President Recounts Her Own Dance of Leadership

“Today some young women who watched their moms try to do it all are making different choices.”

In January Dr. DeLois P. Weekes was named president of Clarkson College in Omaha NE, which specializes in nursing and other health professions. That might surprise some who knew her as a college dropout or a kid whose parents just hoped that she’d finish high school.

In her keynote address at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership conference in Lincoln in October, she used dance as a metaphor to describe what she’s learned about leadership.

 “While there are some people who dance alone, they didn’t get there on their own,” she said. Someone played the music or built the dance floor. Every leader’s story involves others, starting with her family of origin.

Weekes grew up in Oklahoma. Her mother had reached tenth grade, her father sixth grade. Both worked hard. “Their primary objective for their children was that they graduate from high school and not get pregnant or impregnate anybody,” she said.

They hoped she’d stay home after high school to help with her four younger siblings, but she wanted out. Referring to Judith Glaser’s The DNA of Leadership (2006), she said there’s something fairly stubborn in her DNA. Two women teachers helped her to find scholarships and take out loans for college.


Although her first-year college grades weren’t great, Weekes could have returned to college on probation. But she was too upset to go back. Everybody would know. Instead she got a job as a waitress at the bus station.

Misstep comes from the French faux pas. “You’re walking along the street and you get your foot caught in a rock,” she explained. Dancers make missteps all the time. The question is how they respond.

Her second misstep was getting fired from her waitress job. Again she was embarrassed and upset. Everybody’s going to know.

“As women, we’re more likely to collect those missteps and hold on to them,” she said. We take them out from time to time for care and feeding, like pets. We absorb them into a negative self-image.

Weekes became a nurses’ aide in a local hospital, where a nurse colleague told her she’d make a great nurse. When she applied to a nursing program in August, she was told to wait for the results of an aptitude test. No, she insisted; let me take the course pending the test results.

Three months later, the test results came. They showed low aptitude and she was told to leave. Stubborn DNA kicked in again. No, she said; look at my grades. “Why is it that when women stand up and take exception to stuff, that’s attitude?” she asked. When men do the same, people say they’re assertive.

Challenging error takes courage. As Glaser argues in Creating We (2005), we need to make space for powerful, crucial conversations where we refuse to accept the conventional wisdom. Is it true? If it isn’t, do we sit back and accept it to avoid an argument?

“Dancing requires that we be willing to risk falling down. We learn early as women not to do that. We learn to be safe,” she said. You don’t achieve much by being safe, and doing nothing won’t bring safety. People will talk about you anyway, so give them something to talk about.

Weekes earned a diploma in nursing from St. Anthony Hospital School of Nursing in Oklahoma City, a BS in health education from Oklahoma City University and a MS from the college of nursing at the University of Oklahoma. She taught in a diploma program and then at a university. An opportunity to move into administration led her to pursue a doctorate, moving herself, husband and kids to California.

One doctoral program turned her down because her Graduate Record Exam scores were pathetic. Another told her to take the GRE again. Instead she did research and found the GRE (1) was culturally biased and (2) predicted only the first year, which she’d completed elsewhere. After explaining her reasons for refusing to retake the GRE, she won admission and completed her doctorate in nursing science at University of California San Francisco.

Choreography offstage

Weekes rose in administration to become associate VP for research and graduate studies at Florida International University. She was president and CEO at Cox College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Springfield MO for six years before taking her current presidency at Clarkson College.

To advance in leadership, she advised getting out of your procedural silo to look beyond your immediate area of responsibility. Move up from the 5,000 foot level to the 50,000 foot level for an overview of the landscape.

“One of the things that’s crucially important is developing our social radar—being able to read what’s going on and how it’s likely to affect our leadership,” she said, referring to Karl Albrecht’s Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (2005). Listen for the emotions behind the words.

Sometimes what’s going on is choreography offstage. That choreography is not about your well-being. It can take the form of blaming, case-building and finger-pointing to choreograph your missteps. All too often it’s done by women.

“Women are not very good about taking direction from other women,” she said. Some think you can’t be friends unless you agree with them. That makes leadership a lonely place. Women have complained to her that she remembers things, holds different opinions or is too articulate!

Why do women do that to one another? We stand or fall together. “None of us gets through this world by ourselves, whether we think we do or not,” she said. At some point, each of us will go offstage. What are we doing to prepare other women to follow us onstage?

Rank and promotion committees play a major role in choreographing academic careers. Today some young women who watched their moms try to do it all are making different choices. If they take time for family now, will our promotion and tenure policies support their decision? If not, we’re going to lose them. Will we let them back onto the dance floor later on?

Dancers keep moving

Persistent dancers fall forward—their missteps propel them into the next part of the dance. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007), life doesn’t progress predictably. No one knows who will emerge as a leader. The greatest influences on our careers may be utterly unexpected.

Challenges and setbacks can strengthen our leadership. Switching metaphors, she said “Women in leadership live in a crucible and the heat is always on.” Like heat melting glass, it’s a refinement process that takes away the sharp edges. It helps us to learn and grow.

Leaders need to accept that others won’t always like what they do. Taking exception when others are wrong is part of the job. She tries to be very precise in her language, but some will still be offended. You don’t become a leader to make friends.

“Just because we’re really good at what we do, that doesn’t mean everybody wants us to do it,” she said. You need to accept that and not take it into yourself. You know you’re good. You have talents and abilities. They have a right not to want you. You have a right to move on.

It’s not easy for women or men. Baseball manager Billy Martin was fired from team after team, including five separate stints with the New York Yankees. Each time after he lost a job, he found another team to manage.

Women more often crawl home and pull out their collection of missteps for care and feeding. If somebody doesn’t like how you manage your team, find another team to manage. When presidents are fired, women are less likely than men to seek out another presidency. Why?

When you fall down, perhaps you just want to stop. Get up and keep moving. “Dancers know it’s easier to keep moving than to stop and start again,” she said. If you keep moving even though you don’t want to, you’ll find the success you’re looking for. Strong leaders, like dancers, see clearly.

Their movements are smooth rather than jerky. They know they may accomplish more with a light touch than a heavy one.

They use social radar to avoid collisions. They know the difference between indications and demands. They’re spontaneous in the face of the unexpected; no one knows what will happen. Nobody else knows that you’re improvising your leadership dance.

“Nobody is born to be a dancer or a leader. You have to want it,” she said. You need a fire in your belly. You need to want it like you’ve never wanted anything before.

Have a vision, communicate it and unleash your personal power to make it happen. Act as if you’re in charge even when you know you’re not. As Weekes has learned, “First comes the sweat and then comes the beauty. Anybody can dance, and should.”

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