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Commencement Season Should Focus on Success

April 10, 2013

Peggy Kuhr, director, University of Montana
2012-13 ASJMC President

As we approach our programs' season of commencement, many of us find our thoughts focusing on the soon-to-be graduates. Did we offer what they will need to succeed in this changing world? Will they indeed become the leaders of tomorrow? What will that tomorrow look like?

Importantly, that focus is outward and - 'tis the season - it is full of hope and optimism and encouragement. This time of year can be welcome relief from stressful discussions about JMC curriculum, or money, name it!

I think the season of graduation has a lesson for us as deans and directors. As an editor, I used to tell the newsroom that my job was to panic early. We needed to think ahead, be ahead of stories and - when in doubt about what was really happening - get to the scene. As deans and directors, we need to scan the horizon, think constantly about our programs and where they need to be heading, and also respond quickly to crises as they develop. That can mean we wind up focusing on the problem areas: what's not working and how can we improve it?

I propose - in the spirit of the season - turning that around. There’s a body of study in change management and leadership called Appreciative Inquiry. It posits that “Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about,” according to Professor David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University, who’s done founding work in this area.

I often think about that. If we persistently focus on the problem areas, on what’s not serving our students, staff and faculty, we may be keeping ourselves from focusing on stories of success and moving in that direction. Peggy Holman, Seattle-based author of “The Change Handbook,” says this isn't Pollyannaish. Holman, who has worked with many JMC educators and working journalists through such projects as Journalism That Matters, explains Appreciative Inquiry doesn't mean that we dismiss accounts of problems, just that we don’t use them as the basis of analysis or action.

This resonates with me in another way. My dog-eared copy of an old book by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus called “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge,” first introduced me to what they called "the Wallenda factor," named after Karl Wallenda, the great tightrope walker. One key quality that leaders had, Bennis and Nanus said, was they didn't focus on failure, or on what didn't work. The authors' point was that leaders put their energy - as Wallanda had to - on where it counted: walking the tightrope successfully.

After years as the great aerialist, Wallenda fell and died. In their book, the authors quote his widow recalling the preparation for that high-wire walk: “All Karl thought about for three straight months prior to it was falling. It was the first time he’d ever thought about that, and it seemed to me that he put all his energies into not falling rather than walking the tightrope” (1997 edition, pp. 64-65).

For me, the lesson of the tightrope fits with Appreciative Inquiry, and both fit with the commencement season upon us: I invite you to focus on what's working, on your graduating students' successes - and on how you do walk the tightrope of leading JMC programs. Let's share those successes in August in Washington, D.C.!

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