I strive to be a strengths-based leader, focusing on the strengths of individuals on my team and utilizing those strengths in our collaboration. This strengths-based approach is especially important when supervising student workers to encourage growth and development in a positive environment. However, I also want to be a supervisor that professional staff members enjoy working for because I value development, so strengths-based leadership is vital when working with all types of staff members. In my first term, I completed the educator training for Gallup’s StrengthsQuest. My experience in educator training provided data showing that supervisors who focus on their employees’ strengths in assigning tasks and providing feedback are more likely to have engaged employees (Gallup, 2004). This drastically changes when supervisors focus on weaknesses and especially shifts when they ignore employees (Gallup, 2004). Coming from a nurturing place, it is important to me to inspire my staff to develop professionally and personally. If I am able to communicate the purpose for our work and motivate my staff with that purpose in mind, while trusting in their strengths and abilities, I believe that our work will flourish. This kind of leadership can also be termed synergistic supervision, which is a style of supervising that is collaborative, focused on communication and trust, and one that encourages professional development in order to meet both the needs of the individual and the organization (Carpenter & Stimpson, 2007).
However, I also borrow from arts-based methods to inform my leadership style. The business world has been borrowing from the arts for decades, using the methods and structures of creating collaborative art as a framework for collaboration and innovation in other fields. Because of my background in theatre and creative writing, I have first-hand experience in the activity of artists. I know that the more I am able to infuse artistic practice into my work in higher education, the happier I will be. Therefore, as part of my work in Organization and Administration, AHE 558, I investigated arts-based leadership styles and methods for leading others. Ibbotson and Darsø (2008) used the methods of theatrical directors and rehearsal as a model for inspiring innovation in the workplace by examining the concept of creative constraints. Taylor and Ladkin (2009) agreed that arts-based management could offer much to the workplace and identified four processes that support utilizing various methods to inspire intended outcomes: skills transfer, projective technique, illustration of essence, and making. Austin and Devin (2003), in their book, Artful Making, compared the work of a theatre company to a software company in order to analyze similarities and differences and to borrow innovative techniques from theatre. Csikszentmihalyi (2003) developed the concept of “flow”, a state of being associated with engagement and performance, as well as happiness. He suggested ways in which leaders can create a workplace that encourages “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).
In my personal leadership style, I borrow from the theatre, in that I allow my staff to work freely, develop their own skills and capitalize on their own strengths, but all within creative constraints. Creative constraints, as I understand them from my experience in theatre, are the limits within which artists are able to play. Without limits, art and especially collaborative art, is very difficult. There are too many possibilities, and artists can get stuck in an exploratory or introductory phase. However, limits give the mind, heart, and spirit a place from which to begin and a sense of boundaries that inspires creative play and innovative thinking. As the director, or the leader or supervisor, I pay close attention to the work being done; I offer appropriately timed feedback, often immediate; and I maintain an understanding of the whole system so that my staff does not have to, and they can focus on their individual roles within the system (Ibbotson & Darsø, 2008).
The arts can be used in higher education leadership in order for staff to gain skills in creativity, reveal thoughts and feelings about the purpose of our work that conventional industrial-style leadership overlooks, boil down a complex idea or process to its essence, and foster connections between leadership and staff that provide healing and cohesion (Taylor & Ladkin, 2009). These processes can be useful especially when reevaluating a mission statement or creating a vision for an organization.
As a leader in higher education that aspires to employ arts-based methods, I maintain a position of authority while providing release to my staff. This release is a type of loose control. I guide my staff through the work they do, yet allow them to do it by trusting in their ability and the process (Austin & Devin, 2003). I lead through collaboration and conversation to re-conceive the work each time we examine it, encouraging all voices to be present. It is also important that we create an ensemble, so that each member of the team understands her or his role, by contributing to a process that is more than the sum of its parts (Austin & Devin, 2003). Finally, as a leader in higher education, I find it imperative that my staff understands and engages in play. Play inspires creative solutions, focuses on process not product, and shifts us away from the industrial model of rigid plans and goals toward flexibility and improvisation (Austin & Devin, 2003). In this increasingly complex world, plans reduce complexity and can get in the way of reacting to change quickly and effectively. I think this problem is particularly grave in higher education, as it seems that we often stick to plans even when circumstances change because we have invested time or money or psychic energy into a particular program or idea. However, that program or idea, within new circumstances, may not be the best way to meet the needs of our students and the other stakeholders in our communities. This does not mean that we should not make plans or have goals, simply that we also need to practice adaptability and improvisation.
According to Csikszentmihalyi (2003), we can encourage “flow” in the higher education workplace by making sure staff members understand that their health and well-being, as well as their personal growth, is of our department’s concern. We need to laugh and have fun together, in addition to clarifying our mission and vision and offering constructive and immediate feedback. In order for “flow” to occur, staff must also be challenged, in a way that matches their skill level. Finally, staff members should have the opportunity to concentrate on the work they do. Constant interruption can disrupt potential “flow” for employees.
As a leader in higher education supervising students or professional staff, I care for my employees. We will accomplish more together if we care for each other. This care is definitely something I borrow from my personal experiences in the collaborative arts. If any one person in a show is not contributing in a full and actualized way, the entire production suffers. This is true of ensembles in higher education as well. I hope I am able to develop into a leader that inspires and manages people with the level of skill that the excellent theatre directors I have had the privilege to work for as an actor exhibited.