I am relatively new to higher education, having started this career in 2012, but I am not new to the study and application of leadership. Before beginning my journey in higher ed, I spent 21 years as an officer in the United States Army, where I was exposed to and implemented various styles of leadership that helped shape the type of leader I am today. Moreover, while a great many of these lessons were passed down from other members of the military, the most powerful ones were learned from a grizzly sow and her three cubs during my first assignment in Alaska.
We have an expression in the Army that goes something like “No kidding, there I was, minding my own business when all of a sudden….” We typically use this expression as an introduction to a story that involved our participation in some event that went horribly wrong, was occasionally caused by our own actions, but has a certain amount of humor in it. In my case, I was in the middle of the Alaskan tundra, minding my own business and looking for my next point on a land navigation course. While I mostly knew where I was, more or less, I definitely felt pretty good about where I was headed, with only a slight degree of uncertainty.
I paused to check my compass and map, and again, while still minding my own business, I heard what sounded like a large dog panting off in the distance. Thinking it odd that a dog would be out for an afternoon stroll when the nearest house was about 50 miles away, I turned to greet my new companion in the hopes that he possessed some instinctual tracking skills that would help me reestablish my exact location. Instead of meeting a playful pup, a very large grizzly sow came crashing through the wood line. Initially, I thought she was just out stretching her legs and that maybe she didn’t see me; I was, after all, wearing camouflage. That brief glimmer of hope lasted about a half-second as she immediately adjusted her course and headed straight for me.
My initial impression of the bruin was that she was a magnificent creature. As she closed the distance between us, I could literally see the massive muscles in her shoulders ripple with every strike of her noticeably huge paws. I was truly in awe of her and the power that she was radiating with every step. As the thoughts of massive muscles and radiating power echoed through my head, they were quickly replaced with the thoughts of pain and suffering that were yet to come.
Recalling a briefing from the previous day on what to do during a bear encounter, I froze in place, my compass still in my outstretched hand as I attempted to make myself blend in with the surrounding trees. In one of those rare occasions where a military briefing actually contained useful information, freezing in place worked. The bear did not run into me, but instead brushed up against my leg and went past me. Unfortunately, she must have caught my scent and felt my body as she brushed against me, as she suddenly stopped running. She immediately turned around at the same time I was turning to keep her in my sight. She sat down and we were close enough to each other that I could hear her sniff the air and see her squint her eyes as she moved her head back and forth to locate me.
The bear and I gazed at each other for what seemed like hours, though I suspect it was only a few seconds. I started to believe that she was going to grow bored and move on when I heard more noise coming from behind me. Thinking it was her mate, I made the mistake of turning around to see who was joining us. I remained on my feet long enough to see three little cubs come bounding up and park themselves against a nearby log. This put me in the worst place to be in nature: a tiny speck of a human between a mama bear and her cubs.
Immediately after her cubs sat down, I was knocked to the ground and mama proceeded to pick me up in her mouth and slam me back to the ground, repeating this cycle over and over again. Having failed in my efforts to remain motionless, I found it much easier to play dead. This was not due to any extraordinary discipline on my part and was in fact surprisingly easy with 600-pounds of raging muscle crammed into six feet of angry bear who was calling the shots.
Though this is a rather long story, it serves as a significant event in my life that taught me four key tenants that are the basis of my leadership style.
Treat people with respect. I have experienced life at the bottom of the food chain, and it is unpleasant. In my 20+ years of military service and subsequent career in higher education, I have achieved a fairly high position of authority, and it is sometimes easy to forget those who are just starting out and are at the bottom. I strive to listen to them and give them the respect they deserve. I remember what it was literally like to have a 600-pound bear on my back, and I don’t want to become that bear.
Exercise patience. By staying in place and resisting the urge to run, I initially led the bear to run past me. Had I remained motionless when her cubs arrived, I may have avoided the attack. It is sometimes best to calmly evaluate a situation before running into it blindly. While we all have deadlines that must be met, how many failures could have turned into success had we taken the time to critically analyze the task put before us? The lack of patience often leads to my next point regarding overreacting.
Don’t overreact. There is a saying in the Army: the first report is always wrong. In my case, I was flown by helicopter from the land navigation course to the hospital. Somehow the emergency room doctors were told that my arm was severed, and I was heading into the bright light in the sky. They actually seemed disappointed when all I had to offer them were puncture wounds and scratches. I now accept that the first report is usually wrong, and it is best not to overreact and jump to hasty conclusions based on this. How many times have decisions been made based upon immediate reactions from unverified sources and how many times have these decisions been detrimental to the organization or the people that are the heart of the organization?
Stuff happens. A very important lesson. Except for my turning around, I did everything right that day, yet I still ended up face down in the dirt. Sometimes things just go wrong and a good leader understands that and accepts it. A better leader plans for unforeseen events and attempts to construct alternative solutions. I strive for this, though it is difficult to obtain. A favorite quote of mine is “Failure is not a failure. Failing to try again is.” Punishing people for honest mistakes destroys morale and breaks trust that is very difficult to rebuild.
I don’t believe that any of these four points are particularly new or unique; it has just been my experience that they are easily forgotten. How often do we as leaders get caught up with the stressors of our own lives and we forget those we are responsible for? I would be lying if I said that it is always obvious to me when my team members are struggling in their job and look to me for assistance and some relief. It is all too easy to get lost in our own internal struggles and demands. Listening to their concerns and doing what we can to relieve some of those burdens is one of our most important, and challenging responsibilities as leaders.
I was fortunate that during my undergraduate years I was able to find a career that was both enjoyable and paid the bills. I try and remember this every day and when things are a little rough, I remind myself of just how good I have it and present that image to the people I work with. I have seen the detrimental effects of leaders who are unhappy in the workplace and how their feelings negatively affect the morale of employees. As leaders, we are given the gift of developing those on our team and helping them discover and grow the potential that they may not know exists within them. Let’s not be the bear that slams them down into the dirt.