Inspiration and culture

By guest blogger John Kearns

Leaders in higher education lead by fiat at their own peril. So when they want to shape the culture of an organization such as a college or university or system, they need to do a lot of persuading. There’s an art to persuasion in the western tradition that goes back to Aristotle, who said there were three things you have to do if you want to persuade people to follow you. You have to prove you’re worthy of being followed. You have to convince people that your way is the right way. And you have to make people feel something.

I’ve written a lot of speeches over the past decade – for myself when I was a dean and provost, and more recently for higher education chief executives – at a time when we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the need to change. Leading today in an academic setting is all about shaping a new organizational culture. But our leaders – especially those who come from the academic ranks – tend to be more comfortable proving their worth (i.e., the verbal résumé) and stating the facts that prove they’re right (i.e., the verbal graph). That’s because bona fides and facts are the main things valued in academic research. Making people feel all the feels? Don’t be ridiculous!

I’m not saying proving your worth and establishing your facts aren’t important. They’re extremely important and a leader’s communication must include them. But organizational culture is ultimately something that’s experienced, that’s felt. Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is all about reminding us that leaders are much more likely to succeed in shaping an organization culture when they can explain WHY. For Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, WHY means Why we do what we do and Why we care about providing access to all Minnesotans.

But WHY also explains WHAT we do. We prioritize access: That’s why we have 54 campuses in 47 communities across the state where students from every walk of life come to learn. We protect affordibility: That’s why we don’t set tuition according to what the market will bear. We’re growing the pipeline of future college students: That’s why we work with public schools to redesign the transition from high school to higher education. And we want Minnesota communities to prosper: That’s why we graduate people in every profession, from nurses to mechanics to teachers and more.

Once an audience understands why, they’re ready to hear about what needs to happen.

John Kearns is the Senior Writer, Executive & Strategic Communication for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Todd Thorsgaard

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