Last month, College Park Scholars Executive Director Marilee Lindemann was inducted into the Sigma Circle of ODK. She was asked to speak on her leadership philosophy at the induction ceremony. The following is an edited version of her remarks:
Congratulations to my fellow inductees. I’m honored to stand with you and humbled to have been asked to speak to you. I hope it won’t disappoint you to hear that I don’t have a grand, well-researched theory of leadership to offer you this afternoon. I’m also going to try to resist giving you advice, because you are all individuals of significant accomplishment. You’ve made a mark and figured a lot of things out already. Meanwhile, I can’t remember what my Myers–Briggs personality type is or the leadership style that supposedly goes along with it, so, instead of theories or advice, I’m going to offer something rather modest. I’d like to share a few reflections on a practice of leadership that I admire and aspire to in my own work. It’s a leadership practice I not too facetiously refer to as Badass Incrementalism. Permit me to explain.
I’ve spent my whole career on university campuses, trying to produce positive institutional change. For many years, that meant working to create space for the new knowledges produced by and about women and LGBT people in the wake of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last four years, it has meant working to make College Park Scholars a dynamic and fully inclusive community in which all students can thrive.
Fairly conservative places
For all the talk about left-wing radicalism on college campuses, universities are actually fairly conservative places in that they are slow to change and in some ways resistant to doing so. That’s partly because universities are large bureaucracies and resources are limited, but it’s also because academic norms of self-governance and peer review mean that proposals for any kind of change or new endeavor go through lengthy and careful scrutiny. Ideas get reviewed committee by committee, level by level, making their way up the food chain, often changing significantly along the way, until finally the last T is crossed and the last I is dotted and white smoke appears from Main Admin and—voila!—you’ve got yourself a program!
It took close to five years for the LGBT Studies Program to make its way through this process. For the group of faculty and staff who crafted and re-crafted the proposal and shepherded it through the process, badass incrementalism wasn’t just a style of leadership; it was a survival strategy. Our badassery made us strong. We had a bold idea and training in cutting-edge academic fields that were transforming our understanding of human beings and the socio-cultural systems of sex and gender. We felt unstoppable.
But our incrementalism was just as important. It made us patient, persistent and careful when care was needed. We didn’t lose our cool when we were asked for the third or fifth or tenth time where the line was between education and advocacy when it came to LGBT Studies. On such occasions, I would smile politely and defuse the tension by pointing out that my colleagues back in the English department were proud advocates of Shakespeare.
People used to ask me if homophobia was the reason it took so long to get the program approved, and I said I didn’t think so. Change happens slowly on campus. There are a lot of hoops to jump through even if the change you’re proposing isn’t perceived as controversial. I respect that kind of conservatism, actually, because I think our ideas should be able to withstand challenge and rigorous scrutiny. Incrementalism may take time, but it tends to produce lasting change because it relies on collaboration. It builds buy-in from stakeholders because it builds relationships. Relationships matter in large, complex institutions.
A splash or a difference?
Badass incrementalism has served me well during my time at Maryland, but I didn’t consciously think of it as my official style or practice of leadership until recently when I was working with one of our amazing student leaders in Scholars who was embarking on a big campaign to raise awareness about an important issue on campus. Late on a Friday afternoon in my office, we fell into an intense conversation about strategy, specifically about the kind of rhetorical strategy that would launch the campaign. The student was inclined to go in a provocative direction and to take a somewhat adversarial stance toward the campus administration.
The badass in me understood the impulse, but the incrementalist was concerned. What might such a strategy produce? It might get attention, but it might also undermine prospects for constructive dialogue with higher-ups. Would it likely create the conditions for the kinds of changes the student was seeking?
As we talked, a question popped into my head. I put it to the student: Do you want to make a splash, or do you want to make a difference? The question was clarifying, for me and for the student.
Do you want to make a splash, or do you want to make a difference? That’s really a way of asking, What kind of leader do you want to be? The means you use will shape the ends you achieve. Empathy for your adversaries will carry you further than disdain or contempt. Bear in mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s third principle of nonviolence: “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.” My student, a deeply caring individual, quickly got the point. The campaign launched, with rhetoric that was powerful but in no way hostile, and I’m proud to say that it has already led to positive, concrete changes on our campus.
Seizing the moment
Badassery works in every situation, but I want to conclude by acknowledging that incrementalism isn’t always the best or even an appropriate strategy for producing change. Sometimes patience is a luxury one can’t afford, because circumstances demand immediate, vigorous action. Impatience in the face of great injustice, of what Dr. King described as “the fierce urgency of now,” is justified and necessary.
Leadership in such circumstances is not about jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop. It’s about seizing the moment and demanding change, about refusing to wait or to cooperate with those who would counsel moving slowly through proper channels. We have a great recent example of the power of impatience in the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who, in just over 5 weeks, “went from experiencing a mass tragedy to launching a mass movement” (CNN) in support of gun control. They recognized the opportunity presented by the moment, seized it and rode it as if it were a wave. They embraced and inhabited the fierce urgency of now.
Patience or impatience, incrementalism or swift action: Effective leadership requires knowing which to use in any given situation and finding ways to inspire and empower others to join in the work of creating change. And work it is, my fellow Terps—the most challenging, gratifying, frustrating, joyous work you will ever be called to do.
May your badassery serve you well every step of the way, making you brave, audacious and willing to take risks—but also clever enough to choose wisely among the tools, tactics and strategies available to you. The means you use will shape the ends you achieve. Dream big. Work hard. Choose kindness. Look for the good in everyone around you. Oh, and wear something shiny. That way you stand a chance of making both a splash and a difference. Thank you and good luck.