How Christian Women Campus Leaders Navigate Their RolesThese leaders 'know that true control is being able to let go.' Their ultimate goal is organizational success, not self preservation.
For many, the long, dark night of the soul is a familiar companion along life’s journey. Although we seek a spiritual connection with something greater than ourselves, our harried lives leave little time for the contemplation and reflection that could mitigate some of those times.
How many of us would willingly give up the intellectual challenges and social trappings of a successful academic career to focus on our own spiritual growth?
For Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and academic, the desire to have an authentic relationship with God led the former academic of pastoral theology, pastoral psychology and Christian spirituality to step down to work with intellectually handicapped adults. To answer his own dark night of the soul, he gave up 20 years of appointments at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame for something that would unravel his carefully crafted “identity” and disregard his leadership skills.
His new charges didn’t care that he had worked at some of the top schools in the country or had written some 40 books. They only asked “Do you love us enough to come home for dinner?”
Experiencing her own dark night of the soul after the death of her beloved father, Dr. Teri Marcos looked to him and his work for inspiration and solace. “He asked incredible questions,” she said, including “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”
What did she ask?
The outcome of Marcos’s contemplation was her comparative study of Nouwen’s work with her study of the perceptions of 21 women presidents, VPs, provosts, vice provosts and deans whose schools are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).
Founded in 1976, the Council is an association of intentionally Christian colleges and universities with 111 members in North America and 73 affiliates in 24 countries.
Marcos is chair and associate professor in the department of educational leadership at Azusa Pacific University in California. With an enrollment of around 9,000 students, Azusa is the largest member of the Council.
After earning an EdD at the University of La Verne CA in organizational leadership, this former 20-year veteran of the pre-K–12 California education system became an adjunct there in 2003.
During the fall and winter of 2010-2011 Marcos conducted face-to-face or phone interviews to assess the impact of Christian women leaders’ spiritual formation on their current leadership practices. She wanted to discover whether they were formed spiritually as children and as adults by significant Christian people in their lives.
Scheduled at the University of Nebraska’s 25th annual Women in Educational Leadership conference in October 2011, Marcos was unable to appear but discussed her results with WIHE.
Her research questions were grounded in Nouwen’s description of what he saw as the three temptations of Christ: to be relevant, spectacular and powerful. “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all of the glitter of success,” he said.
In her study Marcos wanted to know how the spiritual formation of Christian women leaders reflects in their current leadership practices of decision-making, change, personnel, planning and budgeting and conflict management. She also wondered how they resisted the temptations to be personally relevant, spectacular and powerful in the eyes of those they lead.
What did they say?
Marcos’ interviews with the 21 Christian women leaders produced a 57-page transcript, leading her to observe:
• The path is circumstantial. For women especially, leadership is circumstantial; there’s no clear path. Each leader chooses to take advantage of “an opening or condi- tion” that presents itself at a particular time.
Here Marcos relied on a book by Northwestern University professor of psychology Dr. Alice Eagly, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2007). “How one navigates depends on the chemistry of the organization,” Marcos said.
“For this population, ‘navigate’ means something different for everyone. Our success depends on our authenticity and our ability to navigate whatever labyrinth we’ve inherited or chosen.”
• Balancing person and persona is important. Although they are secure in their personhood, as executives the Christian women leaders must balance job duties and responsibilities that can be inconsistent with how each sees herself.
• Each leader has an internal anchor. Although it’s tempting to “evaluate and secure oneself to the effects of leadership and the success of performance, Christian women in particular seem to recognize the need for an internal anchor,” said Marcos. It acts as a ballast for leadership pressures they often can’t control, helping them to resist the temptations so prevalent in executive positions.
• They tend to hold the position loosely. Christian women leaders believe that “grace and providential circumstances” are the reason they hold their positions, not just their skills and abilities. “They know their identity is not tied to their role but only to the seasons of life,” she said.
• They think in parallel and integrated terms. Theories without practice aren’t useful to these women. They constantly strive to keep a balance between “right thinking, doctrinal orthodoxy and right living” that comes as a result of a “faith well-lived.”
• They are secure in their identity. Although these leaders admit to feeling inadequate or unprepared for the role they find themselves in, they “find refuge and strength in their own identity” no matter what position they hold. They know who they are.
• Surrender is control. When Marcos mentions this finding in her presentations, she sees a lot of raised eyebrows. Believing that they are in the role at that particular time for a reason, these leaders “know that true control is being able to let go.” Their ultimate goal is organizational success, not self-preservation.
• Change is a mosaic. Much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without the completed picture to guide them, Christian women leaders seem comfortable with constant change. They expect it.
Perhaps it’s a female quality, what Marcos calls “broad peripheral vision,” that helps them to accept surprises that come their way and be comfortable with “blurry edges.”
• They embrace appropriate smallness. This finding also often raised eyebrows. “Data are what data are,” she said.
In the Bible appropriate smallness refers to humility before God. This doesn’t mean these women leaders view themselves as less than male leaders; it’s about how they see themselves before God. If they abide by the Great Commandment of loving God and loving neighbor as they all claim, they ask themselves “What does that look like in community?”
The answer is different for every organization but it all boils down to needing to serve. These leaders do it with joy and they’re very successful at it. “Serving is a natural byproduct of humility,” said Marcos. “It’s an automatic response to that Holy Spirit-filled place where these women live.”
Christian women leaders “seem to be able to maintain a relatively low profile when necessary in order for the group to own success,” she said.
• There’s a generational influence in a singular present moment. They share a perspective of timelessness. Christian women leaders are able to link to “the founding spirit” of the school and their own sense of “smallness in the lineage bequeathed them.”
All participants described the “discipline of contemplative prayer” as key to their leadership success, which Nouwen found he lacked time for in the academy, contributing to his decision to step away. They “depend wholly on the Holy Spirit” to help them make it through the day and the challenges that await them.
Every one of their decisions and actions originates from a “Christ-centered view of leadership.” These women leaders see themselves as conduits for Christ’s message and tools for His work. They return to scripture time and again to ground their work.
“There is so much clear information that we know to do that we somehow don’t do,” said one respondent. “We can get so easily distracted by something shiny that’s seemingly a new application or a new idea and miss some of the big ideas that are really there.”
They believe that measuring success by knowing who we are is much more satisfying and rewarding than measuring it through our victories. Relying on something bigger than themselves helps to guide us through life’s challenges.
Do women lead differently? These certainly do.
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, March). How Christian Women Campus Leaders Navigate Their Roles. Women in Higher Education, 21(3), 1-2.