Navigating Campus Mine fields through Mindful Leadership
If asked to define minefield, most people would recite something similar to an area set with explosive devices or landmines. All would agree that minefields connote a sense of risk and danger. As a faculty member in higher education for over 30 years and a faculty developer for more than 18 of those, I’ve noticed the first-person focus of many faculty, staff, and administrators has created minefields on some campuses that are just as dangerous. These mines often result from an unconscious shift from “We” to “I” and a perceived threat to “what’s mine.” These potential dangers include not only apathy and burnout of faculty but also breakdown of our campus cultures.
In our Center for Faculty Excellence, my staff and I often serve as sounding boards for both satisfied and dissatisfied faculty. This day-to-day interaction provides a good compass reading for faculty morale and helps identify potential mines developing in the minefields. Over the years, some mines have surfaced and been disarmed, but a few remain buried in the field and are always on the brink of explosion. While the I-am-overworked-and-underpaid mine will probably always exist, some of the most common, and most dangerous, mines can be disarmed through mindful leadership. These mines and the motivation behind their creation include:
- Decreased communication: “I am ignored.” My opinions and ideas are not respected. I have no voice in the decisions that are being made that directly affect me. No one really listens to me. I just need to be silent.
- Reduced productivity: “I am not appreciated.” I work harder and serve on more committees than most of my colleagues. I try to do everything the administration asks of me. My only thanks is more work. I need to start saying no.
- Diminished connections: “I am on my own.” I feel isolated. There is little or no camaraderie in my department or on campus. Office doors are closed, and there is a sense of disengagement. I will start closing my door.
These higher education mines are often created (or at least complicated) by budget cuts that have resulted in faculty, staff, and administrators doing more with less. Everyone is just busier. In addition, the increase in online classes has led to a gradual disappearance of faculty from campus. There are simply fewer faculty participating in the day-to-day events of campus life. While many of the factors that contribute to the creation of these mines are beyond administrative control, they cannot be ignored. The consequences of running through a minefield with no regard for the landmines are too dire—administrators must be mindful of the presence of these mines and walk strategically.
In her book Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, Janice Marturano contends that the qualities of clarity, focus, creativity, and compassion are fundamental for mindful leadership and that mindful leadership is needed if we are to live with excellence. In defining a mindful leader she states,
A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the service of others.
She describes leadership presence as a tangible quality that requires “full and complete nonjudgmental attention in the present moment.”
Marturano asserts these attributes of mindful leadership already exist in our hearts and minds and can be further developed through mindful leadership training. Her book discusses training techniques to strengthen and cultivate the qualities of clarity, focus, creativity, and compassion with the goal of becoming a mindful leader. This article does not address the training practices for these attributes but rather presents a brief summary of each attribute followed by some practical applications to help administrators at all levels navigate and disarm (or maybe even prevent) the mines in campus minefields.
Clarity: See clearly. Don’t let your expectations cloud what is actually there. See the issues and the opportunities and choose how to respond—don’t just react.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Faculty need to feel that their voice is heard. Create committees or advisory boards with faculty representatives. When appropriate, get input from faculty groups before making administrative decisions. Publicize and applaud the contribution of faculty in helping reach that decision.
- Rely on existing faculty support units to provide compass readings of faculty morale. Ignoring problems will not make them go away.
- Provide frequent updates on issues of concern. Be brief and state the facts. Social media can create and sustain a frenzy of rumors with no basis in fact.
Focus: Stay in the moment. Loss of focus is loss of productivity. Sustaining focus allows you to fully concentrate on issues and opportunities.
- Keep the campus focused on the bottom line—we are here for the students!
- Let the campus know that your focus is on what’s best for them and the university.
- Don’t forget to focus on you! Practicing self-awareness and self-reflection will reveal more ways to influence others.
- Creativity: Take a break from your to-do list. Your mind needs downtime for creative and innovative solutions to emerge.
- Work with alumni and support services on campus to create ways to motivate, energize, and engage faculty. Faculty/staff contests, awards, picnics, etc., may seem trivial but can serve as pleasant distractions from day-to-day concerns.
- Find ways to connect—you with them, and them with them—and encourage your colleagues to do the same.
- Don’t lead in isolation. Be visible. Attend campus events, visit departments/units, etc. Don’t be the “man behind the curtain.”
Compassion: Acknowledge the suffering of others and yourself. Offer yourself and others kindness. Recognizing and understanding the interconnections among us encourages us to participate in the well-being of others.
- Let faculty know that you care about them and that you appreciate what they do.
- Whenever possible say “thank you!” and encourage other administrators to do the same.
- Understand that faculty frustrations are not about you. Avoid self-criticism, and stay positive by practicing self-compassion to help avoid stress and anxiety.
- Convey the message “We are all in this together.”
Today’s higher education leaders face many challenges—only one of which is keeping faculty content and engaged. Providing excellent leadership amid today’s campus chaos takes training and practice. Applying the mindful leadership attributes of focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion to administrative decisions can help disarm and eliminate campus minefields. Becoming a mindful leader will not only lead to a better understanding of yourself and those you lead, but can also improve the choices you make for your institution.
Tena L. Golding, Ph.D., is professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Southeastern Louisiana University.