Perspectives on the Community College. A Conversation with Al Lorenzo.

By Christopher Engle, DCCL student and Registrar at Mott Community College, MI, based on an interview with Albert Lorenzo, President Emeritus, Macomb Community College, MI

In this Perspectives article, the author explores leadership characteristics that may be universal versus those that require flexibility in order to respond to changing conditions.

American educator John W. Gardner (1990) once stated, “We cannot design a product line that turns out leaders. But we can offer promising young people opportunities and challenges favorable to the flowering of whatever leadership gifts they may have” (p. 158).

What are the leadership “gifts” that Gardner says we must “flower”? What characteristics and attributes will advance “promising young people” to the next leadership level? And what skills will sustain these young people as they develop into the confident leaders of the future? For emerging leaders, important opportunities to demonstrate their leadership skills may appear infrequent; however, when they are faced with leadership challenges, these young leaders need to be ready to face them confidently and effectively.

Recognizing that emerging leaders can learn from those who lead us, I asked my mentor, an accomplished leader, “What made you a successful leader?”  To my surprise, he answered, “Well, what worked for me, may not work for you.”  This was not the answer I was expecting.

The literature tells us that effective leaders have three main characteristics: leadership skills, leadership behaviors, and most importantly, leadership values (Nevarez and Wood, 2010).  Leadership skills include the ability to manage people and processes, develop followers, and complete tasks. Leadership behaviors include the way we communicate, our motivational capability, and our decision-making processes. Leadership values, on the other hand, include more deeply rooted personal characteristics such as integrity, honesty, respect, trustworthiness, and the willingness to accept responsibility.

When my mentor responded, “Well, what worked for me, may not work for you,” I didn’t understand what he meant.  But then he explained, “You see, leadership skills and behaviors should change over time and match the nature, demographics, and environment surrounding you; however, your leadership values seldom change.”

My mentor’s emphasis on the difference between leadership skills and leadership values resonated with me, and I was challenged to study it further.  Using Gardner’s leadership attributes as a guide, I conducted an informal survey with community college presidents, vice presidents, and a doctoral cohort of emerging leaders. The survey asked the respondents to provide the following:

  • The number of years they had served in a leadership role
  • A rank order of Gardner’s 14 leadership attributes by personal importance
  • Other important leadership attributes not mentioned by Gardner

The results of this survey produced a common theme.  Sixty-five percent of the respondents had leadership experience ranging from three years to more than eleven years.  They indicated that three of Gardner’s attributes ranked as Extremely Important: (1) Willingness to Accept Responsibility, (2) Skills in Dealing with People, and(3) Capacity to Win and Hold Trust.  According to the respondents, these three attributes are grounded in core leadership values such as integrity, respect, honesty, trustworthiness, and accepting responsibility.

If we agree that core leadership values should generally remain constant, then we must consider the reasons why leadership skills and behaviors should be more flexible.  The answer lies in the leader’s environment and the reality that this environment is likely to change often.

John Garder’s Leadership Attributes
1 Physical Vitality and Stamina
2 Intelligence and Judgment-in-Action
3 Willingness (Eagerness) to Accept Responsibilities
4 Task Competence
5 Understanding of Followers/Constituents and Their Needs
6 Skill in Dealing with People
7 Need to Achieve
8 Capacity to Motivate
9 Courage, Resolution, Steadiness
10 Capacity to Win and Hold Trust
11 Capacity to Manage, Decide, Set Priorities
12 Confidence
13 Ascendance, Dominance, Assertiveness
14 Adaptability, Flexibility of Approach

Those of us in leadership positions know how institutional changes can impact the perceptions of our colleagues, the environments we work in, and the nature of the college culture. Gardner (1990) explains, “Acts of leadership take place in an unimaginable variety of settings, and the setting does much to determine the kinds of leaders that emerge and how they play their roles” (p. 6).

Gardner’s “unimaginable variety of settings” is, in part, tied to expected changes that the passage of time brings. Many examples come to mind, based on cultural shifts, social expectations, technological advancements, accountability mandates, and generational divisions.

While some leadership settings have changed quickly, others have evolved more naturally. We know, for example, that in the recent past leadership decisions were often made in private; today, decision making is expected to be increasingly public and transparent.  We have also experienced the desire for immediacy.  Not too long ago, projects and processes were expected to take time and leaders were afforded patience from their followers. Now, decisions are driven by shorter deadlines and intensified by technology. Other changes appear to be generational, including some tied to merit rewards. Raises and promotions seemed more clearly linked to visible results rather than today’s expectation of entitlement. And, in the past, employees were loyal to their organizations and vested themselves with the company. In today’s increasingly mobile environment, people are more flexible and open to new career opportunities, often with little or no emotional ties to the institution they leave behind.

As I reflect upon my conversation with my mentor, his point is now clear.  As my colleagues and I emerge as new leaders and our leadership abilities begin to “flower,” we need to develop our leadership skills in order to manage and lead effectively. We also must adjust and modify our leadership behaviors within our ever-changing environments.  Additionally, we should adapt to a flexible and nimble leadership style.

While we can learn a great deal about these skills and behaviors from our mentors by watching them lead, we cannot assume that their skills and strategies will work as effectively for us.  If we truly want to be effective leaders and leave a lasting imprint, then we need to define and establish our core leadership values, our integrity, respect, honesty, trustworthiness, and our ability to accept responsibility. And we must be prepared to stay true to these values during the good times and the difficult times.

Gardner, J. W. (1990). On Leadership. New York: The Free Press.
Navarez, C. and Woods, J. (2010).  Community College Leadership and Administration. New York:  Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Content and editorial guidance provided by DCCL faculty.

  1. Hunter GilmoreHunter Gilmore09-07-2013

    Chris,

    Great article! I appreciated how you exemplified the importance of learning from a mentor and then reflecting on the important things they teach. He gave you some great insight but what resonated most with me was his guidance that you can learn from a mentor while being aware that what works for him/her may not work for you.

    I agree that adaptability and flexibility are the name of the game in leadership.

    Great job. Hunter Gilmore

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