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Prepared Remarks for ISC/Pi Beta Phi Event "Women's Leadership and Empowerment"

December 4, 2015

I want to thank Grace Mason and Rachel Kappel for inviting me to speak to you today. I’m also grateful to Pi Beta Phi and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life for sponsoring this event. I’m pleased to see so many members of Pi Beta Phi and other sororities here this afternoon. Thank you all for coming.

With more than 2,000 members, the Inter-Sorority Council at UVA is the largest organized community of women on our Grounds. This means you are uniquely positioned to serve as role models, mentors, and leaders within the UVA community. This also means that your leadership experiences now can prepare you for lives of leadership later, in the careers and communities you will enter after graduation.

So it seems appropriate that I was asked to speak to you about women’s leadership — and how to be an empowered leader both within and beyond this University.

When Grace and Rachel invited me to speak on this topic, they made note of the fact that I’m the first woman to serve in UVA’s top leadership job.  Generally, I try to downplay any fanfare over my role as UVA’s first woman president, but I do realize it’s a key milestone in the University’s history. My service as president matters most importantly because it sets a precedent for women, and opens the door for more women to assume top leadership positions at UVA. Perhaps some of you will consider walking through that door someday.

Strength in Numbers:  Collaborative Leadership

Within the context of leadership, today I’d like to focus on the concept of collaborative leadership. In the management world, “collaborative leadership” is defined by leaders who reject the heavy-handed, top-down approach and instead work across boundaries to create alliances and to build relationships. Through these relationships they create strong teams — teams that enable both individual and organizational achievement.

Collaborative leaders know how to put in place the people, systems, and culture to ensure long-run success. They think not in terms of their own individual interests, but in terms of the entire team — who constitutes the team, who can take on more responsibility, who needs more support, and how the team can continue to function if one or more members leave.

As sorority sisters and members of the Inter-Sorority Council, you see the value of this cooperative approach to leadership every day. You rely on one another as confidants, colleagues, and collaborators, as you provide leadership across the Grounds.

Collaborative leadership is the most effective style of leadership in times of crisis, because an organization cannot overcome a severe crisis through individual heroics or by managers barking orders at everyone else. Collaborative leaders know that there is strength in numbers, and that working together is the most effective way to withstand a difficult test.

We saw this play out at UVA last fall, when we experienced one of the most difficult semesters in University history. First there was the disappearance and death of Hannah Graham, followed by the now-retracted Rolling Stone article that unfairly maligned members of our community, including the Greek community. A short time later, there was the incident involving UVA student Martese Johnson and ABC agents on The Corner.

In the span of just a few weeks, we endured crisis after crisis, facing the glare of the national spotlight time after time. That kind of pressure can destroy a community. But we emerged from that difficult time with our spirit, our values, and our sense of UVA community intact.

And we were able to do that, I believe, because all of us — students, UVA officials, faculty and staff, Board members, and others — worked together in a spirit of collaborative leadership to overcome our challenges.

Leading Up, Down, and Sideways

As we consider the value of collaborative leadership today, I want to talk about leading in three directions. There’s a common misperception that leadership flows in only one direction — and that’s down, from leaders in supervisory roles to subordinates in follower roles.

But a collaborative leader knows that leadership means leading in three distinct, but equally important, directions: leading up, in relation to people who have an authoritative relationship to you; leading down, in relation to the people over whom you have some authority; and leading sideways, in relation to your peers who have equal levels of power or influence.

Some people excel at one, or maybe two, of these leadership directions, but it’s not easy to be good at all three. Plenty of people do a good job of leading up, because we naturally want to please the people who sit higher in the org-chart than we do. But not everyone is good at leading down, because that can easily become a tyrannical, top-down relationship.

And some people fail at leading sideways, because sideways can be the trickiest of all three of the relationships to manage, when all of the involved leaders are on equal terms. 

Today we’ll talk about mastering your leadership skills in all three directions, and I can use some examples from my own experience as president and also from our shared experiences at UVA over the past year.

Leading Down

Let’s begin by talking about leading down, because this is what most people consider the traditional leadership role: a CEO or other top leader who oversees a team of people, striving to unite and motivate them to achieve a set of shared goals.

As president, I have three laws that I follow, and urge my reports to follow, as I try to lead down. My first law is this: “No surprises.” I ask my reports in the leadership team to come to me immediately if a problem arises, as difficult as that may be. In exchange for their candor, I promise that I’ll never shoot the messenger. But there’s a caveat to this law: When my reports do come to me with problems, I want them to come armed with solutions too.

The second law is: “Always cast a wide net before making decisions.” Casting a wide net is about gathering as much institutional wisdom as possible, and collecting a range of views from a variety of perspectives in all corners of the organization, before deciding to take action.

In an example from last fall, I tried to avoid making unilateral decisions in the heat of the moment following publication of the Rolling Stone article. My decision to suspend Greek social activities came after our Inter-Fraternity Council had already suspended its own activities for the weekend, and after the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had voluntarily surrendered its FOA. We met and we talked, and all of us believed that we needed to hit the “pause button” to allow time for leaders in the Greek system and the UVA administration to work together on new safety practices.

Later, the Greek councils continued to cast a wide net by embarking on thoughtful discussions with a variety of stakeholders, including members of the fraternities and sororities, alumni, Greek national organizations, and UVA leaders. Each council subsequently revised their FOAs in ways that eventually led to improved safety practices. We reinstated Phi Kappa Psi as soon as they signed their new FOA, and they were the first to sign.

When I asked fraternity and sorority leaders to review their FOAs, I also asked all of the CIOs to do the same thing. We cast a wide net in this review process and in our decision-making, and ultimately this led to positive results. As a result of our early efforts to gather information and to improve safety, when the Office of Civil Rights concluded its review of UVA this year, many of the requirements that were part of our resolution agreement with OCR had already been put in place.

The third law is: “Know your resources.” This is important because you cannot make effective leadership decisions if you don’t have a full account of the resources that are available to you — or looking at it the other way, you need to have a full account of the resources that are not available to you. Sororities have limited funds, and you need to stick to your budgets. So do universities and university leaders.

To lead down effectively, you need to identify the difference between what’s “urgent” and what’s “important.” Your core mission activities will always be important, while urgent matters will come and go as various crises come and go. As leaders, we are forced to balance acute matters of urgency with ongoing matters of importance every day.

This was certainly true last fall. Even as the “urgent” Rolling Stone crisis was unfolding, the University was still carrying out all of its normal daily operations that are “important” at UVA: students were still attending classes, researchers were still doing research, the Medical Center was still providing clinical care for patients, and so on. We could not ignore our “important” responsibilities to deal solely with “urgent” matters.

A collaborative leader learns to balance urgent matters with important matters. Part of the solution is to share tasks with your team. Leaders with a top-down style often keep urgent matters all to themselves until the issues are fully resolved, unwilling to empower the team to share the load.

When you, as a leader, are surrounded by a good team, let the team help you with urgent matters that arise. If you fail to do that, you risk losing sight of what’s important.

One of the best ways to lead down effectively is by creating a culture of leadership, one that permeates every level of your organization. People in leadership positions may be somewhat removed from an organization’s day-to-day activities. People on the front lines may be closer to the action, and they sometimes see things that their leaders may be missing.

So we need to create cultures in which people at every level are willing to share information — including bad news, as hard as it may be to do that. We all know that bad news can turn into worse news if it doesn’t get shared promptly.

Leading Up

Now let’s talk about leading up, and I can use another example from last fall to illustrate this leadership style in action. In the days and weeks following publication of the Rolling Stone article, I met on several occasions with ISC President Julia Pedrick and with IFC President Tommy Reid. We talked about how we could make Greek life better, while improving the climate and culture at UVA. Their perspectives were incredibly valuable in informing the decision-making among UVA leaders. In doing this, Julia and Tommy were leading up.

Information needs to flow all three ways in all three types of management relationships, and part of leading up is giving, and receiving, all of the information that needs to be shared to help the team meet its challenges.

Sometimes leading up requires us to respectfully challenge the instructions that we receive from above. A book titled, “Leading Up” tells the story of a group of amateur climbers on Mount Everest who questioned the decisions that their professional guides were making during the ascent — but they didn’t speak up, and they paid the price. Eight of the climbers died in the so-called “Death Zone” near the top of Everest. 

In collaborative leadership, as in mountain climbing, honesty is always the best policy.

As UVA president, I report to the Board of Visitors. It’s critical for me to keep lines of communication open with our Board; to establish with the Board an agreed-upon set of goals for myself and for the University; and to agree on metrics for meeting those goals. That’s my way of leading up.

Leading up does not mean being manipulative with those who oversee your work, or offering unrealistically sunny projections for your organization, or becoming a “yes man” or “yes woman” to the leaders above you.

Because most of us who oversee a team also report to a higher power, we need to be good at managing in both directions. The most effective leaders are adept at juggling the demands of both up- and down-leadership relationships.

If you’re in a position of authority and you do a good job of leading down, there is also a wonderful multiplier effect:  by being a good down-leader, you will empower the people around you to do a good job of leading up.

Leading Sideways

I saved the most difficult leadership direction for last, and that’s leading sideways. Sideways leadership requires more finesse than leading up or down, because it means influencing and motivating peers over whom you have no authority.

Leaders may falter in sideways leadership by making bad decisions in peer-to-peer interactions. When suddenly faced with a problem, rather than working together with peers to address it, some leaders may shut down internal dissent by creating an external enemy, by demonizing some group of outsiders so as to create cohesion within. We see some of our politicians doing this today with regard to the immigrant population. Another approach is to create false divisions internally, so as to splinter your own group and to build smaller coalitions.

The more effective sideways approach to leadership is to draw your team of peers together and lead by example. So let’s talk about how to do that.

When leading sideways, you need to be aware of your blind spots. In other words, you need to know what you don’t know; you need to accept that you cannot possibly know everything about your organization or the problem you’re facing; and you need to encourage your colleagues to help you fill in the gaps.

Here’s an example from last fall: In early December following the publication of the Rolling Stone article, I assembled an Ad Hoc Group of people to examine the culture and climate at UVA. The group included students, administrators, faculty, members of our Board of Visitors, and others.

Within the Ad Hoc Group we had three working groups focused on three topics: culture, prevention, and response. Each of these working groups held Town Hall meetings with the community to draw in even more advice and expertise.

I created the Ad Hoc Group to advise me because I realized that I couldn’t possibly know everything about UVA’s climate and culture, and I couldn’t possibly envision every opportunity for improvement on my own.

So I pulled together a diverse group of people to help me eliminate blind spots and to identify those opportunities. This past summer, the groups delivered reports. Some of their recommendations have already been implemented, and others are getting additional review.

Last fall, we also reached out sideways to groups beyond the UVA community. After publication of the Rolling Stone article, I made two immediate requests:  I asked the Charlottesville police to investigate the allegations regarding the attack at Phi Kappa Psi. And I asked then-Rector George Martin to request an independent investigation.

Taking these steps with Charlottesville police and the independent investigator was essential to the pursuit of full truth and to the demonstration of full transparency, because observers tend not to believe anything you say about yourself. A third-party account carries more credibility. Leading sideways can help you draw in those third-parties to work with you on the challenges you face.

As you know, Charlottesville police eventually told us that their investigation did not reveal any basis to confirm that the attack described in the Rolling Stone article occurred at the Phi Kappa Psi house, bringing some sense of closure to the events.

Your Opportunity as ISC Members

As we continue our work to improve the climate and culture at UVA, the ISC has a great opportunity to provide leadership.

I have already encouraged UVA’s Faculty Senate to make connections with you and to engage you in discussion. I urge you to embrace that opportunity for dialogue.

With UVA’s fraternities, you have an opportunity to lead sideways. Right now you are facing an issue related to the rush schedules for sororities and fraternities. Your rush period is the week before spring-semester classes begin (Jan. 12-18) and the men’s rush period is the two-and-a-half weeks after classes begin (Jan. 21-Feb. 6). The policies of your national organizations dictate that you cannot participate in men’s rush, meaning there’s a period of almost a month when the men and women are not permitted at each other’s social events.

Friction will not go away on its own, and if left unattended, it will only get worse. Part of leading sideways is setting up good relationships and good lines of communications before problems arise, so you can rely on those relationships and communication lines when problems crop up.

At UVA, leading sideways is another form of student self-governance. As an organization of more than 2,000 women, gathered here this afternoon to discuss empowerment, you may not realize how much power you already have. You can use that power to effect change at UVA.

Perhaps one solution to the rush-related tension is to hold your recruitments during the same period, or for the men to truncate their rush to a single week. As student-leaders in this community of self-governance, you are empowered to address this problem.

I also encourage you to work in a spirit of collaboration with your national organization leaders on these and other issues — this is an opportunity for you to “lead up” on a national scale.

And for the third- and fourth-year women here today, I encourage you to be strong role models and mentors to the younger women in your sororities — this is your opportunity to “lead down” for the greater good of all women at UVA.

Last Word: Rely on Your Values

In your leadership roles, at UVA and beyond, sometimes you may be required to lead up, down, and sideways all in the same day, perhaps all in the same moment. You may face sudden, unexpected challenges that require you to take action and lead quickly, often under demanding deadlines. Being able to do all this effectively is the sign of collaborative leader.

One final thought, and it’s a question for all of us: what if we find ourselves facing circumstances that don’t give us time for collaborative leadership? What if we face a difficult situation and we don’t have time to confer with colleagues, or assemble our team to build consensus?

My advice for those moments is to rely on your values, the values that you have learned here as UVA students and as members of your sororities. Our values tell us to do the right thing, not the most popular thing or the most expedient thing; our values compel us to act with compassion and care, not with cold calculation; our values favor diversity over homogeny, and respect over disparagement. These are the values that we share as strong women leaders, and as members of this community.

If we have the right values, and if we live those values consistently, the right leadership decisions will come to us naturally.

Thank you, and I’d be happy to take your questions now.