Values as a Foundation for Leadership in Higher Education

Leadership has two components for her: Being inspirational and exploring solutions.

“Leadership is all about values.” We hear this frequently, but what does it mean? “I had read that line many times, but I never got it until I became an administrator,” said Dr. Jolene Koester, president of California State University-Northridge since 2000, who believes she’s the first female in the CSU system to win the top job from being a provost.

Keynoting the state coordinator’s conference of the Office of Women preceding the American Council on Education conference in February in Los Angeles, she talked about developing her values and how they shape her leadership style.

Leadership has two components for her: Being inspirational and exploring solutions. At their roots, both are personal and individual, and they are connected to values.

Good old Midwestern values

The oldest of five children, she grew up in Plato MN, population 250, the daughter of an auto mechanic and a stay-at-home mom. As the oldest, she received an “overdose” of exposure to her parents’ values, which included hard work and a sense of responsibility for herself, her siblings and improving the world. If Koester brought home a grad of A-, her parents asked why it wasn’t an A.

They instilled in her the fundamental principle of respect for others, including people who were different. And they taught her that there are always two sides to every story and a lesson to be learned. If Koester came home complaining about something, her parents said, “And what was your role in this?”

She grew to be extroverted, but with a very strong introverted side, and she’s verbal and direct. Her two passions are the thrill of learning and international education.

Believing in the American Dream, Koester’s parents thought her life would be infinitely better than theirs if she went to college, which they drilled into her. But it was the 1960s, so she didn’t aspire to anything beyond college.

“I was never socialized to want to be anything,” she said. “It was my values that propelled me to become a president.” Along her career path, she said, each step has grown organically out of what has happened to her before.

Pausing to reflect

Koester recommended reading the book Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson (Margaret Mead’s daughter) as a good preparation for reflecting on one’s life. It demonstrates what Koester knows to be true: A linear, goal achievement approach to a professional path doesn’t work for women. In today’s world, the incremental steps model doesn’t work because women have so many other responsibilities that take them in other directions.

At age 36, Koester found herself working as an assistant professor at CSU-Sacramento, driving a ’67 Volkswagen, with only five pieces of furniture to her name. She had no spouse, kids or house, but lots of student loans. She looked at others in her department and wondered if she’d ever catch up. Then she thought: If not, so what? She’s had great fun along the way.

Now she has caught up, obtaining both professional and emotional fulfillment. After following a typical path into senior administration, she said people advised her to think about being a president.

Throughout her career, she focused on doing work she found important and challenging. She needed to understand the goal and the consequences.

For her, gaining a sense of balance in life was subjective. “Not all teeter-totters have the same fulcrum point,” she said. “We all have different balances.” By focusing on work, she created a life that others may consider out of balance. But she likes to work, and finds it satisfying in the context of higher education.

“Women always want to know the story behind other women’s paths,” said Koester. Her path into higher education leadership began when she aspired to become the director of the international education center at her school, which required a doctorate. “It’s about figuring out what you care about, and taking the steps to do that,” she said.

Values influence her decision-making

1. A discomfort with the formal, hierarchical nature of being a president. She’s more comfortable with working in teams, collaboratively, and making decisions as a team. “I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “Solutions can rarely, if ever, be found within one person or one department. Silos are the death of solutions.” Sometimes it’s disconcerting when someone comes to her needing an answer, when she may feel she doesn’t even know enough about it to ask all of the right questions.

2. Considering all points of view before forming her own. She learns from people questioning her. “It’s critical to have people around you willing to disagree,” she said. “I don’t need people around me telling me what to do, or sucking up.” Koester determines where she wants to be on a situation by listening to opposing views.

3. Personal integrity and honesty. It’s easy to shade the truth, or forget that you committed to something. To honor her values, Koester enlists the support of the people around her. On expense reports, for example, staff is directed to not include the item if it is at all questionable.

4. Acknowledging and apologizing for mistakes. People have told her it’s dumb, but she insists on doing it anyway. After the CSU-Northridge computers went down recently, she and the provost walked around campus and apologized, offering no excuses.

5. Recognizing that her decisions must be for the good of the whole school. Her choices aren’t the same as if she were an individual. This comes up most often in personnel issues. She worries about how she treats people. “I’m not always as kind, attentive and respectful as I’d like myself to be,” she admitted.

Personal priorities come from values

Having identified her values, next comes communicating them as president. She strives to:

  • Strengthen connections within the university community and externally. As a leader, she’s a model. She structures her life so that she’s on campus and visible, building three hours a week into her schedule to walk around campus. She visits department offices once a semester, which she tracks on a spreadsheet. Staff tell her things that no one else will. Recently, two big issues were raised from her visits—not from the briefings she receives from VPs.
  • Behave in a way that’s accessible, and shows respect to the university community. Expecting colleagues at the senior level to act the same, she’s taken “draconian” measures to force people to talk to each other. She works to use language that’s respectful and nonhierarchical, and to really listen to others. “Sometimes it’s hard to listen if it’s the same subject or the same person over and over,” she admitted.

Reading the book Respect: An Exploration, by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, while provost at CSU-Sacramento, helped her with this. It’s about seeking people in the work world who engender collaboration and who convey respect through both the words they use and nonverbal communication. She recognizes that she has both a public and a private face, and strives for congruence between the two. “It’s too hard to differentiate,” she said. “I prefer being honest and straight-forward.”

  •  Find out as much as possible about something before making a decision. It’s really hard, Koester acknowledged, especially since information changes over time: What was true three weeks ago may not be true today. She’s always requests a “slew” of information on issues, which models her desire to take multiple points of view into account before moving forward.
  • Recognize that she is a model on campus. “Never before did I understand that a leader is a model,” she said. “How I present myself—in times of celebration, sadness, difficulty, or serious concern—affects the operational land-scape of those around me. If I don’t recognize this, I will drag down a whole bunch of people.” Being a model isn’t just about picking up garbage and being friendly, she said. It’s who she is, how she presents issues, and how she responds to crises.

Yet she recognizes that being a college president has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the role. It’s a hard lesson to learn. “It’s seductive to be the president,” she said. “People are nice and sweet, and give you presents. You start to think that it’s you—that you are especially charming and wonderful. It’s so important to remind yourself on a daily basis that what you do is important, but it has nothing to do with you. You need to care about what it is you are doing, and less about the role.”

There have been and will be barriers. Focusing on her passion and her reason for doing things has proven effective. Inevitably, she said, a pathway will open up.

Her most challenging moment occurred while she served as provost and chief academic officer at CSU-Sacramento. Proposition 209, California’s anti-affirmative action initiative, was on the ballot, and she wanted to quit because of what lawyers wanted her to do. She decided to stay, she said, because she could do more to express her views—and have more impact—while in the job.

Contact Jolene Koester

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