Good Leaders and Followers

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This is a follow-up to my last post about the Future of Folkloristics conference. The conference participants talked about the skills of leadership and “followership.” Many people don’t think that they are, or can become leaders. They feel more comfortable as a follower.

I don’t have a problem with that, except the rules for good leaders and followers are exactly the same.

What do I mean?

Think about what makes a good leader. Here are a few traits:

  • Empathy: Creating a legitimate rapport with co-workers makes it less likely that personal issues and resentment can creep in and derail the workplace. When your colleagues know that you are empathetic to their concerns, they will be more likely to work with you and share in your vision, rather than foster negative feelings.
  • Consistency/Dependability: Being a consistent colleague is essential to building respect and credibility. Your colleagues need to know they can depend on you, and consistency is the primary way to do that.
  • Honesty: Another characteristic of a good colleague that builds credibility and trust. People who are honest, especially about concerns, make it far more likely that obstacles will be addressed rather than avoided.
  • Communication: Effective communication helps keep colleagues informed and allows everyone to feel like they are part of the larger mission of the organization.
  • Flexibility: Not every problem demands the same solution. Being flexible to new ideas and open-minded enough to consider them increases the likelihood that you will find the best possible answer.

Think about that list. Which of these traits are less important for any member of a working group? I want everyone who works in my department to have those qualities, regardless if they are the head of a program or a brand new teacher.

Another thing to consider: with each of these characteristics, we often assume that people have these qualities, or they do not. Not so. It’s true, every person has their own set of strengths, but it’s equally true that these qualities can be learned.

There is one characteristic that all leaders have to have: vision. A vision the ability to break out of the here and now and aim for great things, and have the wherewithal to set the steps necessary to get there. By seeing what can be and setting the goals on how to get there, a competent leader can effect significant change.

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The Future of American Folkloristics #FOAF

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GMU Folklore students and alums posing with Stith Thompson.                                                           L-R: Chrissy Widmeyer, Kristina Downs, Kim Stryker, Debra Lattanzi Shutika, Stith Thompson, Kaitlyn Kinney, Kerry Kaleba, Citizen Ken

About a year ago, a group of forward-thinking graduate students at Indiana University hatched a plan for a conference. They wanted to bring folklorists at all stages of their careers* together to discuss the future of the discipline. Shortly after, the planning for FOAF began. This week, one hundred plus folklorists converged on Bloomington. From the start is was clear something historic was happening.

The conference had a distinct dynamic. Most panels were headed by women, and the audience members were engaged, enthusiastic, and positive. Ideas where shared. Friendships were forged. The future looks brighter today than it did when I arrived in Bloomington four days ago.

What did this conference accomplish?

The graduate student organizers asked their peers and elders to seriously consider an important issue: where are we going? Amazingly, there was almost none of the customary kvetching that we come to expect when folklorists get together to discuss the field. The kvetching that did come up was mostly in the Twitter feed. I think we all recognized that there will always be folklorists who are envious, discontented and jaundiced. That’s a personal choice that some will always hang onto. At the same time, it was clear that the participants recognized that kvetching doesn’t solve problems. Identifying problems doesn’t either. It might make the kvetcher feel better, but the problems will still be there.

What’s the alternative? In-depth discussions of what folklorists CAN ACTUALLY DO to strengthen the field. Some of the things we discussed included:

  1. Strategies for selling our programs and events to university deans, provosts and presidents directly
  2. How to lobby congress and local representatives (drawing on the efforts of the National Humanities Alliance)
  3. Using the fantastic AFS Advocacy Toolkit
  4. Creating new positions and programs in folklore
  5. Developing folklore leaders to be better prepared to shape the organizations where we work.

We also discussed the realistic limitations of our power. Some problems are structural and not of our making. We can and should work to reshape our workplaces, but we’re not going to be able to fix every injustice.

Finally, I think we also broke through folklore’s 4th wall: moving from a community of problem-identifiers to problem-solvers. We have started to see where our agency, however limited, can be utilized. I expect we’ll have more conversations about how each folklorist can shape our discipline and workplaces for a new future.

*I have purposely not made a distinction between different types of folklorists: applied, public, independent, or academic. We’re ALL folklorists.