Why “Why Madison?” matters

Last week, James Madison University President Jon Alger kicked off  his Listening Tour. During the first months of his administration, he is investing significant time to connect with JMU’s constituency, which comprises faculty and staff, alumni, students, colleagues, community and state leaders and friends. The overarching question he is asking us all is “Why Madison?” and the key word for the tour is “listening.”

Putting oneself in the position of listener and advice-taker can be a perilous and risky task. And while cynics might say it’s just good PR, perhaps it is also a brilliant and calculated move. Perhaps it is the best of leadership.

In 2009, James M. Kouzes, dean’s executive fellow of leadership, and Barry Z. Posner, dean of the Leavey School of Business, both of Santa Clara University, wrote about vision and leadership in an interesting article for the Harvard Business Review. In “To Lead, Create a Shared Vision,” the authors addressed how leaders create vision. After they analyzed surveys from tens of thousands of individuals to discover what they wanted in a leader, the top two characteristics that emerged were honesty and vision.

While honesty is (or is not) in the basic character of a leader, vision is not so self-evident. Vision must be created.

The authors point out, however, that “researchers who study executives’ work activities estimate that only three percent of the typical business leader’s time is spent envisioning and enlisting. The challenge … only escalates with managerial level: Leaders on the front line must anticipate merely what comes after current projects wrap up. People at the next level of leadership should be looking several years into the future. And those in the C-suite must focus on a horizon some 10 years distant.”

In other words, for top executives such as CEOs — or university presidents for that matter — the greater the vision must be.

The authors go on to say, however, that looking into the future and concocting a vision isn’t enough. In fact, they say one leadership pitfall is relying too much on a leader’s own individual prescience. They write, “….many leaders reach the unfortunate conclusion that they as individuals must be visionaries. With leadership development experts urging them along, they’ve taken to posing as emissaries from the future….”

This solitary approach is simply a “bad idea,” the authors write, because “constituents want visions of the future that reflect their own aspirations.”

So herein is the crux of every leader’s challenge: Kouzes and Posner conclude unequivocally “that what leaders struggle with most is communicating an image of the future that draws others in — that speaks to what others see and feel.” They further explain:

“As counterintuitive as it might seem, then, the best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present. The only visions that take hold are shared visions — and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people in to the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition.”

Seeking this knowledge, taking steps to listen, and finding time in a schedule that is unquestionably jam-packed, however, is exactly what President Alger is doing with his “Listening Tour.” The result will be a shared vision of James Madison University’s future in which every constituent member of the Madison family can invest.

And it is why “Why Madison?” matters.

If there is any lingering doubt, read what President Alger wrote following the first event last week in the Forbes Center:

These conversations will feed into our strategic planning and our visioning of the future as an institution as we set priorities, as we think about where we should put our resources and our energy. We’ll get some great ideas out of this process; people will talk to each other; relationships will be formed. There are a lot of things that will be byproducts of this listening process.

To read more of President Alger’s summation of the first Listening Tour event or to read the full HBR article by Kouzes and Posner, click the embedded links above.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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