There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
Volume 73 | Issue 3
May 2005

From the President: Mistakes and 'do-overs': Routes to more effective leadership

Daniel Maxwell

Editor's note: Ann Claussen, Moravian College, will not be assuming her role as ACUI president for personal health reasons effective March 24, 2005. ACUI President Daniel Maxwell will continue his term through March 2006.

During the Closing Banquet of this year's annual conference in Reno, Nev., I had a rare opportunity: a do-over. I can remember being a child playing football or basketball and when teams would argue over the proper "call," the easiest solution was simply to re-do the play--a "do-over," we called it. In 2004 in Washington, D.C., I'd felt there were so many exciting things going on and I needed to tell you all about each of them during my inaugural address. Unfortunately, rather than making for a comprehensive assessment of what the next year might hold, it made for a long-winded assessment and much applause when it finally ended. This year, I called my Closing Banquet address "Maxwell Light," and instead of trying to fit all the Association's news and issues into one speech, I just hit the highpoints of the current philosophy and important trends for the future. As a result, my do-over was much better received.

Sometimes it's important to recognize that in "telling our story," we don't have to tell the unabridged version. Sometimes people want the digest version. At Western Illinois University, the Division of Student Services has 23 departments. While each of these departments values student development, I've needed to learn there, too, that there is a comfortable balance between telling our story and telling a part of our story, recognizing that there are other venues for that communication to occur. This approach has allowed me to be a more effective communicator and leader.

As leaders, it is important to realize that occasionally we miss our mark. As human beings, we're not always perfect and we make mistakes. The critical point is to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them.

When I was first named greek advisor at Syracuse University, I learned from one of my mistakes the hard way. I began my job in July and was still getting to know my advisees when school started a few months later. At that time it was common to see greek organizations having informal celebrations and social gatherings visibly involving alcohol. The week before classes began that year, the chancellor was driving on campus through an area where many greek houses were having pre-semester bashes with kegs on their front lawns. To make a long story short, the chancellor did not take too well to this and called the vice president of student affairs (my boss's boss) and the vice president called me to say I needed to create a greek alcohol policy and needed to do it immediately.

During the next few weeks, I researched the policies Syracuse's peer institutions had in place and developed one for our campus. At my first meeting with all the greek chapter presidents and chapter advisors I debuted this policy. Let me just say that it didn't go over well, and I immediately recognized my mistake. I had created the policy in isolation without first seeking the input of those stakeholders, the greek chapters. During the rest of the year, I spent much time trying to reestablish trust and rebuild my relationships with these organizations. I vowed never to make this mistake again.

I know that not everyone will always agree that change needs to occur or agree with the process to arrive at an outcome, but it is vital for stakeholders to be provided with background information and be brought into the decision process if they're ever expected to support the end results. It's always better to be at the table than looking in from outside.

However, that said, I've also been the one looking in from the outside and it's made me aware of others' mistakes so that I've been able to learn from them. When I was assistant director at the University of Arizona, our organization underwent several personnel shifts. Our director was promoted and someone from another department was brought in to replace her. Where previously there had been a sense of collegiality and teamwork within student activities, the interim director had a different style of leadership that focused more on logistics and financial savvy. During his tenure I learned much about these areas, but I also saw the way the four branches of student activities lost their sense of commonality and began acting within silos focusing on their individual job responsibilities rather than the whole organization.

When the interim director's year ended, he returned to his previous position in the other department and I was promoted to interim director. While I was able to continue some of the logistical and financial procedures the other interim director had created to streamline our organization, I also made every effort to bring back that sense of team. Now whenever I'm in a leadership role I remember the importance of communication, collective staff training, and realization of commonalities to fulfill an overarching mission. I am a proponent of meetings and retreats, provided they're purposeful. I try not to leave anyone out, and I believe in making sure everyone has access to information so we can all be on the same page.

Now as we begin the strategic planning process and my second year as president, I hope I can continue to learn and grow as your leader. I hope we can admit our individual faults and where the Association must change to improve the areas where it has not realized its full potential. I want you to know that I value your input and will do my best to communicate with you about where we are in the planning process and the state of the Association as the year progresses. And I ask that you help us by providing feedback so we can move forward to be stronger as a leading association in higher education. Thank you for another year as your president.