Leaders Support and Challenge
A phrase I have heard describing the role of a college president is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The expression was actually coined by an American journalist, Chicago syndicated columnist Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936), to describe the crucial role that newspapers play in society (Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902, 240). For many years, the expression was used only in discussions of newspapers and the media. In the 1980s, it came to be used in a religious context. In all these uses, it is a call to action.
Our college leaders need to both support and challenge. It is our role to listen first, ask questions, respond with information or insights, appreciate initiative, and guide and direct when necessary. We also need to be challenged! I have always appreciated those who are willing to take the risk of offering a different perspective or even an outright disagreement to the accepted norm. Very few of us enjoy conflict, but if we can reframe differences as the opportunity to learn from each other, it puts our differing beliefs and opinions in a new light.
Debate can clarify issues and open up dialog. It can require us to explain opinions and offer additional information. It can surface old ideas that need to be updated or can situate our opinions within closely held values. All of that can help us to make better decisions and improve commitment to a plan or initiative. I think we work better together when we can air all points of view on a problem—if the goal is improvement.
We can be co-creators of a better world when we are open to new information. When we agree to work on our areas of agreement to our mutual benefit, we can create positive change. When we can allow ourselves to be legitimately challenged, we can learn together how to be more effective. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Augusta A. Julian, Ed.D