May 2011, Volume 24, Number 5
Editor's note: This encore issue of Leadership Abstracts was first published in August 2008.
by Alice W. Villadsen
I recently sustained a stress fracture in my right foot and am in the dreaded black boot. My activities have been limited. No more tennis or golf. Seriously reduced and illegal driving. No long treks through airports, hikes on rocky trails, or walks on the beach. (That last one really hurts because I live on the beach in my retirement.) The radical change in my behavior has resulted in a couple of newly found pounds, and I suspect that I will find a partially atrophied foot due to its protective covering, but not all of the change is bad. I have reduced my stack of “must reads” significantly; watched two versions of Pride and Prejudice; learned a new hobby of card making and the beginnings of hand quilting; and I have enjoyed the enforced quiet times. Several evenings and afternoons have been spent really talking and listening to friends, sitting on the porch alone with the sounds of nature, and writing. Like this.
A stress fracture is an interesting injury. It’s an “incomplete fracture” in the bone, typically in weight-bearing bones of the legs or feet, and is caused by repeated overuse, not a “solitary, severe impact.” It causes pain with use, especially with weight-bearing use. The treatment, of course, is taking the weight off the break through rest for three weeks and then four to eight weeks of reduced use until there is no pain with use. I am to begin to use the affected area again gradually.
I have been thinking of life in community colleges, particularly for administrators who never really go off the clock. No enforced black-boot wearing for us. Even summertime is often the busiest time of year when things are gearing up for fall semester: when plans for fall conferences and verification of speakers and workshops are finalized; when early registration is occurring; when a review and update of the annual plan are done; when snapshots of last year’s student success data and a review of longitudinal research are completed; when new fact book inclusions are added and proofed; and when retreats and advances are held to ensure that a solid decision is made about what new college actions should take priority in the coming year. New faculty and staff are oriented; student workers are recruited and trained; the college facility is made ready for fall.
The community college itself seems incapable of black-boot restraints regardless of the season. Coaching four Achieving the Dream colleges has kept the constancy of our work in the front place of my brain. Our roles as coaches are to keep the participating colleges focused on the important work of improving student success, particularly their progress through developmental education, into and through gatekeeper courses, and to graduation, completion, or successful transfer. We also encourage the serious collection and analysis of institutional data to improve college decision making. Achieving the Dream colleges are dedicated for five years to work on a specific set of plans to improve student achievement. With coaching visits, a yearly strategy institute, online resources, and the natural pressures we place on ourselves to compete well with our peer institutions, the Achieving the Dream colleges voluntarily pack their institutional lives with deadlines and expectations of data-supported improvement. The colleges are at different points in the five-year cycle, some entering their fifth year while others are only completing their first or second year. But all are moving swiftly to implement actions to improve student success.
And for all colleges, we are in constant motion, striving to improve, dealing with the pressures of falling revenue and growing enrollments, or nursing shortages, or community demands. Accreditation visits are always just around the corner, and new ways to prove institutional effectiveness are there to learn and implement. Additional pressures to ensure campus safety through emergency contingency planning must be done, and expectations from local communities continue to grow.
As the pressures mount on college leaders, there seldom seems time even to take a deep breath, much less sit on the porch with our metaphoric foot in a black boot. Yet deep inside ourselves and often on the lips of overworked staff and veteran faculty, we hear, “We are doing too much. We need a break. We have too many initiatives to even keep track of, much less to implement.”
Having been a president myself, it may be easier for me to say this than it would have been to do it if I were still at Brookhaven College in Dallas. But maybe it’s time for a black boot. I believe that leaders in community colleges need to be sensitive to the life realities of stress fractures within organizations. Our own effectiveness is hampered when we have undetected needs for rest. The body will have its way, with the organization’s symptoms sometimes being loss of enthusiasm for the work, or fewer volunteers for projects, or semi-rebellion among our most loyal faculty and staff. Mistakes begin to happen, made by excellent employees who simply have more to do than they can accomplish. Absenteeism and illness increase. Even hospitalizations can be an organizational symptom of stress. Many of us remember the information systems conversions that we undertook in preparation of Y2K and the resignations and personnel crises that resulted. Organizational stress can cause people to quit or take other jobs and relocate. What would typically be small issues become constant irritants, and compromises seem impossible.
Anthony Zeiss, President of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, told me recently that it took a valued assistant to get his attention by saying, “We have to stop. We cannot continue to do more and more. We are all exhausted.” He listened and realized that presidents sometimes expect the same energy level and commitment from others in the organization that they have themselves. Since “work is not work” to Zeiss but joy, he had to put himself in the place of others in the organization. He learned to say “no” for the health of his organization. Jackson Sasser, President of Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, indicated that symptoms of stress can include the organization becoming hugely preoccupied with one issue, centered on the passion of one individual. That passion, and the look in her eyes, cued him that solving one issue could reduce stress for the whole organization, so he moved the issue to the top of his agenda for solution. Paul Brown at Zane State Technical College in Zanesville, Ohio, realized that he was expecting too much from just a few employees and decided to try and bring more hands to the tasks.
Within the aggressive achievement environment, leaders can push folks beyond their limit. While a leader may thrive on achievement, he or she must ask the question, “At what cost to this organization and these valued people?” When the leader and the college become driven rather than planful and purposeful in selecting appropriate priorities and actions at the college, the stress can overwhelm the college. Leadership is required sometimes to say, stop! This is enough work for one year. Let’s not go for that grant opportunity or volunteer our college for the state pilot site. It is sometimes through forced black-boot wearing that our hearts and minds are freed for renewed creativity. It is while seated on the porch that an idea for solving a complex problem is able to pop.
As colleges and leaders examine the issue of stress within their organizations, they may discover what I did while wearing a black boot for a while. I found these approaches worked my cure.
- Sitting rather than running. Give faculty the time to actually concentrate their energy on the job of teaching, preparing, getting to know their students, grading and evaluating; give administrators the time to complete the tasks of orienting, of assessment of programs and personnel, of compiling data to aid them in making wise decisions; give staff the time to catch up and catch their breath from the constancy of advisement, applications, transcripts, and reporting.
- Absorbing rather than radiating. The time to read and reflect on work and relationships provides the de-stressing that results often in a calmer work environment. Encouraging your college to participate in activities like Parker Palmer’s Teacher Formation circles, the study of Appreciative Inquiry, or a locally designed book club are purposeful ways to slow down the organization and redirect energy toward listening and thinking.
- Pondering rather than fixing. When you are incapacitated through injury or overwork, you can move away from the necessity to be always fixing things, tidying up. Instead, you can develop some patience and wisdom to understand other ways of being or doing. You have time to “turn to wonder” as Parker Palmer teaches us, and discover new insights through your seeming inactivity. The joy of the workplace can reappear if we give it time to emerge.
- Listening rather than talking. All of the presidents and vice presidents with whom I spoke about the issue of institutional stress noted the importance of listening to the voices within the organization. Listen for truth. Listen for passion or the lack of passion. Listen for frustration. The employees of our organizations want to please presidents, vice presidents, and deans with their work. When stress limits their abilities to do that solid work, then fracture is a likely result.
A favorite president of mine was a man whom I would sometimes see sitting at his desk, all alone, hands folded, eyes ahead. I would say to him, “James, what are you doing”? And he would say, “Thinking, AV. Thinking.” The black boot of institutional pause is a good thing. According to the material I have read about stress fractures, once the time of resting is complete, a gradual return to action results in stronger bones and a careful attention to the future possibilities of overuse. Even the most fit among us have to hang it up now and then, you know.
Alice W. Villadsen is President Emeritus at Brookhaven College in Dallas, Texas. The author thanks these friends and colleagues for their wise sharing: Anthony Zeiss, President of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jackson Sasser, President of Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida; Paul Brown, President of Zane State Technical College in Zanesville, Ohio; John Flynn, Vice President of Montgomery College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania; and James Chasteen, President Emeritus of Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.