October 21, 2018
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Transcript: Outgoing University of Maine President Susan Hunter, at Dirigo Speaks

Remarks as prepared. Presented at Dirigo Speaks, at the Bangor Public Library on June 12.

Good afternoon. It’s a privilege to be joining you today as part of the Dirigo Speaks series. My thanks to the Bangor Daily News for the invitation and to our moderator, Matt Stone.

As you heard in Matt’s introduction, I have been president of the University of Maine for the past four years. For the past year, I also have been president of the University of Maine at Machias. And for more than three decades, I have been a member of the University of Maine community as a faculty member, researcher and administrator, including five years as Provost.

My time at UMaine has given me many opportunities to reflect on leadership and why it matters — in good times and in challenging times. My perspectives have been — and continue to be — informed by many people, past and present. Today, I’ll share some thoughts on what leadership is and why it matters.

Now, if asked, I think most people would say that they know a leader when they see one — that person with the highest and sometimes longest title. The occupant of the corner office. The loudest voice or highest paid.

But I’m drawn to a different definition of leadership. In that definition, leadership is derived from influence, and can come from anyone at any level, in any role. This leadership doesn’t rely on prominence of position, but, rather, people who are considered wise, thoughtful and responsible, in any venue — a community, a neighborhood, a campus, a classroom. They have a reputation for working for the greater good — not for themselves.

I have influence, built up over many years, based on long professional relationships, hard work and many roles. And there’s no doubt that, as one moves up in an organization, she or he gains power. But the reality is, you gain more authority by the use of less power. Persuading people to take action because it is in the collective best interest is a more powerful — and more reliable — way to lead. I think this approach has the greatest potential for making lasting change.

Leadership matters. In any organization — a business, school, hospital, town or city council. Any one of them can get by during good times, when things are going well. Even so, poor leadership in good times is not strategic enough to capitalize on the good times. But the status quo will not last for long. Change is constant.

Leadership is tested — and matters — most in the face of challenging situations. Times of crisis usually require large-scale change, significant innovation and problem-solving. It’s there that the hard work is done and it may seem particularly difficult to “do it right.” But the alternative — poor leadership — is not an acceptable option.

Studying and thinking about leadership is important. A couple of years ago, a small group within the Cabinet suggested we actively study and discuss leadership in a more organized, disciplined fashion. It was an opportunity to challenge ourselves, to reflect and share and learn from each other — flex our “leadership muscles.” We started incorporating a short leadership segment at the start of our weekly meetings. We took turns sharing perspectives or examples of leadership, either leadership theory or leadership in action. We discussed what we read in light of current situations we were dealing with.

One take-home message that stuck with all of us is the need for a leader to remain curious and grateful and convey both in how she or he operates. And know that patience is a virtue when trying to drive larger change.

Bringing about institutional change often requires a culture shift. And that translates to thinking, operating and behaving differently. It often requires a shift in people’s comfort zones and that’s not easy for most of us, including me.

Knowing not only your institution, but the culture in which it is operating is important. A leader is a catalyst for change and has to recognize the nuances of the existing culture and the current institutional environment to better understand the work ahead to bring about change.

Because the path forward is rarely clear, I have come to recognize that a successful leader has to be comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity and be able to make meaningful connections in seemingly dissimilar and disparate places. It’s important to remain attuned to a background hum of impending change and appreciate the degree of anxiety that causes in everyone. Including me, but that’s OK, because that bit of angst has always kept me on my toes — more aware of other’s feelings.

It’s important to take on challenges outside your comfort zone. Leadership is informed by what you learn from seeking out opportunities for greater engagement, doing more than you need to do. It’s how you grow in your sense of self as an engaged citizen and as a leader.

For example, the development of the Primary Partnership with the University of Maine at Machias and the assumption of the presidency of that campus was a growth experience for me. I thought hard about the importance of UMM to Down East Maine, and saw the partnership as a natural extension of UMaine’s land grant mission, allowing us to serve the state in a new way. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and the close relationship that has grown — and will expand — between our campuses. There is much more to be done to maximize the relationship.

The success of the Primary Partnership did — and continues to — involve the work of many people, on both campuses. Institutional change takes a village. And people need to be seen — and see themselves — as leaders with the potential to bring about change, to make a difference. Empowering others to be leaders is critical. It enhances buy in.

Also critical to growth and success in leadership and in life: mentors. I was lucky in having role models and mentors who were themselves leaders. They were smart, analytical, creative and people-oriented. My role models also emphasized the importance of mentoring others.

I tell students that it is important to observe successful, competent leaders, and understand why they are so respected and successful. How do they act and communicate? What do you see when you watch them in action?

I keep an index card in my briefcase that lists my aspirational leadership ideals: authenticity, honesty, empathy, resilience and bravery — AHERB.

At UMaine, I have the good fortune to have been a longtime member of the community, and have a depth and breadth of experience that has permitted me to know firsthand the pleasure and importance of teaching and mentoring students, of being a scientist at the state’s land grant university and a high-level administrator.

My career pathway was very unusual. It is not common for higher ed leaders to stay in a community for multiple decades like I have. Nonetheless, leaders at all levels need to connect to a breadth of constituencies — community organizations and institutions — to tune in. The appreciation for what exists and why folks will be loath to change can come from listening intently to constituents, being empathetic.

Leadership that brings about institutional change cannot be done in a vacuum. It is not a solitary undertaking. It occurs in a context and, to be done right, it must be done with transparency and with as much input as possible. Leaders accomplish very little single-handedly.

A leader is part of a team and successful change occurs because of the work of multiple leaders. Accomplishments ascribed to the best leaders need to be seen as achieved by the collective we. I really tried to emphasize this point — on campus and off — often making reference to the impact of the collective.

A good leader brings people together, not only to get their input, but to be clear on the collective goals and the steps to getting there. It puts your challenges, timelines, factors, goals out there, accessible to others. Some would say it increases vulnerability. I say it advances meaningful change by removing the mystery and reducing suspicion.

A number of years ago while I was provost, we had to deal with significant financial challenges — a structural gap in finances. I was charged to lead an effort to lay out a strategy to deal with the situation. The solution would not be overnight and would unfold over a several-year period. The way forward was to create a working group of administrators and faculty that met every two weeks for most of an academic year and, ultimately, came to understanding and a path forward to resolution. I chaired the group, but did not run the meetings. We brought in a trained facilitator. It wasn’t easy, but open dialogue, sharing data and listening carefully to one another was the path we took.

This is not a formula for making everyone happy. And, it will not win a leader a popularity contest. But in my experience, these are some of the ingredients that increase the potential for success in the face of institutional challenge requiring change and reduce the likelihood of incendiary resistance.

As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described in her biography of Abraham Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” the best leaders resist the temptation to populate their cabinets or counsel only with people who agree with them. People who disagree are essential for broad community representation and informed leadership.

On the back end, the leadership team needs to develop a level of comfort and trust necessary to push against one another, ensuring that what needs to be said is said — and heard — at the beginning rather than at the end of the process.

I want people to push against me, even if I don’t seem overjoyed at the moment. It forces the consideration of widely divergent viewpoints, and that is a good thing.

Does this ensure perfection? Nothing does. It’s important to admit when you’ve made a mistake, that a point should have been a little clearer or explained a little better.

Overall, the process is not formulaic. It’s organic. Above all, it is meaningful and productive.

When peers, constituents and community members see you as credible and operating in a straightforward way, they will know with confidence that you’re doing what you think is best for the enterprise. Even if that means it may not be exactly what they would prefer or always in their individual best interest.

I encourage people to take on leadership roles in whatever enterprise — at work or outside of work. The more people see themselves as leaders, the greater their engagement and contributions.

In leadership, as in life, there are challenges, but also opportune moments for significant progress. A good leader, at any level, recognizes those moments and takes advantage of them.

Dirigo Speaks is an event series of the Bangor Daily News, presenting conversations throughout the year with civic leaders, changemakers, artists and business leaders shaping Maine’s future. 


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