The Art of Visionary Leadership: Painting a Face on the Future

John E. Roueche and Suanne D. Roueche

Leaders who transform institutions into versions of their better selves are true artists. Not only must leaders have a clear vision of what their institutions can and should become, they must be able to see it within the confines of what already exists—rather, they must be able “to see what is not”—to look beyond the obvious, beyond what is known, beyond the reality of the present to the potential of the future.

Those of us who have pitched our tents in higher education and in community colleges, in particular, work in one of the most human of all enterprises. Arguably, in this enterprise—more than in any other—these experiences involve individual faces and have strong ties to the human heart and spirit. In accepting this invitation to look at vision as a critical, phenomenally powerful catalyst, we knew that there was little to discuss outside of the human dimension—because, as John Gardner observes, a relevant vision for any day “…will build on values deeply embedded in human history and in our own tradition” (1990, xi). It is the shared values— what one hopes and strives for, and what one believes the future should hold—that always must be tied inextricably to the engagement of human beings in the meaningful work that they should and can do together. Therefore, we argue that the art of leadership is all about vision, about painting a face on the future, and, by exciting others to positive action, ultimately bringing that face to life.

Without question, it is not enough that college leaders have a clear vision that embraces and is guided by the college’s highest values; they must describe this vision so clearly that others can see it, become excited about it, and become equally committed to it, as well—so excited and eventually so committed that their collective enthusiasm and resolve will carry the day, day in and day out, in decisions large and small, through the predictable cycles of hopefulness and despair. Leaders must possess much more than a clear vision for the organization; they must possess the necessary qualities of patience and persistence to engage faculty and staff members in goal setting for the organization. The real trick in leadership is in the leader’s ability to motivate and inspire faculty and staff to care as much about organizational success as does the leader. Many college presidents can articulate goals and objectives with great clarity and passion, but they do not understand fully how to engage the entire organization actively in a commitment to achieving those goals. The real skill is in the leader’s ability to work with followers in positive, productive ways—a key responsibility for achieving the college mission and securing the future well being of the institution.

Following up on that notion, we contend that the seeds of future realities lie dormant in any vision. These seeds are either nurtured or not—tended well to live another day and grow strong, or left to die. Over the last two decades, we have observed the actions of excellent college leaders—who literally have transformed their institutions—as they have tended those seeds and thus shepherded their institutions toward the achievement of extraordinary goals. Fueled by the passion of their convictions, these leaders articulated clear visions for their colleges, set priorities, and acted upon those priorities in ways that led the college community to accomplish them.

Well-documented reports from the field and engaging personal observations have provided us with an intriguing collection of actions for accomplishing notable objectives. We watched as focused, driven college leaders have used their artistic talents—in full view and behind the scenes—to compel and support the work of the larger body of creative minds that together created a face for the future of which they could be proud.

We are fascinated by the actions we have observed. Individually, they are entertaining and valuable studies in how to get people working together toward achieving goals—they make for an interesting study in how to get important things done and done well. Collectively, they provide a rich, living picture of leadership—the ability to persuade others to achieve individual and collective objectives. And, they provide a picture of the power of vision to change institutions for the better, to take faculty and staff on a journey where they willingly embrace current realities, share hopes and dreams, face risks, and seize opportunities that will enrich and strengthen the effort. They confirm two compelling truths. One, as James McGregor Burns observes: “…the most powerful influences consist of deeply human relationships in which two or more persons engage with one another” (1978, 11). And two, as we have observed and have come to believe, leaders are only as powerful and effective as the human relationships they nurture are engaging and meaningful to their followers. Leadership genius “lies in the manner in which leaders see and act [our emphasis] on their own and their followers’ values and motivations” (Burns 1978, 19).

Over more than three decades, we have been close observers of successful college leaders—leaders we characterize as transformational—in action. We have been intrigued, and frequently awestruck, by the quality, breadth, and depth of their visions and their dreams—extraordinary, challenging, often bordering on what many believed impossible to achieve. Moreover, we have been fascinated totally by the pathways the colleges took to achieve their eventual, documented success—the actions, built and dependent upon the strength and quality of human relationships, provide a striking collection of important examples of how to get important things done. We offer here a broad-brush discussion of what we have learned from these successful leaders about harnessing the power of individuals to work together toward common goals and nurturing human relationships so critical to bringing compelling visions to life. We applaud their actions and celebrate their talents at drawing out the best in themselves and others to paint the best faces on their collective futures.

Some Things that Strong Leaders Know for Sure about Getting Important Things Done

Leaders trust their own instincts and understand fully the depth and strength of their own passions. Strong leaders are self-actualizing individuals with a long history of setting high goals and achieving them, and conveying with heightened credibility the confidence and the ability to get things done and make a difference. Research supports the critical nature of knowledge of self in effective leadership—the importance of knowing one’s strengths and being able to discern the fit between those strengths and the needs of the organization (Bennis and Nanus 1985).

Terry O’Banion, President Emeritus of the respected League for Innovation in the Community College and recognized leader in the conceptual and developmental stages of designing learning colleges for the 2lst century, made these observations about the skills and driving forces that have guided his accomplishments over his 40-plus-year career:

First, education for me was my religion. Humanistic educa- tion in particular was a secular religion for me. Very early I had established a strong value-base in terms of what I thought education should be and that has stayed with me for my entire life.

Secondly, I think I have pretty good conceptual skills and am able to pull disjointed ideas together to create new, practical and simple constructs that help explain things…I think I know how to connect the dots.

Finally, I think I have good entrepreneurial skills. I dream big dreams and I can get support for making them happen. I have a pretty good vision of the possibilities in education, and I think I have the practical and entrepreneurial skills to put them into practice. One of the reasons I’ve been so successful in the League is that I know how to design projects, and I know how to create the political climate to get funding for them. I garnered over $50 million dollars in support for projects. (Gardner and Barnett 2003, online)

Leaders who can articulate the skills they bring to their role as visionary and dreamer, and then document their success, go a long way toward earning the confidence of followers and colleagues. “William James pointed out that just as our courage is so often a reflection of another’s courage, so our faith is often in someone else’s faith. When the faith is present in the leader, it communicates itself to the followers with powerful effect” (Gardner 1990, 199).

In Pursuit of Excellence: The Community College of Denver (Roueche, Ely, and Roueche 1997) was the description and analysis of the results of our study of CCD’s (CO) transformation, beginning with the institution’s collegewide decision to make good on the promise of the open door. In it we described President Byron McClenney’s persistent focus on a vision of what the college could become, his incredible ability to bring individuals together to achieve a common purpose, and his unwavering focus on the lofty goals the CCD team of faculty and staff set for themselves. More than 10 years after the transformational process began, CCD was earning its deserved accolades as an exceptional, phenomenal institution that leveled the playing field for all students, even as it doubled its enrollment, already the most ethnically diverse institution of higher education in the state. Kay McClenney, then Vice President of the Educational Commission of the States, made this observation before a large audience of community college leaders:

…I have watched while, with tight resources, CCD’s people have doubled enrollment, while also dramatically increasing student diversity and student outcomes, defining methods of assessing and documenting student learning, and most incredibly, virtually eliminating the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. It did take ten years of work. But the first thing it took was deciding to do it. (1998, 4, emphasis added)

CCD President McClenney talked openly of his more than 30- year commitment to the ideas of maximizing second-chance opportunities and improving the quality of life through education: “Education doesn’t have an impact on just one person, but the education of one person has an impact on all of us (1997, 2). He was able to generate phenomenal energy in the CCD team; he shared the power of his convictions and got everyone focused on the “rightness”—the moral integrity—of their efforts. He demonstrated a unique ability to get staff and faculty buy-in and commitment to the goals that they had set for the institution—a strategy consistent with the old Chinese proverb that the leader is best when the people say, “It was our idea, and we did it!”

Leaders do not mince words when articulating the goal. There is much to be said for the leader stating goals and expectations in the most explicit terms. Students of presidential leadership often cite Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement on May 16, 1940, that he had set a production goal of 50,000 planes a year, and John F. Kennedy’s announcement that we would put a man on the moon within the decade. Both goals were breathtaking, and both goals were met. And no one can doubt that in each case the achievement was hastened by the dramatic announcement [our emphasis] (Gardner 1990, 197).

In Embracing the Tiger:The Effectiveness Debate and the Community College (Roueche, Johnson, Roueche, and Associates 1997), we collected descriptions of strategies implemented at seven selected, forward-thinking community colleges that chose early on, and long before the full impact of increasingly tough accountability measures could and would be forced upon them, to establish institutional accountability policies on their own. One of those colleges was Midlands Technical College (SC). In the college’s contributed chapter, “Seizing the Opportunity of Institutional Effectiveness,” President Jim Hudgins talked about focusing on the pride his college had in its history and its traditions of getting “the right things done” to help faculty and staff face the impending invasion of accountability measures imposed from outside the institution. Therefore, during a time when so many others were resisting the accountability movement, or ignoring it altogether, Hudgins initiated ongoing conversations at every level of the college, appealed to faculty and staff to put their philosophies about who they were, what they should become, and how they should get there into a plan, whereby they would document what they intended to achieve over the academic year and assess how well they performed. They tied funding to assessed needs, action plans, and, ultimately, to performance. The drama resided in the publications that articulated short- and long-term goals, followed by the data that documented how well the college had (or had not) achieved them. The decision to circulate such critical data to all constituencies, internal and external—to expose its strengths and weaknesses, its accomplishments and failures—constituted a major risk for the entire college. However, there was overwhelming agreement that the dramatic decision to “seize the opportunity…to affirm their worth” proved worthy of the high risk and the significant effort. It kept the goal in sight, and it helped the college raise the standards bar on itself. As Hudgins observed, “We are inspired by our vision, driven by our goals, and measured by our standards” (65).

As we analyzed the transformation of the Community College of Denver, in In Pursuit of Excellence, we alluded to our observation that the college faculty and staff were the beneficiaries and the victims, simultaneously, of the decision and then the dramatic announcement of its long-term goals. Not only did the college pledge to improve the performance of all its students, in this the most ethnically diverse institution of higher education in the state, but to eliminate the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. Once that decision was made, the commitment announced publicly, and the emerging data describing

CCD’s achievements year-by-year became public information, the entire CCD team held the future of the institution in its hands. It would either rise to the occasion or kneel to defeat. No doubt, the dramatic nature of the announcement fueled the team’s resolve; there was no way to go but forward and up.

Leaders understand the power of shared information, of everyone having a clear view of what needs to be and should be done—whether or not the way to do it is as clear— along with a heightened interest in getting it done.

Henry David Thoreau observed: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended my answer.” The willingness to share information was one of the key discriminating characteristics of the 10 most “excellent” colleges in one highly respected study of independent colleges nationwide:

The sharing of information—and the sense of trust that permeates these institutions— fosters the respect for faculty. Detailed data and the complexities of institutional decisions are communicated in open forums. Faculty are heard on critical issues and know the details when they debate with administrators or among themselves. This depth of faculty understanding mitigates against polarization. (Rice and Austin 1988, 51)

The message is that the “cards are on the table,” and the atmosphere is open and direct, yet relaxed and flexible. The uniqueness of the partnership between CCD faculty and administrative leadership rested on the willingness of the president to be a working partner in the process, to share information and, thus, the responsibilities for responding to it, captured here in a faculty member’s observations:

Helen Kleysteuber, Professor of Business Technology at the Community College of Denver, wrote:

From my perspective of 24 years as a faculty member at the Community College of Denver (CCD) and more than a decade of service as CCD Faculty Council Chair, it is evident that the current leadership has worked hard to create a collaborative decision-making atmosphere at the college. I have also had the opportunity to compare CCD with other institutions through my role as the faculty representative on the state Board for Colorado Community Colleges and Occupational Education and on the Advisory Council to the Colorado Commission of Higher Education, and I have come to recognize that we have a unique administrative/ faculty partnership at CCD. (cited in Roueche, Ely, and Roueche 2001, 108)

Leaders recognize that shared purposes, shared commitments, shared struggles, and “shared hearts” are powerful combinations for achieving the products of shared values. Ernest Boyer wrote: “If faculty and students do not see themselves as having important business to do together, prospects for effective learning are diminished” (1987, 141). Substitute “leaders and followers” for faculty and students, and “positive action” for learning, and the warning remains poignant and true.

A particular problem for leaders today is that large numbers of people have torn loose from whatever cultural, religious, or philosophical roots they may have known. Others have never known such roots…Scholars are fascinated with the divergence among value systems; but leaders, whose task it is to keep a society functioning, are always seeking the common ground that will make concerted action possible. They have no choice. It is virtually impossible to exercise leadership if shared values have disintegrated. (Gardner 1990, x)

In Embracing the Tiger (1997), CCD President McClenney described the birth of a tradition at the college—the annual planning cycle. He described how, in preparation for the college’s 1987 spring convocation, a representative group of faculty and staff conducted what today we would call an “environmental scan.” They fanned out over the Denver metropolitan area to get a clear view of the needs of their service area and then went back into the college to look at how well those needs were being addressed by the college and how well students were being served. Their findings, published through a series of background papers and circulated among faculty and staff, were the subjects of roundtable discussions at the convocation and, ultimately, the foundation for the priorities and activities identified as institutional priorities for the following year. This planning design went on to become institutionalized into an annual cycle of activity, linking resources to purposes, vision, and values—assessment and goal-setting discussions during which faculty learned from the previous year’s achievements and planned for improvements in the next. Woven into the fabric of the initial scanning process and the tradition of the planning cycle was a leader’s belief that purposeful, thoughtful individuals, confronted with the realities of their situation and environment, will choose to address the challenges those realities offer—no matter how overwhelming and daunting they appear. McClenney observed: “The shared vision of what an institution can become…is most likely to emerge through a shared struggle of faculty, staff, and students; and it is the president who must facilitate this shared struggle” (Roueche, Baker, and Rose 1989, 121).

Another “sharing the struggle” story comes to mind—on a lighter note, but definitely on-target. Bill Segura, President of Texas State Technical College, early on in his presidency, began bringing large contingents of faculty and staff to the NISOD conference in Austin, each May—frequently more than 250 strong. Participants could drive and car pool—a major cost savings. The first year, the cost-saving strategy of having participants “bunk out and bunk together” in dormitories at a nearby college was risky, especially once the group members found themselves sharing un-air-conditioned, fairly cramped sleeping rooms and restroom facilities.

Even the most exhilarating conference experiences would have been hard-pressed to offset the discomfort they experienced with those facilities. At the end of the conference, we learned that

the key to the improbable success of this dormitory adventure appeared to be that the president had bunked out with them; he shared their pain! And, everyone enjoyed their ample opportunities to establish relationships that paid off back at the college.

The offer to “bunk out” at a “real hotel” for the next conference was extended to all, but the offer was declined, according to the president and his leadership team, with an overwhelming and surprising absolutely not—far too much fun hanging out, sharing the struggle with hot summer evenings sans air conditioning, and “making memories” to pass up in the future.

As President of East Campus, Pima Community College District (AZ), Mary Retterer wrote about “some interesting and wonderful results” (2002, 1) of bringing staff members (in addition to faculty and administrators) to the NISOD conference. In her concluding remarks, she observed:

Staff can make or break your college. They often lack the power and voice of faculty and administrators, but neither could function without them. Perhaps the single most significant lesson we have learned from NISOD is the importance not of sending faculty and staff, but of taking them. The time spent with leadership is more important than a hundred presentations. (2)

Leaders are patient and committed to achievement over the long haul. Research data confirm what leaders always have known intuitively—individuals really are hard-wired to resist change. It adds to the already interesting dimension of time in the change process. However, leaders are resolute and patient—they “have learned that the system will respond if they work at it long enough and hard enough; and if this fails to work, they have ideas about rejuvenating the system” (Burns and Sorenson 1999, 330).

In the mid-1980’s, Bob McCabe, President of Miami-Dade Community College (FL), spent extraordinary amounts of time with every academic unit and with every staff group listening and actively involving them in the need and rationale for the development and implementation of more rigorous academic policies and procedures—all intended to keep students from flunking out of school and/or becoming discouraged and quitting. He appealed to their sense of duty, to refuse to be part of the increasing problems of student attrition and poor performance, and be a major part of the solution to improve retention and student success. The policies he proposed were tough and so revolutionary for the time that many in and out of the college spoke out that they would effectively close the open door. However, McCabe was undeterred; he continued to spend so much time over the years talking with faculty and staff members about what were then revolutionary ideas and actions, that when Miami-Dade was recognized for excellence in teaching and learning and McCabe as a national leader in tackling successfully some of the most critical issues surrounding student success policies, many of the faculty members responded to this recognition by saying, “This was a faculty initiative; and fortunately, we were able to enlist administrative support.” Today, he remains a foremost advocate and spokesperson for tough policies in response to the continuing challenges that underprepared students bring to colleges, specifically, and society, generally.

Leadership is most effective when those in the organization take responsibility for goal attainment and assist in devising successful implementation actions. Leaders provide the links that improve communication and allow exchange between individuals to occur (Burns 1978, 20). Simultaneously, they are spokespersons and “silent partners” for change.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, and they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’ (Lao Tzu)

Effective leaders understand that just as there are multiple perspectives of reality, there are multiple ways for achieving any goal. In 2001, James C. Henderson, President of San Juan College (NM), instituted a plan of action for addressing challenges of

the alarmingly increasing numbers of underprepared students. He called for a two-day colloquium, “A Meeting of the Minds” (MOM), about which he later said: “This could be one of those triggering moments in the history of the college that will result in profound organizational change” (Bohman 2003, 1). In preparation for the meeting, MOM, all of the individuals who focused on developmental learning at the college were invited to prepare their “pieces of the puzzle” to bring to the discussion table. They were assisted in their discussions by four prominent researchers and authors in the field. During the colloquium, participants presented relevant background data, reviewed current practices, and then developed a comprehensive list of corrective action items for the coming year. The event was so successful that the participants pushed for another MOM the following year, and MOM has become an annual activity—individuals from across the institution working collaboratively on serious issues confronting the college. MOM II revisited and clarified success data and expanded shared knowledge, as discussions focused on issues in developmental learning that affect content-area instruction. Participants agreed that this unique meeting helped them focus on shared visions based on shared understandings that interdisciplinary dialog facilitates. This unique approach to bringing the best thinking to the table puts responsibility for success at the levels where it is best understood and where important “ownership” of the ideas will increase the chances that new initiatives will be successful.

Leaders are truly effective when they are willing to give others credit for mission accomplishment. Strong leaders have a profound aversion, at least publicly, to the words I, me, and mine. They understand the profound effects of recognizing others’ efforts and that little can be accomplished without the support and hard work of the larger community. They are quick to identify accomplishment and effort; and while they often do so privately, they are always proactive in doing so publicly, at the college and on the larger community, regional, and national stages, as well.

On one especially memorable late-spring afternoon, we watched an unbridled display of collegiality and enthusiasm, as a parade of administrators, faculty, and staff members at Richland College (TX) snaked around the campus. The parade began as a handful of individuals departed from the office of the president, Steve Mittlestet, some cheering, others clapping, many playing small musical instruments. As they passed by offices and classrooms across the campus, other faculty and staff, and a large number of students, joined the parade until the original small band had become a long procession of curious and excited participants. The procession continued around the campus until it stopped at the office door of the Employee of the Month, whose identity was known only to the president, who led the parade. What we had witnessed was but one tradition of recognizing excellence at the college—a mixture of fun, excitement, and, ultimately, intense pride in the good work going on at the college and in the individuals who were doing it.

More than a decade ago, President Ron Horvath of Jefferson Community College (KY) described his penchant for hiring the best of the best. In a presentation before a large contingent of faculty and staff from community colleges around the world, he observed that “at least 50% of the people who work for me are smarter than I am. I honestly believe that…95% (at least) of the good ideas that have produced innovative programs at Jefferson have emanated from our faculty and staff. They are the bright group at the college” (Celebrations 1990, 3). He went on to describe the “You Earn It” award, scholarships to outstanding students in the name of a faculty or staff member who made a meritorious contribution to the college during the previous year. The student and the teacher each receive a certificate indicating that a scholarship is being presented in the name of a particular professor and why.

Over the years we have witnessed a growing interest among community college presidents in accompanying their faculty and leadership teams to conferences where teaching, learning, and leadership excellence are showcased and celebrated. These leaders know that being involved on-site signals their sincere, profound interest in the work their faculty and administrative team members do for the college and how well they do it. Many host special sessions featuring best practices at their institutions, honoring those who have created and implemented those practices, and inviting all conference participants to share in the celebration. Others host receptions for faculty and staff who have received special commendations or awards during the academic year. These presidents make a positive statement about the primacy of the work of others, and many have established notable traditions in their unique celebrations of excellence.

One long-time tradition is an ice cream sundae reception, hosted annually at the NISOD conference by St. Petersburg College (FL) President Carl Kuttler. All SPC faculty and staff attending the NISOD conference are invited to attend; there the president commends their good work, individually and collectively. In this informal setting, colleagues and friends can “savor the flavor” of a successful academic year even better.

Leaders do not have the public luxury of having a bad day or a weak moment when the objective is to keep all eyes focused on the goal. John Gardner once observed that we spend our entire lives thinking about the impact and the influence that others have had on our lives and that it is only when we have reached a significant level of maturity we begin to realize, and thoughtfully consider, the impact we have had on the lives of others

(1990). Several years ago, we heard a college president’s welcoming remarks at a fall orientation for all administrators, staff, and faculty. Among some of his forecasts for the upcoming academic year, he observed that “the glory days of this college are behind it; I haven’t much hope for our future.” Unfortunately, from all we have observed since, his hopelessness appears to have been contagious.

Socrates said, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” In their highly visible roles and with multiple opportunities to have significant impact on the lives of others, strong leaders demonstrate a positive outlook and exhibit unbridled, indefatigable levels of energy and positive attitude, day in and day out. In Ron Horvath’s words, one of his many jobs as Jefferson Community College’s president was to be a “cheerleader for the college.” Other transformational leaders remarked that they strived to exhibit credible behavior and by doing so they discovered that their “enthusiasm for the college is contagious” (Roueche, Baker, and Rose 1989, 233). For leaders, keeping on a positive public face means never getting mired down in the pathology of a bad moment if their objective is to keep morale high and everyone engaged in the effort.

In the process of analyzing research data for Shared Vision: Transformational Leadership in American Community Colleges (Roueche, Baker, and Rose 1989), sense of humor was not identified as a statistically significant personality variable among the presidents highly regarded as outstanding transformational leaders. However, we have observed that self-deprecating humor, in which one laughs at one’s self with ease (with others, but never at others), is a disarming personality trait. And, the ability to laugh easily and sincerely is a complement to any personality. Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, observed: “Laughter is not just a pleasure. It’s a necessity.” We contend that strong leaders understand how necessary it is. Examples abound, but during the national week of mourning for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, scores of supporters and critics alike observed that they were charmed repeatedly by the ease with which he could laugh at himself and in situations that left untended would become overly tense or unnecessarily hostile. Affable, good-natured leaders, who are considerate of others to the extent that they can put them at ease, are able to lower many of the natural barriers to positive leader-follower  relationships.

Leaders instill confidence in others and in their abilities to effect change and provide leadership. “When a resolute fellow steps up to that great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find that the beard comes off in his hand, that it was only tied on to scare off timid adventurers” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.).

Building confidence is not an easy task. Paul Valery’s wry comment that “the future isn’t what it used to be” appears to be confirmed by current concerns about the face of our future. Strong leaders know that people who achieve great things are those who think they can do it and who have confidence that there is a grand future out there waiting in the wings of the present. These leaders must be able to instill that confidence in followers, even in the face of two powerful, yet contradictory realities: positive attitudes about the future and about what one can accomplish are critical to maintaining motivation; and life is hard and nothing is really ever finally safe (Gardner 1990, 193-194, paraphrased). Strong leaders understand that learning to believe in oneself is a confidence building activity.

George McGregor Burns said of Woodrow Wilson that he was a gifted interpreter of the nation’s conscience, that he demonstrated the unique ability to lift a people “out of their everyday selves… and into their better selves” (1978, 462). Leaders are intent on sharpening the cutting edge, in getting faculty and staff involved in living up to their potential. The poet Robert Burns wrote: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/to see oursels as others see us!” While not exactly the observation that Burns was making in “To a Louse”—he was warning us not to be arrogant or too proud, that others have opportunities to see our shortcomings that we do not—we contend that strong leaders often are able to see potential and talent in those who may not recognize it in themselves. Strong leaders acknowledge and often celebrate these positives, in appropriate circumstances; indeed, such recognition is often a catalyst for future and sustained extraordinary effort on the part of the recipient.

Effective leaders demonstrate a high level of trust in others to make good decisions and develop viable actions for implementation of those decisions. As John Gardner so poignantly observed: “In the conventional mode people want to know whether the followers believe in the leader; a more searching question is whether the leader believes in the followers” (1990, 199).

If…people are exceptionally lucky in their mentors, they learn to respect those whom they hope to lead. Leaders, managers and teachers must wage a constant battle within themselves against the impulse to underestimate their people and condescend to them. Condescension does not release energies or stir people to give the best that is in them. (174)

Walter G. Bumphus, as President of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), designed and established the system’s Leadership Development Institute. At the beginning of each academic year, a different cadre of individuals—a mix of faculty and administrators, selected from across the system—meet as a cohort of learners for a week, in a neutral location away from their campuses. In this small-group seminar setting, they learn from national experts who share and discuss current leadership issues, successful programs and strategies, innovations in teaching and learning, and critical related policies in community colleges. The objectives of this institute are to identify and discuss compelling issues and challenges, significant problems and successful responses—essentially, to develop leaders at every level of every institution, by sharing important information, encouraging problem solving, promoting high-quality collaborative efforts, and establishing opportunities for strengthening important relationships among individuals working in and across a large, extremely diverse system.

Clearly, “…teachers and leaders share a trade secret—that when they expect high performance of their charges, they increase the likelihood of high performance” (Gardner 1990, 197). Thus far, the results of this LCTCS initiative have been impressive: Participants describe positive changes brought about by the confidence building experiences of being selected for and then participating in what is rightly regarded as important work; report a developing camaraderie and improved communication with members of their own group, as well as others, from across the system; and describe and document collaborative efforts heretofore unsought and/or unimagined.

An initiative at Iowa Western Community College tied funds to achieving its vision of becoming a more learning-centered institution, with particular interest in expanded opportunities for the professional development of its faculty and staff. When a farm was donated to the college, the College Board of Trustees transferred the farm to the College Foundation with a stipulation that proceeds from the rental of the farm would be used for professional development activities for college employees (and they further stipulated that the farm could not be sold). The plan is to assist employees with achieving their own educational goals by providing them financial support that could not be made with tax dollars—from books and tuition to child care—a unique institutional strategy for investing in its own.

Leaders are biased toward action around shared values, toward problem solving and problem seeking.

Life requires unrelenting effort, a willingness to try—and contrary to a widely held conception, humans are well fitted for the effort. In humans the long process of evolution has produced a species of problem solvers, happiest when engaged in tasks that require not only physical effort but also the engagement of mind and heart. We are not only problem solvers but also problem seekers. If a suitable problem is not at hand, we invent one. Most games are invented problems. We are designed for the climb, not for taking our ease, either in the valley or at the summit. (Gardner 1990, 195)

Biased toward action, strong leaders surround themselves with other individuals who represent the best of that special “species.” Many of the transformational leaders we studied offered a bias toward seeking advice; they observed that the first steps toward problem solving were the calls they made to gather round them a select group of individuals who could best inform them about the problem at hand. In Shared Vision, one college president recalled that asking the advice of Phi Theta Kappa members about important changes to the college catalog was a stroke of genius. Others spoke to their habits of assembling the most appropriate and informed personnel for roundtable discussions about far more serious challenges to their institutions. They were not shy about seeking help and advice; neither were they shy about making the final, obviously more balanced decision. These leaders tapped into this human inclination to problem solve, and they strongly encouraged problem seeking. This inclination to encourage problem seeking led us, understandably, to the question of why, with current problems aplenty, would problem seekers be valuable contributors to colleges’ efforts at mission accomplishment.

At least one response to that challenging question appears to lie in an institutional bias toward achieving a secure future for itself—that is, in a college’s being bold enough to ask: “Are we the best college we can be, and if not, what must we do to be that college?” If the answer is “yes, we are the best college we can be,” then, regrettably, it has reached the plateau that Ed Gleazer warned us about in The Community College: Values, Vision and Vitality. As Gardner observed: “When a golden age subsides, the genetic possibilities in the population have not changed.

The human material remains. But the dream and the drama have ended” (1990, 193). Determined leaders ask, along with Gleazer who warned community colleges against resting on their laurels and taking their ease after a glorious beginning to an important movement: “…how do you get the challenge back into the institution? How do you sharpen the cutting edge (1998, 161)?” We contend that effective leaders understand the disadvantages to any endeavor when, as the dog sled musher observed, “the view only changes for the lead dog.” 

Strong leaders recognize the advantages to the institution of giving staff and faculty multiple opportunities and experiences outside the comforts of their situations by going to see, upfront and personal, the successes of others in similar circumstances. At the Community College of Denver, in addition to the initial “environmental scan” of the college’s service area that led to the annual planning cycle, McClenney established a tradition of

providing opportunities for CCD team members to seek out better strategies for improving institutional performance. One particularly successful strategy, benchmarking, or learning from others’ successes—offered valuable contributions for increasing student retention, improving academic programming, enriching professional development experiences, and expanding applications of instructional technology. Small teams of faculty, administrators, and directors visited colleges recognized for best practices in programs and strategies in areas of special interest, and then used the collected data to benchmark CCD programs.

A second answer to the question of why problem-seekers are valuable contributors to mission accomplishment is that problem seeking identifies not only new problems, but also equally important problems that might go unnoticed by the less-trained eye. Leaders led followers to becoming “good citizens” of their communities. “It is particularly important for leaders to help in restoring the face-to-face community—in the family and extended family, in schools, congregations, workplaces, neighborhoods. That is where shared values are generated, and if they decay that is where they decay” (Gardner 1990, x).

A case in point, in The Company We Keep, Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) (OH) President Jerry Sue Thornton wrote that college teams were encouraged to become good citizens of their communities by conducting needs assessments of the service population, to understand better the complex diversity of the residents and effect change in their service area. The assessments and analysis of findings brought the college into contact with institutions, business, and community resources, opening the door for a diverse array of vital partnerships. The effort also solidified team ownership in responding to community needs, to branch out of their comfortable places within institutional walls. A particularly important partnership emerging from the various analyses is the Center for Applied Gerontology, designed to meet some of the most profound needs of an underserved and fast-growing, aging population. The rewards to CCC have included the establishment of numerous new programs and initiatives, and particularly important to the growth and development of the college, the widespread support of a vocal, organized, and important political and economic force in the Cleveland area.

Painting a Face on the Future

The power of vision is critical to organizational achievement; however, execution is the paramount quality that separates great leaders from daydreamers. There are “many ways to get to heaven.” Our studies of leadership have documented that there are multiple strategies and actions to move organizations forward. Here we have shared a few of those actions that successful leaders have utilized to enhance organizational effectiveness.

We conclude this discussion of vision as a living force in institutions of learning with two observations—the first, from James McGregor Burns, a giant among political scientists and historians whose study and perspectives on leadership have defined and explained the larger issues about leaders and leadership that have intrigued us all for over half a century.

It is the power of a person to become a leader, armed with principles and rising above self-interest narrowly conceived, that invests that person with power and may ultimately transform both leaders and followers into persons who jointly adhere to moral values and end-values. A person, whether leader or follower, girded with moral purpose is a tiny principality of power. In all my observations of men of practical affairs making policy, I remember most vividly a meeting of men of “power” and a quixotic woman who was very much present though not there. She had opposed a construction project that, in her view, threatened environmental and aesthetic damage. Again and again the meeting returned to the question, what would Mrs. Lowell accept? She had armed herself with a moral issue—and with a power base in a band of mobilized followers, that impractical woman had turned out to be practicality itself. (1978, 457)

What a compelling goal and remarkable achievement for any college leader to so transform the culture of his or her institution that when the college addresses its most challenging teaching and learning issues, the quality of the decisions can be judged by how closely they match up to its collective goals, hopes, and dreams.

The second observation is our own. During a recent trip to Florence, Italy, we visited the museum in which Michelangelo’s David is housed. As we made our way to the rotunda where this magnificent sculpture stands, we passed more than a dozen of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. We recalled reading that

Michelangelo literally could see images locked away within the blocks of marble delivered to his studios and that, ultimately, it was his task to make those images visible to others—to bring them to life. Simultaneously, these unfinished masterpieces provided memorable testimony to the power of artistic vision and to the tremendous loss that these unrealized visions and dreams hold for future generations. The completed, magnificent David celebrated one extraordinary achievement, even as it intensified the loss represented by the unfinished others. As we retraced our steps, however, we experienced a heightened interest in “seeing what was not”—in imagining the possibilities.

So, we celebrate the human spirit that wills us to look beyond ourselves to what we might become, and we celebrate leaders as artists who work on their own to tap into that “side of human nature that feeds the will” (Gardner, 1990, 198) and …to bring into play…qualities that mark the species as human and may have helped it to survive…hope in a world that often gives little ground for hope; the quest for justice in a world only fitfully committed to justice; love in a world that is often unlovely and unloving; the hunger to understand things that elude understanding… (199)

Conceptually, it is easy to draw parallels to putting faces on and in our futures in such human-intensive environments as American community colleges; at least, we have found that to be the case here. Transformational community college leaders have so many human stories to tell, and they tell them well. We are reminded of one, in particular. More than a decade ago, Larry Tyree, then Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District and Chairman of the Board of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, challenged an audience of community college presidents to consider some of the more compelling myths of leadership and “to be strong enough and human enough to forego the myths, in favor of the riskier, but more fulfilling, business of being honest with ourselves and others” (1988, 2). He warned that the common leadership myths would “keep us from being truly human…even though it is that sense of humanity which will renew us, will keep us in touch with those we serve, and will ensure that our vision remains vital” (2)—well said and a fitting close.


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About the Authors

John E. Roueche is the Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair in Community College Leadership and Professor and Director of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Suanne D. Roueche is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Administration, and Editor of Publications for the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.

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