically important for leaders to learn how to manage their anxiousness and fears and model calm for the sake of the people under their care and responsibility.

Irish sea with quote Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm by Publilius SyrusOne of the most widely recognized characteristics of a strong leader is grace under pressure — being able to control your own emotions, so you can help others remain level-headed when their emotions are rising or unsettled. Teachers know that projecting calm is the best way to settle down a class — by speaking calmly yet assertively they illicit the emotion in their students that they are projecting.

As we make our way through this COVID19 crisis, or any difficult situation, good leaders will focus on the situation as a challenge rather than a crisis. They will strive to keep order in the chaos, maintaining balance and clarity of thought. The best leaders of challenging situations, will continue to lead with passion and energy, but they will remain in control. They will stand apart because they will focus on people rather than the situation — calmly keeping their people moving forward together and working together to achieve the best outcome. They will make informed decisions and take decisive actions, in a clam and professional manner.

Be Courageous and Confident

I believe all great leaders share these two characteristics: courage and confidence. I would also suggest these two important traits are linked in such a way that one begets the other. Confidence elicits courage and courage engenders confidence.

At the base level, leadership is about confidently forging a path forward and inspiring others to follow you on the path. Leaders who lack confidence and courage often struggle to assuredly inspire others to follow them down any pathway and during times of crisis, the struggle will be significantly exacerbated. Unfortunately, July 2019 survey by Gartner, Inc found only 50% of over 2,800 leaders surveyed reported feeling “well-equipped to lead their organization in the future.” Leaders experiencing a crisis of confidence in their leadership ability during normal situations, will likely be grossly ineffective under urgent or emergency situations. A particularly complex event like the COVID19 pandemic that is volatile and unpredictable, may be too complex for them to manage.

Leaders who are equipped to lead and who do so with passion and purpose are naturally self-assured about the qualities they possess that make them good leaders. They feel confident in their abilities and that gives them the courage they need to act in situations without precedence when they are creating the playbook as they go. Organizations that successfully weather storms like COVID19, and come out on the other side of the storm in better shape than before, have conviction and bravery built into their DNA because of leaders who are confident and courageous.

Be Compassionate

Some people think this section is too “touchy/feely”, but I believe it is perhaps the most important suggestion of all. When we go through stressful or traumatic situations, it is hard to make it through alone. It helps to, at the very least, have someone who can commiserate with you — one or more people who feel your pain, and who are willing to go through it with you in some form or fashion. Greater Good magazine says ” Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together.'” When times are tough, suffering alone is far worse than having others to buoy you and help you stay afloat during the storm.

Compassionate leaders genuinely care about the people they lead and are willing to own a responsibility for suffering with them. Compassionate leaders strive to build a collaborative culture where everyone on the team shares ownership for the organization’s vision and works cooperatively on the goals and actions that will help them achieve their goals and reach their vision. Compassionate leaders are active listeners and their teams members know they are important because the leader takes time to talk to them and is truly interested in hearing what they have to say. Compassionate leaders invest their time in their people and actively demonstrate they care by their actions.

I believe compassion is a trait that all great leaders embody and it is an important characteristic to possess under normal circumstances. When faced with an emergency situation, and particularly during an unprecedented crisis like a global pandemic, it is even more important for leaders to remain compassionate. Over the past few weeks, I have shared comments like “we are all in this together” and “we will get through this together” time and time again, both in my written messages and my verbal communications. I don’t take those sentiments lightly and I don’t say them carelessly — I share them from my heart because we are in this crisis together and I want my team to know that we are suffering together. I believe it is important for my team to feel my compassion and I believe it is making a difference.

Only Time Will Tell

Only through hindsight and history will we know if we have over- or under-reacted as leaders and decision-makers during this worldwide crisis. If my leadership decisions are deemed to be overreactions, I can live with that. If however, I under-react or react too slowly and risk the health and safety of those under my responsibility, whom I care deeply about, I will struggle to live with that. Right now, we are all simply doing the best we can to get through this trying time together. Best of luck to those who are in leadership roles during this unprecedented time — Be calm, confident and courageous, and compassionate as you write this playbook and guide our way!

“Know that while this might last for a while, it will probably not last forever. Think marathon, not sprint but even marathons do eventually end.
You stay sane by just running the mile you’re in.”

Laura Vanderkam

We are all in this together and will get through this challenge. Let’s just run the mile we are in.

The Time is Always Right to Do What is Right

Servant leadership is the foundational tenet of my leadership philosophy and credo: Lead to Make a Difference. The term “servant leader” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 in an essay titled, The Servant as Leader.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first . . . A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Robert Greenleaf, The Servant As Leader, 1970

Today, Monday, January 21, 2019 is a national holiday in our country — a day that we set aside each year as a nation to celebrate an iconic servant leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was not interested in accumulating power. His goal was service. Dr. King strived to ensure that other peopleʼs highest priority needs were being served by ending oppression, and creating a society within our nation where every man, woman and child are equal. He sought to bring hope and healing to America and his call to action continues to inspire, motivate, and serve as a call to action today, over 50 years after his death.

Dr. King believed that we rise by lifting others and he worked steadfastly to lift up the least privileged in society, striving to ensure they would benefit and not be further deprived. His dream was to create a better world and to right the wrongs of injustice, believing “the time is always right to do what is right.

As we honor Dr. Kingʼs legacy of service and leadership today, I spent time reflecting on the lessons of his legacy for leaders — focusing on the things we can learn from Dr. King about leading with influence and yielding impact. Here are my reflections on six lessons that Dr. Kingʼs legacy has taught me in my journey to be a servant leader and moreover, to Lead to Make a Difference.

  1. Leaders Who Make a Difference Have a Dream. Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek says your “why is the purpose, cause or belief that drives everyone of us.” Great leaders know their “why” — the purpose and reason they do what they do — their dream. The dream propels leaders to want to understand how they can make a difference in the world and pushes them to take advantage of every opportunity they have to make a difference by pursuing the dream and creating a movement of people to help them achieve their dream through their leadership. A leaderʼs dream creates the foundation for how they can make a difference in the world and propels them to inspire others to share their dream.
  2. Leaders Who Make a Difference Share Their Dream. If you have a dream, share it — a vision that is not communicated can never be reached. The ability to inspire others and to connect their heads and their hearts to your dream is what great leaders like Dr. King do. Dr. King did not just communicate information, he used stories and metaphors that spoke to the listenerʼs logical consciousness while also igniting passion and a call to action by capturing their hearts. By sharing their dream, leaders inspire others to believe in their purpose and to take action.
  3. Leaders Who Make a Difference Take Action. Great leaders have big dreams, passionately communicate their dreams, and they are not afraid to take bold actions in pursuit of achieving their dreams. A vision without action is wasted energy. However, leaders must ensure that their actions back their vision — in other words, they must do what they say and say what they do. Leaders who make a difference are change agents whose word and deeds match. Change agents know that while words can be very powerful, words alone do not make the difference that creates radical transformation. Dr. King used his eloquent, inspirational, and impactful words to inspire a call to action, but instead of leading from above and expecting other to do all of the work, Dr. King walked alongside his followers, and he was never afraid to fearlessly challenge the status quo when it needed to be challenged.
  4. Leaders Who Make a Difference Fearlessly Challenge the Status Quo When it Needs to be Challenged. Dr. King taught us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You canʼt accept that just because things are a certain way, they are the right way. Leaders who lead to make a difference are not afraid to challenge the status quo when the status quo needs to be challenged. It is important to lead change when change is necessary to correct an unacceptable existing state of affairs. Leaders like Dr. King understand the risks involved in taking such bold actions, but they boldly accept the risk and boldly create urgency while doing what is right for the right reasons.
  5. Leaders Who Make a Difference Create Urgency. In his I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of Godʼs children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Leaders like Dr. King donʼt just inspire others to act; they create movements. To do that, they seize every moment and every opportunity afforded them to inspire and incite action because the why that inspired the movement is important and momentum is a critical factor in achieving the dream. Leaders who lead to make a difference like Dr. King are like mountain climbers who work urgently and diligently to achieve their dream of making it to the top of the mountain — they move forward with an urgent need to reach their dream and they have the character, conviction and courage to persevere for as long as it takes to reach that mountaintop.
  6. Leaders Who Make a Difference Have the Character, Conviction, and Courage to Persevere. When leaders face obstacles and barriers, they can find another important lesson in Dr. Kingʼs legacy: Have the courage to persevere, never wavering from your wholehearted commitment to achieve your mission and fulfill your vision. Leaders who know their purpose and have a dream like Dr. King, are steadfastly committed to seeing their dream through, no matter the consequences. They hold firm in their their passion for their purpose and they lead with character, conviction and courage. As eloquently stated by Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School during an interview about the legacy and leadership lessons of Dr King, “In a very real sense, the character you demonstrate in achieving your purpose is the legacy you leave to those leaders coming along behind you.”

Dr. Kingʼs legacy is filled with lessons like these that demonstrate the qualities and characteristics of servant leadership — The Servant as Leader philosophy. Each time I reflect on his life, his dream, and his legacy he left behind, I find a wealth of insight into what it truly means to Lead to Make a Difference.

In honor of Dr. King, I will close with one of my favorite quotes from this great servant leaderʼs treasure chest of wisdom:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?ʼ”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Servant Leader

Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

A couple of weeks ago, my executive leadership team and I spent all day together at a strategic planning session.  Our goal was to assess our team’s work and achievements over the past year and start to develop our strategic goals and objectives to set our course for the future.  As we talked about all the things we had accomplished over the past year, we were excited!  It was clear that we have a team of hard workers who are passionate about what they do and eager to make a difference in the lives of our students.

Over the past 1 ¾ years, we have made significant changes in the way we think about how we serve students and in the way, we approach supporting our students’ success.  As a result, our student success team has been in a constant state of transformation.  That’s a cool word for change, and unfortunately, change can be scary.

I am privileged to work with a group of outstanding leaders — our leadership team, we call it the Guiding Team – is committed to doing whatever it takes to create student success services that move us ever closer to our shared vision of:

Meeting students where they are;
Empowering them to see what their future can be; and
Helping them achieve their goals for a better tomorrow.

I strongly believe that fearing change is the enemy of success, but I also know that apprehension about the unknown is normal and natural.  Leading through change — creating true and lasting transformation — requires change agents — and all leaders are not change agents.  Being a change agent is difficult; many leaders can stay the course when the journey is along a familiar path, but those same good leaders find it challenging or even impossible to successfully navigate the way when the route is unknown or littered with obstacles.

When I met with my guiding team for our planning session, I gave them each a gift — a photo that I had taken of a beautiful afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Burnsville, NC.  The photo was captioned with this well-known leadership quote:

“If your actions inspire other to dream more,
learn more, do more, and become more,
you are a Leader.”
~John Quincy Adams

I wanted to thank them for the work they have already done in leading our division.  I also wanted to inspire them to keep moving forward, because we know that we are not done — in fact, we discussed how we will never ever be done.  If there are students to serve, we are a leadership team committed to transformation.  We don’t want to be in a constant state of change just for the sake of change, but we recognize that change is a constant of life.  If you are moving forward, you are changing; if you are not changing, you are falling behind.

We cannot afford to fall behind because we have students to serve.  We share a passion for harnessing the power of education to change lives by helping our students navigate their way forward to a better future.  We also share a belief that old ways won’t open new doors.  In today’s higher education landscape, that belief is the impetus behind our steadfast journey of transformation.  Everything in the 21st century world of community college education is changing; expectations for higher education are not the same today as they were even 5 or 10 years ago.  The old ways of delivering instruction and providing instructional support for students won’t open new doors of opportunity and possibility today.

We cannot merely “build it and they will come,” and our mission is much more than merely a focus on providing access to higher education for populations of students who may not otherwise have a postsecondary option.  We must reach out proactively to engage with our students in meaningful ways.  We must build relationships with them that help them not only understand how to access educational opportunity, but also how to be successful in their programs of study.  Additionally, today’s public sentiment of accountability is pushing us to do more than just help them succeed in their coursework; we are increasingly being pushed to ensure we are graduating students who will be successfully employed in jobs with sustainable, livable wages.

So, we don’t have time to fear change; change is coming whether we are ready for it or not.  As leaders who must assume the role of change agents, we must accept responsibility for steering our teams through innovative, data-informed transformation.  I have faith in my guiding team, their senior leadership teams, and all our team members — I know they are up for this challenge.  I also know that we will continue to face obstacles that will threaten to derail our change efforts.

As the division’s leader, it is my responsibility to lead us around, over, under, or through each and every barrier; to keep us moving forward as we build new ways to open new doors that advance access, success, and post-completion employment.  To that end, I have developed four guiding principles for leading transformational change.

Number One:  Be Intentionally Prepared.  Good leadership doesn’t just happen.  Anyone can be charged with leading, but not everyone is a good leader.  While I believe many great leaders possess natural talents and characteristics that help them be better leaders, I also believe that transformational leaders understand that they are not born with all-encompassing knowledge and their gut instincts and natural intuition is not always enough.  When it comes to transformational leadership, you cannot just “wing it.”  Successful leaders spend time studying and learning how to lead.  They study leadership theory; they read case studies to learn what has worked and what has not worked in other similar situations; they stay current in their respective fields; they intentionally prepare themselves to create transformation.

Number Two:  Be an Active Listener.  Just having the title Leader, doesn’t mean you know everything (also, many people who don’t have the title are the best leaders — but that is a topic for another blog and another day).  Great leaders and leaders who successfully lead transformational, lasting, and systemic change, understand the importance of listening to their team members, and more importantly, they know how to actively listen.  Active listening means you don’t just hear what someone is telling you, but rather you fully concentrate on who you are listening to and on understanding what they are saying.  Active listeners focus on building trust, demonstrating genuine concern for what they are hearing, and affirming that they understand.  This can be tricky for leaders.  Actively listening does not mean you should agree or act on everything that you hear; it does mean that you have a responsibility to your listener to take time to understand and to offer them honest feedback about what you can or will do with what they are telling you.  That leads us to the next principle . . . Be transparent.

Number Three:  Be Transparent.  I believe that being transparent is one of the most important characteristics for any leader because trust is a critical component of any relationship.  I believe that great leaders understand that they will never build trust if they are not willing to be transparent with those they are charged with leading.  I know that leaders cannot openly share everything — personnel matters are obviously private and any organization has confidential matters that cannot be openly shared.  However, in my opinion, top-down leadership structures all too often use a need for “confidentiality” as a cop-out, and a means for not directly and honestly, facing a difficult issue head-on.  As a change agent leader, you must be direct.  If, after actively listening to a team member’s idea, you know, for whatever reason, that you will not be able to do what they have proposed, tell them.  Don’t lead them to believe you will consider it if you won’t and don’t stay silent.  Be transparent — tell them the truth — and tell them why.

Number Four:  Be Willing to Take Risks.  The final guiding principle for leading transformational change is to be willing to take risks.  Transformational leaders are rarely risk-adverse.  They understand that the “safe” path is not always the path that will lead to innovation and transformation.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you throw all caution to the wind by acting careless or foolish.  What I am suggesting, is that change agents understand how to weigh the benefits and the risks, and take reasoned risks if the results to be achieved will substantially move the needle towards necessary change.  As we continue to transform our student success services, we will take data-informed risks as warranted to improve student success — our ability to make a positive difference for our students’ futures is worth the right risk.

It is hard to step out of our comfort zone; it’s much easier to maintain the status quo by doing what we know and what makes us comfortable.  But, if we stay in our comfort zone and keep doing what we have always done, we miss great opportunities for new experiences and new possibilities.

Transformational leaders are never content with the status quo — instead they are constantly striving to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.  They encourage us to take paths that we had never imagined and they challenge us to open ourselves up to whole new worlds of possibilities.

Transformational leaders are bold; they are courageous; and they lead to make a difference.

After all, they understand the importance of opening new doors to new possibilities and they know that . . . Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors.

Authentically yours,

Janet

Take the First Step: Your Destiny Awaits

Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Yesterday was an important day in my life and the culmination of a life-long dream and a life-changing journey that certainly felt like it took a thousand miles.  Yesterday, I earned my Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University.

My journey began in Fall 2014 with a single step.  I confess that, at my age, (I was 52 years old when I took that step), walking into that first class in Charlotte at our weekend intensive was more than a little scary.  I worried about being “too old”. . . I worried I wasn’t “smart enough” . . . I worried I would not be able to keep the pace of the combination of a full-time job and a two-class per term doctoral program . . . I “worried” about a lot of things, but I took the step anyway.

Last night, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my accomplishment and thinking about my journey, which along the way felt as if it would never end, yet now feels like it began just yesterday.  As I reflected on the past 3 ½ years, I couldn’t help but think about the students from my thesis — the eight incredible men and women with eight incredible stories who took the time to share their experiences with me.  My study explored persistence among successful low-income community college students in North Carolina.  The ultimate goal of my research was connected to my life’s passion for sharing the power of education to change lives.  I aimed to understand the experiences of low-income community college students, in hopes that their experiences could inform how community college practitioners, like me, might be able to build better support systems to help our students overcome obstacles to successfully complete their educational journeys.

My students faced so many barriers and challenges.  Almost all of them had to work, often full-time, while attending school and they had children and husbands or wives, or sometimes even fathers or mothers to take care of while they worked and attended school.  Three of the students faced serious health issues and three of them were finishing school while their fathers or mothers were dealing with terminal illnesses.  Additionally, the students were all low-income students, so going to college presented a financial challenge as well.  Yet, every one of these amazing men and women persevered.  They set a goal; they developed a plan; they took that first step . . . And they kept going until they had traversed those thousand miles and completed their goal.

Yes, every one of those students had help along the way.  They had a supportive family, peers, and college faculty and staff.  They received financial aid to help them pay for tuition and books.  But the most remarkable finding from my study was that, what they had more than anything else, was self-motivation and self-determination.  It began with a dream to create a better life for themselves and their families, and their inherent motivation and determination to follow their dream was a dominant factor of their success.  Just like me, the students in my study had a dream, and they found a way to achieve their dream.  Most of them didn’t start out with a plan in place — but they quickly developed a plan, either through their own initiative or with the help of their support system.  In the end, every one of those students overcame substantial barriers and quite honestly, beat the odds, to reach their destination and walk across the stage at our college’s graduation ceremony.  And it all began with that single step.

My students are important to me.  Not only because they helped me achieve my life-long dream, but because we are kindred spirits, since a long time ago, I was one of them.  I was that low-income student who had a dream but also had a lot of obstacles standing between me and that dream.  I know how hard it is when it seems like the deck is stacked against you, but just like my students, and thanks to so many people along the way who offered their support and guidance, I too found a way to overcome the barriers and realize my dream.  And it all began with that single step.

As I reflected on my journey last night, I was filled with a mix of emotions, and I was definitely proud of my accomplishment.  I thought back to all those years ago when I was just that poor, little girl, growing up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina.  I was so very happy as a little girl — blessed to have a big family filled with lots of people who loved me unconditionally.  I was blessed and I was happy, but I always felt like there was a destiny waiting for me that looked different somehow than what I could see just then.  Not necessarily, a destiny of greatness, but something different than I could imagine with my frame of reference at the time.

So here’s the moral of this story, in the words of William Jennings Bryan:  “Destiny is no matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.  It is not to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”  My students could have accepted their lot in life, or they could have waited around for “success” to find them; or they could have just complained about their circumstances. But they didn’t.

I could have kept dreaming about that doctorate.  But I didn’t.  My students and I took that first step.  We made a plan.  We recognized that our dream would not come to fruition by chance — we had to make a choice and pursue our goals instead of waiting for chance to find us.

I am so incredibly proud of the students from my study.  Their journey to completion was not easy, but they all told me it was worth it.  Achieving your destiny is always worth it.

If you have been waiting for something before taking that first step . . . My advice is to just go ahead and take the first step.  The journey cannot begin until you do and your destiny awaits.

Authentically yours,

Janet