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Presidents Predict Challenges for 21st Century



What will leadership in the 21st century require? What skills? What networks and resources? A panel of Illinois community college presidents identified their biggest challenge and listed skills leaders will need in the new millennium at the September regional meeting of the American Association for Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC) in Chicago.

The challenge of staying on course

Leading change has been the greatest leadership challenge for Zelema Harris, president of Parkland College. "ItĂs natural for people to fear or resist change, especially when our institutions have operated in a fairly consistent manner over the past two to three decades. As our work becomes more technology-driven, we will see current systems, old hierarchies, and rigid thinking fall by the wayside," she said.

"The challenge for the 21st century leader will be helping her faculty and staff adapt to change and become part of the Šcollective mindworkĂ of the organization." Another challenge for Harris is to lead change in certain areas "where I might be considered a one-issue person ¨ like diversity."

To lead people through change requires a steady hand on the rudder and an eye on the direction and mission of the college. Keeping focused on the mission can be a challenge when technological, political and economic turmoil threaten the status quo.

Some leaders fail to recognize that "so many people in the community college movement donĂt know a thing about the college," Harris said. "TheyĂre clueless about the mission and purpose of the community college," she said, referring to the Truman Commission report that said the "community college was set up to serve the poor and veterans."

On what campus leadership skills are needed now and next, Harris quoted Rosabeth Cantor, who said leaders of the future "can no longer remain insular. Leaders of the past erected walls that they must now replace with bridges." They must partner with others, develop leaders throughout the school, and know as much about the school as possible, Harris said, and "teach an entrepreneurial vision."

A college president in the new century also will need "a clear sense of her own and her collegeĂs values, which will serve as a compass, providing a clear direction, for both the leader and her institution."

Women are well suited to lead, considering their strong collaborative skills. "Women leaders can and should be at the forefront of ensuring that our technology-oriented institutions remain Šhumanized,Ă" she stressed.

Asked what she would have liked to have known before she got to be president, Harris noted, "ThereĂs a set of unspoken beliefs" ¨ for instance, assumptions about how one feels about lesbians and gays. She would have liked to have known in advance about "the kinds of prejudices that exist and continue to exist in programs based on the fact that all are on the same page."

Sometimes leaders become so wrapped up with the minutiae of schools that they lose sight of the mission. "We need to provide nurturing and support for individuals," Harris said. Sometimes a school offers everything "but love and compassion. We need to create opportunities for people to come together."

The challenge of overcoming fear

Margaret Lee, president of Oakton Community College, found it hard to choose a single challenge "because of the scope and pace of change on a planet that is increasingly becoming a worldwide neighborhood."

One challenge she recalls clearly was the atmosphere on campus after a faculty member found what appeared to be a ticking bomb in a central stairwell. Almost a dozen more bomb threats occurred in the next three months. "People lived in fear," Lee said. "We were being terrorized." Lee learned to provide steady reassurance to the campus community, and eventually the threat passed.

Her greatest personal fear? "As a new president, I was scared of fundraising."

Storytelling solved her problem. "I think the presidentĂs role is chief storyteller," she said. "When I told the story of the work of the college ¨ how it has changed peopleĂs lives ¨ I found people were fascinated and ready to open their wallets. Stories help us understand the mission and values we share. Stories inspire and motivate." The most powerful stories are about students whose lives have been changed by the community college. "Stories remind us of the importance of the work we share," she said.

Lee listed a "constellation of skills" useful to 21st century leaders: Imagining the future, thinking anew, welcoming change, fostering innovation and creativity, enabling others, celebrating difference, creating communities, caring intensely about people, compelling trust and always learning more.

The challenge of bringing people together

When taking over the presidency at Lake Land College, Robert Luther faced major challenges ¨ including red ink, a 20-day faculty strike, a declining enrollment base and a deteriorating infrastructure, having no new buildings constructed since the 1970s.

But an even greater challenge was the lack of teamwork in addressing these crises. "The leadership team was not cohesive; neither was the board," Luther reported. "It took a great deal of persuasion to bring people and goals together as president."

He said a successful 21st century leader would: Maintain commitments, demonstrate integrity, be a people person, understand the organization, have a great deal of curiosity, show superior judgment, know who they are and what they stand for, have no fear of confrontation, inspire confidence, listen to others, have a vision, allow people to take risks, trust the talents of others, be a collaborator and diminish the competition within the college, such as student services versus academic services.

Finally, "a successful leader must always keep the end in mind," Luther advised. "Ask yourself whatĂs in the best interest of the student." It may be difficult, but perhaps a faculty member whoĂs always had the same office hours or taught the same classes will need to change.

The challenge within

As the new president of Illinois Valley Community College, Jean Goodnow faced many challenges. The district was proud not to have raised the tax levy in 30 years. But she said her biggest challenge was "to model a set of leadership principles ... to mobilize people to create an energized learning community" there.

"One of the most important things is to know yourself," she said. A leader must achieve results, act with integrity and demonstrate concern. Other attributes she listed: Excellent communication skills, the ability to be assertive with people at all levels and treat them the same, problem solving, community building, as well as the ability to motivate others by encouraging, praising and criticizing (not to mention providing energy, staying positive and demonstrating an "abundance mentality"), and a true passion for serving students.

At this point a listener deadpanned: "Jean, how do you get that passion?" Goodnow said sheĂd found humor and the ability to tell stories helped connect people and get the point across. But learning this skill wasnĂt easy.

Another question was on how to prioritize tasks. Lee admitted, "The flood of paper across my desk is overwhelming. But I put people before paper because paper will always wait."

Harris tries to ask: "Is it good for Parkland? Is it good for me?" Still, she has "a tendency to say yes to everybody and then I spread myself too thin."

A final question: "How do you move people forward?"

"We are constantly educating and teaching," said Goodnow, who tries to give people opportunities for success outside of the box, tough challenges which she introduces as "a new opportunity to grow."

Luther walks through the buildings each day to "listen, persuade and involve people. You have to show your people that you care about them. I sit behind the buildings with the custodians, too. They have ideas and information as well."

¨Doris Green

Zelema Harris, Parkland College (217) 351-2231.
Margaret Lee, Oakton Community College (847) 635-1801.
Robert Luther, Lake Land College (217) 234-5222
Jean Goodnow, Illinois Valley Community College (815) 224-2720

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