1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 So far, we’ve explored the problematic state of academic leadership, including its all-too-frequent confusion with management; we’ve considered the importance of centering leadership around people rather than institutions; and we’ve emphasized the crucial roles of trusting relationships and a focus on values in leading for transformative change. Ensuring that leadership doesn’t devolve into a top-down mode of getting everyone on board with a vision emerging from the upper administration requires building a collective sense of purpose and allowing that purpose to evolve with the needs of the collective itself. It requires finding ways to support the members of the collective as they work toward their pursuit of that purpose. It requires you to know the people you’re working with, to understand their concerns, and to learn from their ideas. Creating an environment like that requires — really demands — that a leader do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This, suffice it to say, does not always come naturally. We live in a time and place where leaders — especially “thought leaders” — are expected to have the answers and to be ready to provide them at will. Edgar and Peter Schein ask of this moment whether we have “come to believe, now more than ever, that telling is the way to lead?”1 Telling, in our competitive individualist culture, has certainly gotten mistaken for the way to win: we are surrounded by pundits and politicians (not to mention neighbors and even family members) whose primary form of persuasion consists of doubling down on their opinions by increasing their volume. The result, unsurprisingly, is increased resistance; those being told wind up tuning out, changing the channel, and digging in their heels on their own ideas. As Beth Bouloukos described it, her desire to transform scholarly publishing requires her “to be understanding and patient in order to open the conversation, because if you just go in very headstrong that your model is right and what other people are doing is wrong, you’re not going to get anyone to listen to you.”2 Telling rarely leads to winning hearts and minds, and never leads to the kinds of relationship-building that leadership requires. It’s for that reason, among others, that the Scheins argue that it’s far more important for leaders to work on developing a mode that they refer to as humble inquiry, “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in another person.”3 By opening up space for others to respond, to describe their concerns and ideas, we create the possibility that we might learn something, and that we might do something with that knowledge together.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Of course, that possibility can only become actual if we’re genuinely listening to the responses. I explored the importance of listening as a practice of connection at length in Generous Thinking, so I won’t rehash that here. The key, however, is recognizing that in every exchange, with every member of your broader community, you have more to learn than you may think. In fact, if you open yourself to it, you have more to learn than you do to teach.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Real listening requires being open to what you hear, rather than simply performing a listening state while other people speak. There’s all too much of that taking place in our organizational lives: our planning processes, for instance, are filled with “listening sessions” that ask key stakeholders to take the time and exercise the significant effort to share their experiences and opinions. Our campuses are filled with advisory committees, task forces, working groups, all of whose members are asked to invest their energy and care in developing recommendations for the institution to act upon. When those listening sessions and task force reports pass without appreciable results — with management instead making the choice everyone knew it was always going to make — all that labor and investment winds up not just unproductive but counterproductive. It breeds distrust and disinvestment.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 On the other hand, conversations that result in substantive action — that invite further investment and involvement on the part of those sharing their thoughts, and that foster the sense that their institutions are open to their contributions — can actively build community. Similarly, advisory groups that are truly heard by those they advise, and that are able likewise to communicate openly with the constituencies they represent, can build trust.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The factor that makes the difference in these two outcomes is a deep form of listening: not just hearing others out but really attempting to understand, internalize, and act upon what you’re being told.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 That is of course not to say that you can adopt or act upon every idea or opinion that you hear. Some ideas might be undesirable. Others might be desirable but difficult. Those ideas still need to be spoken, and listened to, and acknowledged. If the forum is genuinely open, with broad enough participation, the difficult ideas raised from differing perspectives might begin to suggest possibilities. The goal in discussions like these, however, cannot be to arrive at consensus, or to build acceptance for a plan that’s already decided upon. Instead, these discussions might draw on the process of “political listening” described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Political listening, as exemplified by community organizers, functions not to resolve difference, but rather to “[allow] difference to disturb too-easy resolution.” Instead, political listening works to get everything on the table. “To listen politically,” Tsing notes, “is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.”4

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 This form of political listening requires leaders to adopt an active but open role: not just nodding or taking notes as others speak, but instead asking further questions that can help to draw out ideas and create connections. It requires deep curiosity. It also requires, as Arlie Hochschild demonstrates in Strangers in Their Own Land, checking in to see if you’re taking the right things from what you’re being told, reframing what you’re hearing and asking whether you’re understanding it correctly.5 Political listening — deep listening, with the goal of learning — requires a willingness not to guide people in the directions we already want to go, but instead to allow others to lead us as well. In fact, the job of an academic leader, as Carolyn Dever described it to me, requires being “comfortable with being outside your area of expertise about 99% of the time. It’s not only having curiosity about other people and interest in their work and other disciplines and so forth, you have to be willing to not be the expert.”6 If we’re willing to do that — to put aside ego, expectations, presumptions, and instead learn from what we’re being told, what we might be missing — we can develop plans that will be better because they’re more matched to the lived experience of those who will be affected by them. 

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Trevor Owens talked with me about his experiences in creating a new unit and developing its strategy, and was candid about both the ways his leadership of this process worked and the ways it didn’t:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I think where there are spots where it didn’t work as well, it was because I came in being like, this is the thing we need to do, and I need all of you guys to get in on it, and we’re going to do it. Every once in a while that’s the thing to do, just to get something going, but a lot of times when I would run into resistance, it was because I didn’t understand the problems from other people’s points of view well enough. It wasn’t as good for that kind of relationship building, and the ideas would have been stronger if it had been more of a call to convene and figure things out together.7

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 That call to convene may be the most important tool of leadership: the ability to bring together a group of people and help them work together to form a team, a cohort, a coalition, a community. Doing so requires a recognition that those members of our institutions not only have a significant stake in the outcomes of a planning process but also have crucial knowledge about the problems that the plans are intended to ameliorate. Their expertise is often a part of the “big picture” that the upper administration is missing.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 There are many areas of university life that suffer from decisions being made without adequate attention to this ground-level expertise. It’s relatively easy to see this disconnect in student support services such as advising, counseling, housing, and so on: those who provide and use existing services know better than anyone what’s working in them and what’s not, but too often their concerns go unheard. This same disconnect is operative in areas like the curriculum, however. The curriculum is in most institutions owned and delivered by the faculty, and the expertise we bring to it is derived from a lifetime of immersion in it; who better to make choices about it? Our field-based expertise has worked to create a deep understanding of the forms of knowledge necessary to produce the student outcomes we seek to create.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 What might happen, however, if we were to recognize that those outcomes are not ours to create? The outcomes in the end belong to our students. How might we develop means of listening to their interests in a way that would allow us to shape our sense of student outcomes in collaboration with them? A process of deep listening could provide the potential to work with them to build something entirely new, instead of reproducing our own structures of knowledge. We might discover, for instance, that many of our students have come to our campuses with different needs and intentions for their educations than we automatically assume. Many of our students have goals are far less individual than they are collective or social. Many have family and community needs and desires that their educations can help to fulfill. What might be possible if, rather than finding ways to help these students conform to and succeed within the conventional structures of the university, we instead took our lead from them and their visions for the future? What if we genuinely listened to what they had to tell us, and learned from it, and built structures and curricula that centered their experiences and goals?

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In moments of crisis and conflict, it’s especially important that leaders listen carefully to those who have been harmed by the failures of existing systems and structures. It was the voices of the Sister Survivors at MSU, testifying about their experiences in open court and at great personal cost, that finally forced overdue institutional attention to be paid not just to a horrific campus predator but also to the structures that enabled him to assault hundreds of young women. Those assaults were made possible by the number of people who refused to listen when they were told what was happening, who refused to believe what they were being told, who refused to act once they’d heard. And the case at MSU is far from unique: on campuses around the country, predatory behavior is not just ignored but facilitated by policies and processes that punish those who speak out against it. Genuinely transformative justice — justice that seeks not retribution against the individuals who cause harm but rather fundamental change in the circumstances and structures that enable the harm — can only start with deep attention to those who have been harmed.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 When you listen to the people most affected by your institution’s policies and processes, you’re likely to be confronted with a lot of things you’d rather not hear. They’re painful, they’re inconvenient, they’re at odds with the ways you’d prefer to think of yourself, your institution, your commitments. But none of that makes the things you’re hearing untrue. None of it is cause for refusing to listen. It is cause, rather, for some difficult work, both personal and structural, seeking ways to open yourself to the possibility that everything you’re hearing is not only true but demands action.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • What groups within your organization, or across the larger community, feel unheard? What issues do those groups face? How might their concerns and ideas be made the object of the organization’s attention, shaping its future direction?
  • What processes or structures within your organization would most benefit from community input? How can you make sure that input is heard and valued — and that those providing the input know that it is heard and valued?
  • What kinds of input or feedback do you most resist hearing? Where does this resistance stem from? How do you experience it? How might you find ways to acknowledge your resistance while allowing yourself to genuinely consider what you’re hearing?

  1. 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  2. Schein and Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, x.
  3. Bouloukos, Interview. I have to note: this moment in our interview made me wince in retrospective embarrassment; her description of charging in and telling everyone they’re doing it wrong reminded me all too much of several of the presentations I’d given for her colleagues back in the day.
  4. Schein and Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, 3.
  5. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 254.
  6. Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land.
  7. Dever, Interview.
  8. Owens, Interview.
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