Leadership Influence: Awakening Our Humanity
My favorite professor in college had a unique way of dealing with the rare student who fell asleep in her class. The first time I saw Karen deal with a sleeping student, I was expecting one of the two responses I had witnessed from other instructors. I knew one high school teacher who would sneak up on the student, raise the heaviest book in the room about four feet over the student's desk, and let it drop. Another took a less suspenseful, more direct approach and would simply throw a chalkboard eraser at the victim.
Both methods were effective, but not as effective as Karen's. She would gently place her hand on the student's shoulder, lean down and whisper, "Eric, you seem really tired today. Maybe you should head back to your room, get some rest, and give it another try tomorrow." Students were so disarmed by this compassionate approach that they would participate at a high level for the remainder of the period. If you fell asleep in Karen's class, it didn't happen a second time.
Karen's response to the sleeping student typified her unique leadership style. Although she was a young professor, brand new to our college, she insisted we call her by her first name. She might have introduced herself as a doctor of philosophy, but instead of humbling us with her credentials, she invited us to be peers in an exploration of what connected us to the Medieval writers she taught.
Such a collaborative style of leadership is crucial to teaching in the humanities, and particularly in literature. For Karen, the point of studying literature was to help us experience our humanity more deeply. She emphasized that in the triumphs, tragedies and ambiguities of literature, we come face to face with our potential, and we experiment with a range of emotions and perspectives. As William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, great literature is about "the human heart in conflict with itself." While this is an academic, intellectual task, it is also a decidedly spiritual activity. Karen's gentle leadership allowed us to explore those questions safely.
Dictatorial leadership is counter to the work of interpretation since texts are dynamic, living things. (Imagine what would be lost if we only had one person telling us what scripture meant). Karen didn't need to tell us truth because she knew that, once we embraced the mysteries of being human—the richness of that experience—we could arrive at truth by participating in the grand conversation.
With each passing year of my own teaching, I have a greater appreciation for Karen's collaborative leadership and for the importance of such leaders in the world beyond the church. I majored in English and Religion. The former did more for my spiritual life than the latter simply because of professors like Karen. To explore creative human responses to success and suffering is to do spiritual work. The great danger of our age is less that we will find the wrong meaning, but that we will find no meaning at all—that in the midst of all the information and noise, we will merely shrug our shoulders at the notion of truth.
In dealing gently with a sleeping student or relinquishing a well-earned title, Karen resisted the temptations to lecture, to proclaim, to command. In doing so, she reminded us that it is our humanity, not our teacher, which enables us— commands us—to be seekers of truth.
Leadership Influence: Beyond the Stereotype
When we think of “leadership” or “influence,” we often get the image of a person of arrogant swagger, always self-confidently willing to tell people what they ought to do. And we naturally find such an image unseemly. This is not the image of Jesus, the most influential person who walked the planet. Neither is it the image of those we truly admire and can name were the most influential people in our own lives. In this series at The High Calling, Leadership Influence: Beyond the Stereotype, we feature stories of how people can be influential in ways that really matter.