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What I am Working on Today: Composure and Professionalism

September 27, 2016

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


This has been a typical day at Iowa State’s Greenlee School, which entails grace under pressure, especially during transitional periods at home and at work.

I have been an administrator for 20 of my 37 years in higher education, but I do still remember my professorial days when I could handle a number of personal and academic matters at a pace aligned with my emotions. True, there were days when deadlines caused havoc; but those were relatively rare, and disruptions usually happened by accident on an irregular basis. Point being, administrative work entails being in your office every day for most of the day. You don’t get research days off for a visit to the library or a teaching schedule that allows you to work from home.

Leadership means keeping composure during everyday conflict at home and at work. Every day of the week. Even weekends.

I have a special needs son whom I drive to middle school every morning. My administrative day at Iowa State University begins promptly at 8 a.m. Anyone who has a special needs child knows that getting him or her breakfast, dressed and out the door can be the most challenging and important task of the day. Some days are more harried than others. Today was such a day.

My son also is in transition, moving from tween to teen. I have to take that into account. Doing so is easier on paper than in practice.

I arrived on time today, a Monday, to a series of calls on my voice mail left over the weekend. I had to reply to dozens of emails. Some required documentation. Editorial requests came from publishers. Students with classroom issues made appointments. Also, I taught a large section media ethics class, giving trigger warnings because content today involved media coverage of race along with recent police shootings.

Class went well, and that raised my spirits. I don’t have to teach as an administrator, but I do, because on days like today, it helps composure and reminds me about what is most important: the students.

We’re also in the process of hiring my replacement, and the director search—about which I appropriately know nothing—is occupying time of my staff and colleagues. Every now and then a situation arises with the search that causes them to be out of the pocket when I need them. The search trumps any request I might have, so I am learning to be patient or do the additional tasks myself.

Administrators also are in public and meetings for much of the day. They don’t call it “a public face” without reason. I had to don mine when I really just ached to be home alone to ponder the imponderables and make sense of them for tomorrow. No administrator will admit that. I just did.

You know what I am talking about if you are in administration. You will know it if you aspire to be.

Leadership entails so many things. You develop a vision for continued excellence, a philosophy that shares governance, and a personality that engages all manner of constituents, from prospective students and their parents to your own students, faculty and staff and beyond to your supervisors, alumni and public at large.

I did all that today, and it is only 1:25 p.m. I solved problems and didn’t create any in doing so, at least to my knowledge. But there are hours still left in the day.

Composure is the best attribute to hone as an administrator. There actually are ways to do that. You have to come to work with peace of mind and then maintain it, a notion meaning you have the wherewithal to answer any question (or find the answer) and handle any situation that might arise.

There is a useful article in Forbes about this, titled “7 Ways Leaders Maintain Their Composure During Difficult Times,” which also applies to academic administrative positions. The advice includes not allowing emotions to impact your work day, not taking things personally, keeping a positive attitude, and being accountable. One piece of advice is counter-intuitive but nevertheless apt: “Act Like You Have Been There Before.”

The more you work in administration, the more you will have been there and the more composure you will have. Take stock every day of the problems you handled well or not so much, both personal and professional (because they impact each other), and then assess any lingering concerns and how you might improve in the future.

That’s the key to success in business or higher education.

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