Today I want to tell you about a presentation I heard several years ago. The speaker was Dr. Jeremi Suri. He holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University’s Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and, in full disclaimer, he’s one of my favorite colleagues. I’ve said on numerous occasions that I’d listen to him talk about the history of shoelaces because I know I’d learn something new and important that I never knew about shoelaces. http://jeremisuri.net
Several years ago, Jeremi spoke as part of a lunchtime education program hosted by the McCombs School of Business. I don’t remember the formal name of his presentation but his premise was the importance of history for transformative leaders. I still have my notes from the presentation and here are a few of the important points.
- It is a significant paradox of our time – people in powerful positions like presidents spend most of their time working on problems rather than priorities. “They are remembered not for what they wanted to do, but for what they had to do.”
- Leaders are overwhelmed with complexity so they are pulled to manage the crisis rather than think strategically.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like these two points must be an accurate description for every day since the middle of March. I imagine all of us have had the experience of walking into the office with a plan for what you are going to accomplish that day. Then, the first phone call of the day has you canceling every meeting. I’ve often said, ‘the calendar is just a suggestion of what the day will be like.’ It’s not that we’re not used to our plans changing, but the past few months have been an extreme version.
And now, as I watch campus after campus announces their ‘plans’ for the coming semester, it’s hard not to think that they are just suggestions for what the coming semester will be. We know putting these plans into implementation will be even more complex than we can imagine – and we can imagine a lot, can’t we? In the coming weeks and months as you work through each day’s new challenges, here are some thoughts from Dr. Suri’s speech to help you stay focused on the fundamental reasons your organization exists.
His description of a transformative leader is one who takes the mess of issues and puts them together in a way that makes them actionable. Here are six questions to help you exercise good judgment as a leader who is feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the work and situation.
- What is the landscape of change?
- Where am I located in this landscape?
- What are my options?
- What do I really care about?
- How do I maximize my priorities?
- How do I avoid trivia?
I have found these six questions helpful at different times since I learned them and hope they will give you a guide for your work over the coming weeks and months.