Lessons Learned

October 31, 2010

In the last issue of the Newsletter, CMS President Cynthia Taggart outlined efforts underway to make the organization of the Society more transparent. One of the four primary areas of activity in this reorganization is career development, and one of the five committees within this area focuses on academic leadership and administration. To be sure, the need for training academic leaders is ongoing and continuous. It is an area of crucial importance for our profession, something that is especially true today for both the economic challenges we currently face and for the program realignments in academe, both local and national, that are destined to follow our current downturn. Every music unit has at least one person functioning in some leadership capacity. There are, in other words, thousands of individuals in administrative roles of some kind. Considering the "multi-faceted" nature in its service to "the music community in higher education and beyond," as President Taggart describes CMS, the support, nurturing, and advocacy for administrative leadership clearly has a place within the mission of the Society.

Since its founding in 2003, the Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration has sought to support music faculty in administrative roles and to advocate for administration as a rewarding undertaking, one that can be an attractive option as one's career unfolds. The committee's articles, listed on its website under "Career Development," provide an anthology that explores many of the opportunities, rewards, challenges, and essential skills of administrative work. Adding to that list, this essay focuses on questions a person should ask when considering administrative work. Put differently, it focuses less on particular skills and more on states of mind, an orientation that in part defines this work (only in part; no article this length will be complete).

In this article I offer questions to ask before "taking the plunge." My questions and answers are perennial, not original. I have gleaned them from longstanding themes that emerge from writings in the field, from my own reflections through serving in administrative positions over the past twenty years, and from what I have observed in other leaders, both their great qualities and their foibles. My hope is that the lessons I have learned will help those considering or about to fall into administrative duties. How might your professional life change? Is administration part of your career trajectory? How will you define yourself in a leadership position?

The first question speaks to motivation. Administrative work, whether in a full-time position or as part of a release unit, is something that must be done with purpose. There must be a reason, a motivation for this career change or career twist. In smaller departments with a chair position that rotates, the approach must go beyond taking one's turn. Doing this work without commitment, of approaching it as some form of caretaking, of just making sure that paper gets pushed when it needs to be pushed, will be reflected in the results it produces: a program not moving forward, a program likely stagnating, a program without clear advocacy. C.K. Gunsalus approaches this issue more bluntly by asking, "Why are you doing this job?"1

Undertaking administrative work with purpose is not synonymous with completely reorganizing a curriculum, upsetting the apple cart, taking a program in a completely new direction, or firing people. Exactly what and how much needs to be done varies from program to program, but assuming leadership duties as something you "have to do" and, as a result, in doing what amounts to little more than keeping things running on time will produce results that reflect that disengagement and lack of purpose. Is that what you want for your program?

Entering into administration means entering into a position of power. What would you want to do with it? Whatever you choose to do with power, know that because of it your voice is now different.2 You have become a spokesperson, recognized as such by both peers and especially students. (And remember: because the student body changes annually the longer you are in any position of power, the firmer students' perceptions become of who you are or are not.) Be comfortable with this, especially with its limits. Lashing out, humiliating someone publicly, or settling scores, to cite three limitations, are almost never forgotten. Typically, they will stick and will result in your being characterized as either a tyrant, a person with a temper, or as a person who abuses power that is, as someone who cannot be trusted to be fair and reasonable. In this regard, and in many others, the disembodied voice of email is not a friend. It may be efficient, but it often is not effective with anything that goes beyond conveying or seeking objective information. It may "get the job done," but emails can, depending on their messages, alienate people, develop ill will, or even go viral. Humility and respect for others are qualities you will need to exercise and earn every day. Being vulnerable and being open to influence also will contribute to developing trust. Without trust, a leader will go nowhere.3 All the above issues are related to how you will define and use power.

How do you assess productivity? As faculty our accomplishments are measured in completed undertakings, in books and articles published, concerts given and reviewed, recordings released, compositions premiered, etc. Our success lies in tangible objects, ones in which we have been active in creating. Administrative work requires an adjustment. Now, planning is a larger part of your work. It is not something done above and beyond work, but instead is something that defines a larger portion of it. The resulting productivity is measured differently. Yes, there are annual goals and objectives to meet, reports to write, class schedules to build, etc., but now productivity beyond these management tasks will depend more on other people and on your ability to develop a collaborative purpose for your program (more on collaboration, below). Your productivity, your "scholarly and creative activity," will rest more in planning, facilitating, and making progress for your program, its faculty, staff, and students, and less on your personal projects.

Are you a dreamer? Dreaming is more than okay in administrative work; it is essential, regardless of the financial outlook. Whatever the situation, planning for the future, of considering contingencies for good times as well as bad, should never end. This state of mind means, however, that your dreaming now will go beyond personal interests. To do so effectively, a broader lens is needed to understand the current issues of the subdisciplines in music, not to mention the professional aspirations of your colleagues. Successful music administrators are engaged in larger campus issues germane to their academic programs. Put differently, the curiosity that has sustained you in your own scholarly and creative work now needs to be applied differently.

What do you know about administrative work and leadership? Part of assuming a new job means understanding it. Like the highly advanced skills one develops as a scholar, performer, composer, conductor, etc, administrative leadership requires knowledge and skills development as well. To do this job well requires reflecting on it, to investing in it to some degree.4 There are endless sources that can assist in this, including workshops and panels at CMS meetings, the annotated bibliography of sources maintained by the Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration on the CMS website, pre-conference workshops before NASM annual meetings, workshops by the American Council on Education, journals such as The Department Chair, etc.

Is administrative leadership a personal fit for who you are? There is no single personality type that defines an effective leader, so don't discount yourself if you are not outgoing a purported but, in reality, clichéd quality of a good leader, as one learns from profiles of successful leaders in Jim Collins's insightful book, Good to Great.5 Indeed, there are extroverts who have been immense failures as leaders, while one of the most gifted administrators I know is a quiet, introverted soul.6 To be certain, entering academic administration means assuming a public role. Accordingly, you must get out and about, both within your building and across campus. Some people do this naturally; others, including myself, have had to learn it and have to continue working at it. This personal quality, however, is not the mark of someone with an affinity to lead. Instead of personality type, a common trait of successful leaders I have observed is that they don't isolate themselves; they stay engaged and informed in their environments in their own particular ways. This issue, of an interest or desire to be engaged in something beyond oneself, is the quality that will answer the question of fit.

How are you with balancing multiple balls in the air? Being comfortable and effective with handling loose ends and ambiguity, associated with what Steven Sample refers to as "thinking grey," is an important skill.7 Ambiguity is part of your new complexity. More often than not, mistakes will be made when one tries to wrap something up or make a decision, decisive or otherwise, just to be rid of it. The impulse to act may become a nemesis. You have to become accustomed to taking time, if you don't already, to stepping back and making decisions founded on principles. With the exception of crises that require urgent action (that is, real crises, not those situations in which a person is contriving one), such an approach almost always produces better results. While there will be daily, weekly, monthly, and semester tasks to compete on time, a lot of work will lie in addressing multiple and simultaneous processes, all of which are running on their own cycles and loops. And for those moments when it seems there is no right answer or appropriate action to take, I'll let you in on a well-known secret in leadership: sometimes but only sometimes you will find that the best thing to do, the strongest action to move something forward, is to do nothing.

How are you with building community? More often than not, leadership is lonely at the top only if you make it so. Yes, there will be difficult decisions that will be, well, difficult, sometimes even lonely. However, the degree to which you can be inclusive in the process of making those decisions will lessen the loneliness, particularly with contentious choices. Inclusion also will honor the contributions of others. Developing networks of support and instilling a spirit of collaboration, both above you and below, will contribute to your program's success.

All people have their own gifts. In building community, how will you include them in ways that speak to their gifts? You now are in a position of empowerment and influence, one in which you are charged with setting the agenda. Only so much progress, however one defines it, can be made if one has not, at some level, built some sense of community that seeks, enables, and honors participation.

Is it time for a career change? For sending up a trial balloon? Are you entering the senior ranks at your institution, which may invite you to consider new opportunities? Is it your turn in the chair rotation? I hope this article has encouraged you to ask questions that may lead you in the direction of administration, either part-time or full-time, as a limited appointment or into a new career direction. There always will be lessons to learn and skills to acquire, just as there are new pieces to practice, new works to compose, more research to do, and new ideas to explore. Don't let initial inexperience stop you from considering a path in administration. Music always needs leaders in the academy, now and in the future. Will you be one of them?


1 G.K. Gunsalus, The College Administrators' Survival Guide (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 12. While the entire book is excellent, chapter 1 is essential reading for anyone entering administrative work in academe.

2 There is an enormous amount of literature on matters of power. One insightful book worth recommending is David C. McClelland, Power: The Inner Experience (New York: Irvington, 1975).

3 The quality of vulnerability is something one also sees in the most public and successful leaders in business. See, for example, Adam Bryant's interview of Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, in "Good C.E.O.'s Are Insecure (And Know It)," New York Times Business Section (October 10, 2010): 2.

4 See Malcolm Gladwell's formula for success in Outliers (New York: Little Brown, 2008) or Geoff Colvin's theory of "deliberate practice" in Talent is Overrated (New York: Portfolio, 2008).

5 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

6 For more on personality types, see Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Mountain View: Davies-Black, 1995). Regarding leadership qualities that fail, see Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

7 See Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 7-19.

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