Kappa Omicron Nu
Leadership: An Endless Journey
Julia R. Miller
Dr. Miller is Dean, College of Human Ecology, Michigan State University.
Leadership in higher education has been an endless journey for me, a journey that has included myriad developmental stages and contexts from childhood to adulthood. Along this highway, there have been road signs and compasses that were fundamental in mapping, directing, and pointing out the way in an evolutionary process. As I continue on this endless path of leadership and experience the unfolding of this ever-changing process, it has been important for me to reflect on Abraham Maslow’s differentiation of those individuals who are “actualized” from those who are “actualizing.” The latter, active participants in their evolving world, are building and transforming themselves to reach their maximum potential. Indeed, this distinction characterizes my development as a leader.
Important to this analysis of personal leadership is a position offered by Robert Terry in Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action (1993). Terry stresses the integrative nature of traditional—personal, team, and positional/functional—and provocative—political, visionary, and ethical—views of leadership. An integrative leadership approach prevents isolation and limitation to one or more paradigms because it goes beyond any one school of thought to newer dimensions of the human condition. When I reflect upon Terry’s position in light of my own journey to actualize leadership potential, the major road signs and most powerful compasses directing me have been family and community interactions, informal and formal networks, and workplace environments.
Family and Community Interactions. There is universal agreement that family is one of the oldest forces and strongest influences in forming an individual’s development. Certainly, the impact of family and community were instrumental in my development. The contextual dynamics of these two powerful influences were interwoven with education, religion, culture, racial identity, rituals, beliefs, and values (Miller & Vaughn, 1997).
These forces—social, cultural, environmental—were invaluable in establishing and maintaining my motivation, pride, determination, and the self-assurance that success was achievable. Family and community members were partners in development. Role models existed in both contexts, where the prevailing philosophy affirmed that acceptance of duty could make a difference in life for oneself and others. From these foundations, I could build and cultivate a commitment to action—a drive that is fundamental to leadership.
Informal and Formal Networks. Support networks and mentors have served vital roles for me as I made both personal and professional decisions in the workplace. Often, formal networks were not readily accessible and supportive of my development. In those cases, working in partnership with colleagues, new networks were organized and expanded. This strategy has also been effective in the organization of civic groups to support community efforts.
This creation of informal networks does not imply that more formal avenues, when open to me, were not important. It has been critical to network through professional meetings, conferences, and symposia. These platforms have provided “reality checks” for state-of-the-art issues and direction for exercising leadership. One such platform, a postdoctoral program in educational management at Harvard University, was one of the most significant “points of distinction” in my professional career and offered a most valuable administrative framework. That framework focuses on organizational analysis with four lenses—structural, human relations, political, and symbolic (Bolman and Deal, 1991).
Mentors, both individuals within our profession and friends, have provided invaluable support and wisdom, nurturance, protective and productive strategies, grounding, and priceless experiences. In essence, the people who form these formal and informal networks have served as navigators and a collegial “crew” in charting the course for effective leadership.
Workplace Environments. Overwhelmingly, employment opportunities, regardless of the position, sustained and increased my interest in leadership. In many former positions of employment, I found a nurturing and caring culture and environment. Colleagues embraced and shared ideas and ideals as partners in the development of self, the organization, and the community. Rewards, both tangible and intangible, were inspirational and positive forces that helped cement my leadership potential.
My appointment to the position of leadership that I currently hold was considered to be pioneering. I entered uncharted territory as the first African American female Dean in our profession at a major university with one of the nation’s largest enrollments. I assumed these duties confidently, with pride and self-assurance, because of the past experiences and educational achievements. This position continues to be rewarding and growth-producing, offering a multitude of personal and professional challenges and opportunities.
Today, I look forward to this endless journey of growth and development in leadership as I have in the past, with optimism, courage, adventure, and inspiration—for if one is committed to making a difference in life, the journey will be nothing less than transformative and transcendent.
Terry, R. W. (1993). Authentic leadership: Courage in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miller, J. R., & Vaughn, G. G. (1997). African American women executives: Themes that bind. In L. Benjamin (Ed.), Black women in the academy: Promises and Perils. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Bolman, Lee G., & Deal, T. E. (1991). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.