Since becoming chancellor at Illinois, I’ve been asked many times to speak about leadership – to many different audiences. And the opening of each year seems to bring the most invitations. It’s always an interesting opportunity for me - and in some ways still a surprising request - because, honestly, being the top administrator at a major public research university was never on my childhood list of things to do.
And years later, when I earned my doctorate and started my academic career, my goal was to understand the molecular biology and biochemistry of the brain and how the endocrine system influences the way the brain works, not to be a department head, a dean or provost. Yet, in the course of my career, I found myself in all of these roles. And, through wonderful mentors and advisors, I’ve learned a great deal about leadership – at least when it comes to the world of higher education.
We’ve all heard references to “born leaders” or “born to lead.” I cringe a bit when I hear this. In part, because it implies that leadership is a pre-determined, inherited commodity that only a special few can ever possess. But mostly, it bothers me because it ignores the reality that true leaders emerge at every level and in every situation and aren’t anointed or designated.
My path to leadership was gradual as I stepped into new roles with increasing responsibility over time. For me, leadership training was often on-the-job and on-the-fly. The key for me was that along the way, I had several amazing mentors who inspired, advised and encouraged me. They helped me see what opportunities I might pursue and they taught me to see the responsibilities at each step in my career. They showed me what I got wrong, the things I got right, and the things I could learn from those around me.
Many times I am asked about leadership directly because of the title I hold. And many people might assume that leadership can only be orchestrated through a formal title. But there is no textbook definition of leadership. It is found in the actions of individuals at all levels of an organization. No matter what position a person holds, leadership is all about recruiting the best people, working with them collaboratively and enabling them to meet and surpass their potential.
And that is the message I always hope that I convey. And it is one that I truly see in practice every day here at Illinois. There is no single, defined route to becoming a leader.
But, I do think that one common trait you’ll find among the best leaders is their understanding that connections with people make all the difference. I firmly believe one of the best things you can do is to find someone you admire and trust and learn from them. Ask them questions. Watch how they behave and how they become leaders through what they do and how they do it.
And when it comes to finding those people – well, there can’t be many better places to do so than right here on our campus. At Illinois we all have access to some of the most intelligent, talented, dedicated and loyal people in the world. If we want to find mentors or seek out advice of women and men we admire – those we all recognize as leaders in their way – we don’t have to do much more than walk out our respective doors and start a conversation.
I may, indeed, have the privilege to be chancellor and I may be often asked to speak on this topic, but the truth is, we’re surrounded by leaders here at Illinois. And every one of them has something to teach us all.
Around The Campus
Six of our faculty members have been named University Scholars. Congratulations to Scott Ahlgren, mathematics; Elvira de Mejia, food science and human nutrition; Susan A. Martinis, biochemistry; Silvina Montrul, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese; Kevin T. Pitts, physics; and Jay Rosenstein, journalism. The program recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. Read the full story here.
The Center for Advanced Study has announced nine new appointments to its permanent faculty – one of the highest honors Illinois bestows for outstanding scholarship. Congratulations to James D. Anderson, education policy, organization and leadership; Nigel Goldenfeld, physics; Stephen Long, plant biology; Tere O’Connor, dance; John Rogers,materials science and engineering; Jay Rosenstein, journalism; Klaus Schulten, physics; Jonathan Sweedler, chemistry; and Maria Todorova, history. Read the full story here.
The 2013 Charitable Campus Fund Drive kicks off on Monday, Sept. 16 and end November 8. The eight-week employee fund drive supports charitable organizations that help our community. To learn more, visit the CCFD website.