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Creating a culture of encouragement

Michael Hillis is a Fellow in the inaugural cohort of Impact Academy, a leadership development experience for deans in their first one to four years in the position. The core of the year-long fellowship is Impact Academy – a four-day institute designed to support leaders as they develop the skills and knowledge they need to improve their educator-preparation programs. As a Fellow, Dr. Hillis is part of a professional network of other Fellows and member deans, who are collectively working to improve educator preparation and elevate the teaching profession.

As a relatively new dean at California Lutheran University’s Graduate School of Education, I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering the challenges of leadership and how best to mobilize my vision for the school. One primary issue on which I’ve been reflecting is organizational culture and how to improve it.*

Last summer, I was honored to be part of the inaugural cohort of the Impact Academy, a leadership development experience for deans from Deans for Impact. During our four days in Charlotte, North Carolina, we heard from various speakers on what it means to “lead for change.” One speaker, Dr. Carole Basile, dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University and a member of Deans for Impact, presented a case study on how she facilitated change at her former college, the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Of the many insightful points she made, the one that really resonated was when she said, “Change and forward momentum will be limited when a culture of animosity exists.”

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this idea right away. For I knew that most, if not all, cultures have animosities that emerge from time to time. It wasn’t until I attended a subsequent event at California Lutheran University’s Mathews Leadership Forum that I knew how to position this idea.

At the forum, Russell S. Young, the former CFO of Lyondell Chemical Company, shared how he helped to create one of the most innovative and successful companies in the Netherlands. Just like Dean Basile, he provided many fascinating ideas, but the one that stuck with me was how he developed what he termed “a culture of encouragement.”

As I left the forum, I asked myself: If cultures of encouragement and animosity sit on opposite ends of a continuum, then what are the variables that can move an organization to the healthier side of the continuum?

Mr. Young highlighted two concepts that could help answer the question. First, he talked about how an organization must insist that each of its members have something valuable – and often idiosyncratic – to contribute to the organization’s overall mission. Therefore, everyone must be involved to fully achieve all that can be imagined in the organization’s work. A culture of animosity, on the other hand, would disregard (or minimize) each other’s gifts, resulting in a diminishment of an organization’s human capital.

Mr. Young also suggested that a culture of encouragement embraces failures: unless we’re encouraged to “swing and miss” (sorry for the baseball metaphor, Cleveland fans), we’ll never move far toward our goals. The result is there will be times when we disappoint each other and let each other down. However, a culture of encouragement embraces people for the attempt and supports them in exploring the next steps. A culture of animosity, on the other hand, will point fingers, lay blame, and, ultimately, discourage any innovation or change.

Of course, the follow-up question is: How do we “move the needle” towards the side of encouragement? Especially when failure has already occurred, animosities have arisen, and the culture is not as encouraging as it could be.

It’s a complex question and a full exploration is probably far beyond what is possible in this short post. However, what I would briefly posit is that cultures of encouragement must contain a willingness to reconcile and forgive. As I stated earlier, animosities in any culture are inevitable. So, unless people are encouraged to move towards reconciliation framed by the “greater good” of the work (which is certainly true of teacher education), cultures can get trapped in cycles of retribution and mistrust.

To help our organizations move forward when this occurs will surely be one of the most significant tests of our leadership.

*I recently wrote an article for the International Journal of Leadership and Change that explores this more fully; a draft of the article can be found on my blog: The Educational Advocate.


Michael Hillis


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