The readings suggested here offer practical ways for higher education leaders to thrive. The first installment of the "Leaders Are Readers" series examines the leadership lessons in an article by Katia Passerini and books by Martin Luther King Jr., Will Guidara, and Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
"Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers." —Harry Truman
One of the most overused yet misunderstood words in the modern world is "leadership." It's used so widely and in so many ways that capturing them all is impossible. There are traits, theories, approaches, practices, mindsets, assumptions, values, programs, and more—all dedicated to leadership. It's a lot to take in.
One characteristic seems to cut through all the leadership rhetoric, and it's something that I can't help but ascribe to: curiosity fueled by a desire to learn. Leadership is almost always a process of change. When approached with curiosity and a desire to learn, leadership can be a positive process in service to the greater good regardless of the approach, theory, practice, or . . . . You get the idea.
The following reading list is not a set of summaries and suggestions but rather a report of lessons and a few helpful nudges.
In a way, this exercise is selfish. I love to learn and share. My graduate school advisor, a woman from South Africa, always told me that learning was "seeing the elephant through the long grass." To a safari visitor, something as large as an elephant can disappear in the savanna. But the elephant is clearly seen and awe-inspiring to someone with curiosity and appropriate training.
With this series of articles, I hope to join higher education leaders and those who aspire to adopt a leadership mindset in their learning so that we can all lead with eyes that see through the long grass of overwhelming content and inputs.
My takeaways from a particular work are not meant to be prescriptive. My goal is to describe the elephants I see, not to suggest that the ones someone else sees are less valuable. Perhaps what I see will spark a new idea. Maybe I can nudge someone to pick up a book.
So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite picks so far in 2023.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
By Martin Luther King Jr.
As I reflected in January on what we celebrate with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I realized that I had read far more things written about him than things written by him, so I wanted to read something he wrote. I decided to start with King's final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
The leadership lessons in this book are abundant, but the strongest one I learned is thematically woven throughout the book's 256 pages: leadership requires a clear vision and complete dedication to "cold hard facts."Footnote1 Throughout the book, King relates his vision for what the United States could be, contending that the road to get there should be based on facts, not feelings or hopes. He did not waiver, nor did he mince words. "I refuse to determine what is right by taking a Gallup poll of the trends of the time," he wrote.Footnote2 In our culture, where the tides of popularity are constantly turning, a clear vision is essential to leadership, and the idea of basing that vision on "cold hard facts" is refreshing. What would leadership look like if "popular" and "right" could be explored as different things?
A particularly poignant quote from the book provides an exceptional lesson on power. "One of the greatest problems of history," King wrote, "is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites."Footnote3 The word "power" often has negative connotations in higher education leadership, but the undeniable reality is that leaders with formal titles do carry power. These people often have the power to develop teams, shape policy, and make technology decisions, to name just a few actions. The tendency to avoid the idea of power can unintentionally fuel its shadow side. Instead, it might be worth examining how the power of leadership can be "infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us to . . . the buoyancy of hope."Footnote4 Power is beautiful when harnessed for the common good. I've often avoided using the word "power" when I write or talk in leadership circles, but King reminded me that power is, as King Alfred the Great said, "never good unless [she or] he who has it is good."Footnote5 We get to choose to be the person after "unless."
Another valuable lesson in Where Do We Go from Here? stems from why I picked up the book in the first place. Learning from someone can often be more impactful than learning about someone. I encourage leaders to identify people they admire and complement their knowledge about those people by finding a way to learn from them—whether it's through books, conversations, podcasts, or other means.
"Change: The Inevitable Choice Forward"
By Katia Passerini
Generally, pain accompanies change. Humans tend to do everything possible to avoid change or at least control it. Workplace teams are no exception. However, higher education teams have experienced tremendous change—mostly outside of their control—over the past few years. That makes for a tricky future. Let me explain with a syllogism.
On the one hand, change is difficult, and the last few years have created a sense of wariness or fear. On the other hand, change is inevitable. Therefore, leaders need to conceptualize change in ways that address these feelings.
In her article "Change: The Inevitable Choice Forward," Katia Passerini offers a new model that could do just that. Institutional leaders, she explained, can bring about positive change by "building local sandboxes for academic and technological experimentation . . . ."Footnote6 The sandbox analogy implies that change leadership can be done within a contained context. But it also includes an element of playfulness. Leading change can be serious business, but it is best done with creativity and curiosity. Lastly, the sandbox provides a place for collaboration and encourages kindness toward others. Throwing sand is ineffective and harmful.
Passerini's use of questions to drive thinking in the sandbox is particularly insightful. Change leadership is contextually sticky. The institution, team, personalities, and other contextual components drive change. Questions allow each team member to think about change contextually instead of adapting what someone else did in an entirely different sandbox.
This article is a good resource for those who may not have time to read a full-length book on change leadership.
Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect
By Will Guidara
Through the lens of transforming a two-star New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park (EMP), into the number one restaurant in the world, Will Guidara speaks to a vital—yet generally overlooked—aspect of leadership: hospitality. Simon Sinek, one of my favorite authors, published Guidara's book under his company's imprint and wrote the forward. Sinek's opening immediately resonated with me: "[Today] we are left feeling lonelier and more apart than at any other time in recent history. Yet our intense desire to feel a sense of belonging remains—it's an innate human need."Footnote7 Guidara wrote a book about how to make people feel like they belong and hid it under the tablecloth of a book about how to create a "hospitality-first culture." Through his story and concept of unreasonable hospitality, Guidara touched on the importance of intention in leadership, the impact a leader's actions have on others, and the need to create a clear and compelling vision. He discussed how to build and develop a team of excellence, onboard meaningfully, resolve conflicts, and have difficult conversations, all while serving others along the way. This book is not about restaurants; it's about leading human beings in service to a greater purpose.
Some inspiring lessons are hidden in the chapters and stories about EMP. For example, Guidara wrote, "Often, the perfect moment to give someone more responsibility is before they're ready."Footnote8 Higher education leaders generally want to see a list of previous work experience before giving someone a new opportunity. However, the best way to develop a high-performing team is to support others while exploring the edges, not avoid the edges altogether. I also appreciated Guidara's perspective on service leadership. While one might assume that the purpose of all higher education leaders is primarily to serve students, that might not be correct. At EMP, Guidara made it his mission to serve his team with exceptional hospitality, trusting that it would trickle down to the customer. Spoiler alert: his process worked. Perhaps higher education leaders should focus on serving and supporting their teams as best they can and allow their teams to use that momentum to serve and support students.
My favorite quote from Guidara's book is this: "Most important, we have an opportunity—a responsibility—to make magic in a world that desperately needs more of it."Footnote9 We don't often think of our workplaces as stages for magic. But the truth is that magic happens when we celebrate and serve the humanity of those around us. When teams create magic in their workplaces through hospitality, retention rates increase, a positive culture blossoms, and every aspect of the team's work improves.
The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact
By Chip Heath and Dan Heath
If my brother and I sat down to write a book together, the process might be bumpy. Not so for Chip and Dan Heath. They have written four books together, so don't be surprised if another book by this brother duo appears on a future reading list.
I read The Power of Moments when it was published in 2017. Because I have referenced it so much over the years, I knew it had to be a part of this list. The Heath brothers structure the book around three noteworthy moments: transitions, milestones, and pits.Footnote10 While higher education leadership has done a fantastic job of marking such moments for students, I fear it has done a terrible job marking them for team members.
For example, transition moments abound for students: orientation, ice cream socials during finals week, and graduation. Staff get "onboarding," and in general, higher education leaders aren't very good at it. Did anyone else receive "blood-borne pathogens" training on their first day at an institution, or was it just me? Not a great transition. What if organizations let go of the bureaucratic checklist of "new job stuff" and instead ask new hires to name one thing they would change about institutional or team processes, environments, or meetings right away (an idea from Guidara), giving them the opportunity to show their value and a reason to buy into what the institution or team does and why?
In my experience, higher education also does very little to observe outgoing transitions. Maybe the occasion is marked with a sheet cake and a card signed by the team. What if these moments were more than that? What if they were opportunities to celebrate the meaning and contributions that people brought to others? I don't have all the answers, but I think we could do better with powerful moments and create workplaces that people are excited to join, stay at, and contribute to.
The Heath brothers provide a lot of practical examples in The Power of Moments. Their main point is that moments matter. The experience of being alongside each other can be elevated by seizing those moments and filling them with feeling, connection, and purpose.
The four readings discussed in this list offer practical ways for higher education leaders to thrive. None of them were written specifically for higher education leaders. But that could be a good thing. Each offers new perspectives on leading others, building culture, and curating work that communicates value.
Be curious. Be well.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here? (Boston: Beacon Press; Illustrated edition, 2010), 59. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Ibid., 65. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Ibid., 37. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Ibid., 69. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Ibid., 61. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Katia Passerini, "Change: The Inevitable Choice Forward," EDUCAUSE Review, September 12, 2022. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Simon Sinek, foreword to Will Guidara, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More than They Expect (New York: Optimism Press, 2022), ix. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Guidarra, Unreasonable Hospitality, 110. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Ibid., 20. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
- Chip Heath and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017). Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
Ryan MacTaggart is Associate Director, Professional Learning, at EDUCAUSE.
© 2023 Ryan MacTaggart. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.