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Leading Authentically as Change Agents



By Titus Adeleke 


Student conduct practitioners who did not traditionally operate in a virtual setting are experiencing a new wave of change created by the onset of our community's collective response to the novel Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. Almost simultaneously, institutions began to experience reignited calls for social justice change and awareness within their communities as a response to a new wave within the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. As leaders in our institutions, we are primarily responsible (rightfully so) for upholding the community standards of our institutions and modeling the way for our students – all while leading as change agents for our institutions and communities as well. This post will examine the roles of student conduct practitioners as change agents through the lens of the authentic leadership theory (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Shu, 2015). Knowing our place as change agents can be challenging; especially while navigating societal changes on a large scale.

It is imperative for student conduct practitioners to identify our roles as change agents, our change recipients, and how we can continue to navigate and lead in this dynamic era of societal change for the betterment of our students. Our role as change agents in our institutions will be to lead the way through uncharted territories in our current world of global pandemic response and national demand for social justice. While organizational change is comprised of change agents and change recipients, it can often be assumed that “change agents are doing the right and proper things while change recipients throw up unreasonable obstacles” (Ford, Ford, & D'Amelio, 2008, p. 362). Without a doubt, the organizational change that higher education institutions across the country have been forced to undergo within the first half of 2020 is beyond what many could have predicted. Amidst COVID-19, BLM, and a polarizing election year, the jury will be out for quite some time on the concluding impacts these variables will have on the future of higher education. 

 

Practitioners in student conduct will be critical leaders during a time when our students embark on new and unknown college experiences; far from the pop culture references and images often depicted of college life they may have grown accustomed to viewing. As practitioners, our primary responsibilities lie within supporting the student through these experiences. We also have to become adept at balancing areas that compete for our professional attention on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it be navigating an increasingly legalistic space or managing the multiple identities we hold while facilitating conversations with colleagues and students, searching for the verbiage that describes these instances in a rapidly changing environment can be a daunting task. We owe it not only to ourselves but also to our students, to move through these instances while engaging authentic leadership behavior. 

 

Authentic leadership theory has been around since its era of establishment during the 1960s, but early iterations of the theory can be traced back as far as ancient Greece (Zimmer, 2017). Needless to say, the concept has been around for some time. What makes authentic leaders so crucial in times of change is their ability to wholeheartedly espouse what they value and believe while behaving in ways consistent with said values, beliefs, and priorities. The literature summarizes authentic leaders as those who have a keen sense of their behavioral characteristics related to thought and action. These leaders are also perceived by others as “being aware of their own and others' values/moral perspectives, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character” (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 321). There can be a lot to unpack with this theory, but it is important to highlight the elements that most resonate with practitioners in our field. 

 

What makes the present time so unprecedented is the fact that every individual is going through these changes together. It is safe to assume that a large majority of professionals will not want to look back and conclude that they were on the “wrong” side of history. Whatever that might mean to you is personal, however, there is not much open to interpretation when it comes to our duties as student conduct professionals. We are expected to uphold our standards of conduct and help students reframe their experiences, while also recognizing that we have a unique touchpoint with students; often meeting them at a low point in their educational careers. We must commit to become authentic leaders in our spheres of influence and genuinely present ourselves when we meet with our students. It can become problematic if our behavioral characteristics are not at the forefront when we present to students and they should be in line with our thoughts and actions. There are multiple identities and experiences we bring to a meeting that facilitate our interactions with students and colleagues. We can never expect students to realistically comprehend, let alone consider, the suggestions we have for them related to their behavior if we as practitioners are unable to align our actions with our thoughts.

 

In this era of dynamic change, we should be especially aware of a student's values and morals. At the time of this writing, students are navigating anything but an infallible college experience. There are plenty of guidelines and responsibilities a student must adhere to and consider at this moment while they make decisions as it relates to their conduct and behaviors. During a student conduct meeting, traditionally speaking, the incident in question is typically the pressing topic of discussion. There will always be exceptions, but right now, acknowledging and becoming aware of a student's disposition on what is important to them during your meeting can assist in trying to help them balance the onus they feel each day just for showing up and committing to their daily responsibilities.

 

Practicing authentic leadership is paramount for those looking to act as effective change agents. We must support students during this critical moment in their collegiate experiences because we can help them capture and identify not only what they are passionate about, but also get to the core of what moves and guides them through each day. This is imperative as we assist them through what could arguably be the most enigmatic time in recent history to navigate the formative years of their young adult lives. We can become acolytes to our students who are the believers, idealists, and dreamers into galvanizing behind a historically important moment for this generation. We can also support them by taking the time to explain the ever-evolving expectations tied to functioning appropriately in a legalistic manner that working in student conduct so often finds itself.

 

Being a change agent means coming up against change recipients, who can be viewed in this instance as those not wanting to conform to the wave of a moment and can seriously obscure or limit the change that could be history defining for a department, institution, or even generation. As change agents practicing authentic leadership, student conduct practitioners should be aware of the context in which they operate. Remaining hopeful, optimistic, and even resilient are lofty tasks considering staff are also up against their own personal battles outside of their daily work responsibilities. Change agents are tasked with communicating frequently about change; however, this very practice can be viewed as being misrepresentative of said change. To reduce this instance, it is encouraged that agents are truthful and realistic about what can take place, even if along the way they reveal what they do not know (Ford et al., 2008, p. 367). Remember, being an authentic leader means being aware of your perspectives. To showcase this understanding, try being honest with a student about not knowing an answer. Especially during a time of great change, students are much more likely to respect your ability to be upfront and honest about a situation instead of offering an unrealistic solution to a complex problem. 

 

Feeling morose about your day is almost viewed as an acceptable attitude when juxtaposed against the first half of this calendar year. There has been a lot of activity in our higher education worlds and we have not been physically present for a large majority of these instances. As we continue to navigate these career-defining moments in our history, it is important to be confident in our decision-making and to listen intently. A recent notable example is the leadership in the California State University system's decision to go fully online for the fall 2020 semester. One has to acknowledge the authentic leadership required to make such an impactful decision as early as they did. Such a grand gesture was enacted before the ripple effects of COVID-19 became a major point of discussion for higher education. A choice was made, and the necessary actions were taken. It is less about being right or wrong (as things are rarely so cut and dry), and much more about being aware of the ever-changing context in which you operate, acknowledging what you do not know, yet leading with confidence and authenticity. 

 

Student conduct practitioners are tasked with upholding our institution's community standards, students' rights, holding our students accountable for their actions, and leading them through their college experiences in the hopes they can ultimately move towards a meritorious state of existence. Exercising these aspects as an authentic leader while going through such rapid change is prudent. Our roles as change agents will be supported by our awareness of others' perspectives while operating with candor in a self-aware context. Constantly challenging ourselves to remain true to our thoughts through equally consistent action, and being confident in our decision-making, will guide our students as we break down their experiences that serve as a part of their educational journey.

 

References

Avolio, B. J. & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315-338. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.001

Ford, J.D., Ford, L.W., & D'Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/AMR.2008.31193235

Shu, C.Y. (2015). The impact of intrinsic motivation on the effectiveness of leadership style towards on work engagement. Contemporary Management Research, 11(4), 327-349. Retrieved from http://www.cmr-journal.org

Zimmer, S.M. (2017). Authentic leadership. Research Starters: Business. Retrieved from http://www.ebscohost.com

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