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Servant Leadership: Making Unpopular Decisions

April 11, 2017

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

Image courtesy of Wikiart, Nicholas Roerich (Laozi, 1924)

The countdown begins. As of this writing, I have 41 days 4 hours and 23 minutes left before I step down as director of Iowa State’s Greenlee School and go on sabbatical, returning to my professor and writer roots. Beginning May 15, I will make decisions that affect my own career instead of everyone else’s.

Yes, there is a sense of relief. Look at the painting above depicting my role model, the 4th Century Chinese philosopher Tao Te Ching (Laozi or Lao Tzu) in his slow oxen ride into the camouflage of nature. For a time, I will disappear and am glad for it.

This is only the first week in April and already this year I have made four unpopular decisions that will benefit others and the School in the long term. That’s what you do as an administrator. You place others before yourself.

I can’t tell you what those decisions were, of course. That’s confidential and not the point of this post. If you are an administrator, or aspire to become one, you must elevate the interests of your colleagues’ and constituents’ over your own. Sometimes that entails discipline. Sometimes it involves policy. Often it is about budget and what you can or cannot do or allow.

Don’t get me wrong: As a chair, director or dean, many decisions are easy, especially if you are blessed, as I am, with collegial and exemplary employees. At Greenlee, they are so talented as advisers, instructors and researchers that I tell them I am not stepping down in May, but stepping up to their standards.

Here’s the thing, though: You should not be an administrator if you crave an academic title, higher salary or some other self-serving goal. Higher education has plenty of administrators who are doing that already. Most of them typically do not last very long in the same institution. They switch jobs and leave muddles for those who succeed them.

I’ve been in this position for 14 years. I consider myself a servant, not a director. My goal is to leave as few muddles as possible for my successor, Angela Powers, who takes over this summer. I hope to make it to the finish line, knowing anything can happen in the meantime.

Today in the break room I received the ultimate compliment from one of my colleagues. She asked what was I working on today, and I told her “difficult and unpopular decisions” in anticipation of this post.

Again, I didn’t divulge any other information. In response, she said, “That’s what we admire about you. We have no idea of any discord or problem in the School.”

It was not always the case when I first become an administrator in 1996 at Ohio University. Gradually, you seek out role models and learn, as I have.

If you get an email from me, you will see that I also have a Chinese name, given to me years ago by my friend and colleague, Associate Professor Gang Han: Bai Chee Mai. He named me after Li Bai (aka Li Po) because I so admired that 8th century poet. “The last name, Bai, sounds very similar to the first syllable of your last name,” Han said. “It is also the given name of Li Po, one of your favorite poets. Bai has the connotation of purity, as it literally means the color white. It may be coincidental, but the last name of many famous Chinese writers is Bai as well.”

I cherish that name for many reasons but mostly because it segues into my leadership beliefs shaped by Tao Te Ching who wrote: “The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist. The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.” Such a leader praises colleagues with simple, frequent affirmations so that they say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”

If you want to see what the faculty and staff do at Greenlee each month, access this link to their achievements on our public website. We send out monthly email blasts titled “Good News from Greenlee,” and our alumni and benefactors say, “Amazing!”

If you can create a culture of contribution, as I have tried to do here, you will leave office grateful for your colleagues and, perhaps, relieved for yourself. I know full well that during my last days as director—even up to the last hour—I may be called upon to make more difficult, unpopular decisions for the good of the Greenlee School.

Chinese philosophers and writers often make their final points with a poem, as I will here, with one of my favorite Li Bai poems, “Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly”:

Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real—the butterfly or the man?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Soon returns to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil,—what for?

Tao Te Ching would say, “For others.”

Li Bai would say, to become that man at the green gate.


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