"Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at mountains and the stars up above. ... They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education."
– David Polis
Volume 75 | Issue 2
March 2007

From the Executive Director: Style matters

Marsha Herman-Betzen

If you have worked in any area of student affairs for more than a day, indubitably you have been subjected to some form of professional development experience where you were given a paper and pencil inventory to determine your leadership style. There is not anyone among us who is not well aware of their Myers-Briggs moniker. We recite those four letters with pride to anyone who will listen, as if ENFJ or ISTP is a secret cryptogram into our DNA explaining to all why we behave as we do.

Years ago at one of the conference program committee’s first meetings, the conference chair decided to ask each of the members of the committee to introduce themselves by sharing their Myers-Briggs quotient as an icebreaker. One of the first members of the committee to speak was a fairly new professional who had limited experience with student affairs and had just recently been hired into an operations job in the union. He looked befuddled with the question, scratched his head, and then blurted out with pride, “I’m a Sagittarius.” The conference chair was right; after much laughter, the group had bonded.

Until recently, I found it a bit dubious that so much attention and credibility were ever given to any type of psychological personality inventory. Even more incredulous was the fact that the Myers-Briggs test is still used extensively today. Yet in recent years, temperament and style and their effect on leadership seems to have more to do with significant organizational outcomes than I first believed.

I used to think that intellectual proficiency and experience were the most likely leadership attributes in determining success. I now believe that the capricious characteristics of temperament and style, and the timing of how those qualities are matched with organizational needs, determine consequences in far more fundamental ways. Temperament includes a wide range of individual traits: personality, moral fiber, background, work habits, and behavior when interacting with others. Style includes how we work, manage, or lead others; whether we tend to be autocratic or authoritarian; or are more participative or permissive in our approach to work or accomplishing the task when leading others.

I just read Jeffrey Rosen’s (2006) book, “The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America,” and was fascinated to find temperament being discussed with regard to the justices of the highest court. Rosen (2006) suggests:

… the success of individual, justices, and of the Court as a whole, reflects the interaction between judicial philosophy and judicial temperament. … The connections between the most successful judges—from Marshall to Harlan to black to Rehnquist to Roberts—transcend ideology and reflect shared strengths of character and temperament. These judicial temperaments have shaped the country we live in today. (pp. 21–22)

In the coming years, ACUI’s change in executive director will coincide with the retirement of many boomers, as college unions begin filling vacant positions. As we begin to contemplate ACUI’s prospects, an introspective look back helps paint an interesting portrait of the leaders who helped bring the Association to this point. Not surprisingly, this exercise has proven to be a highly instructive study in contrasting temperaments and styles of leadership.

If we look back at Chester Berry, ACUI’s first executive director from 1968–81, we find a highly intelligent, formally credentialed academician who was considered by some to be domineering and demanding in his pursuit to lead. Lending credibility to that persona was the fact that Chet sported a crew cut and seemed gruff, at least from a distance. His academic brilliance could be found in his highly developed vocabulary where it became impossible to digest any speech, letter, or manuscript without a dictionary. While his voracious vocabulary proved cumbersome to some, his writings always contained at least one multisyllabic word carefully placed among the more common words just to challenge us. Trust me when I say we have not seen words in The Bulletin such as propinquity, vicissitudes, meretricious, diminution, and attenuation since Chet Berry was executive director. Elizabeth Beltramini, ACUI’s director of communications and editor of The Bulletin, even accused me of unconsciously becoming a bit sesquipedalian, (using long words) as I tried to keep up with Chet.

Yet Chet’s temperament and style was perfectly matched with the Association’s needs at the time. Where would we be today had we had a more egalitarian, laissez-faire leader as our first executive director? It is my belief that if it were not for Chet’s personality and approach, we never would have moved off the dime as an association. Had Chet appreciated process over actions or had a strong need for consensus, we would still be up to our eyeballs in the muck of organizational infancy today.

The antithesis to Chester Berry was ACUI’s next executive director, Richard Blackburn. Dick was executive director from 1982–91, and I believe Dick was selected in response to where the Association was in its development and more importantly in response to the style and temperament of Chester Berry. Dick was gentle, soft spoken, and unassuming. It would be fair to suggest he was not known for his sense of style particularly with regard to his wardrobe. To imply Dick was frugal is an understatement. Dick could best be categorized as an ideologue believing without compromise in the role of the college union and its mission to higher education. If you wanted to get Dick riled up, merely suggest that as executive director he was an association manager rather than a former college union director, or refer to the union as an auxiliary, or propose accepting advertising dollars as a way to increase Association revenue. Like many in his day, competition trumped partnerships. When the trade magazines of our sister associations would arrive at the office, he would spend time perusing the publications for names of ACUI members who were actively volunteering for other associations and highlight them in yellow in downright disbelief. Yet his management style with staff and volunteers was collaborative, process oriented, and very much accommodating. Dick believed volunteers should handle volunteers without any staff involvement. He could be parental, even protective, in how much information he would share, keeping most information close to his vest.

At the end of his tenure as executive director, it was more than likely Dick’s hands-off method of management coupled with his unyielding theoretical positions that created yet another need for a change in style. Once again, ACUI was in search of an executive director whose temperament was aligned with the needs of an association now shoved into a time of rapid change and economic volatility.

Now comes the hard part as I try to objectively talk about myself and the present conditions. Not only is it easier to talk about others; looking back makes you appear far more astute because you have all of the available information. While I will leave the discussion of the successes and failures of ACUI under my tutelage to those who will follow, my perception of myself, however skewed, seems necessary if this article is to draw any substantive conclusions. Neither an academician nor an ideologue, autocratic nor permissive, the word that probably best describes my temperament and style is pragmatic.

A pragmatic temperament is someone who has a high degree of humility, common sense, and a well-defined ability to interact well in groups while allowing change and influence to occur. The pragmatic style helped us take a bit more risk, create partnerships with other associations, begin to pay attention to trends not just ideals, and develop a substantial corporate partnership cost center. And for all the changes we have endured recently, I believe ACUI’s next executive director will be able to take ACUI even further away from being a “mom and pop”-type operation. There is no question that the new executive director will be far more technologically savvy and financially shrewd than I am. In addition, the new executive director will most likely be the antithesis to my personality, hopefully aligned with the world he or she inherits to best lead ACUI into the future.

So, what is the next step? Why is this discussion of temperament important? As I enter the twilight of my career, it is not too early for ACUI’s Board of Trustees to begin to look at the long-term viability and the health of our association. To do so, we will need to be keenly aware of the organization’s present state, how the organization interacts with the changing conditions of the world, and how the organization wants to be perceived in the future. My hope is that those making the decision will not only value the importance of temperament and style, but also comprehend the significance of matching that style to the identified needs and existing global conditions.

This does not just apply just to ACUI. College unions will be faced with similar dilemmas and decisions. Higher education in general has never been particularly judicious when it comes to succession planning. Regrettably, college unions and student activities appear to be even further behind. A staff transition on any level, in any profession, provides an organization with an exceptional opportunity for introspection. This self-analysis can lead a college union or an association to reevaluate its mission, goals, and operations and find the best person with the best temperament and style to be perfectly matched to those timely needs. When this occurs, extraordinary organizational outcomes occur in highly influential ways.