Last week I listened to two amazing college and university presidents share their insights with a group of new administrators. Both of these presidents are recognized as forward thinking, innovative leaders who are helping move our system forward despite the chaotic future we face in higher education. As they talked about innovative changes, they both highlighted the importance of understanding the history of their institutions and demonstrating a deep respect for the accomplishments of the past! They also talked about the culture of their institution. Focusing on past history may sound counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if we dig a little deeper.
Innovation requires change. Change requires new ideas, new processes, and new behaviors. All of these things require your people to do things differently. Despite how clear and compelling the reasons leading to change are communicated, we all experience a feeling of loss when we have to give up a piece of our past in order to move forward.
Successful, innovative leaders recognize the importance of the past and are able to honor it and include it in the vision of the future. This is what came through loud and clear in the stories that these two presidents shared with new administrators. They knew they had to truly understand the history of their institutions. More importantly, they know how proud people are of that history and where they fit into it. One president described herself as a social anthropologist working to understand the past before moving forward. To do that she actively seeks out the stories of her people and recognizes the pride in the work that built her institution.
That feeling of pride and commitment to the institution is a strong foundation to build on. Taking the time to listen to your people and understand the culture from their perspective will help you engage and involve them in creating a future that you will all be proud of!