Collective resilience in challenging times
As life begins its return to something resembling normal, I want to share some of what I have learned about leadership during these unprecedented times, for it speaks directly to what makes our university a special place.
My favorite definition of good leadership comes from the World Economic Forum: “True leadership is exemplified by those who are able to energize individuals and teams; empower, fertilize and build communities; and recognize and form the talent around them. They are the coaches, learners, teachers and mentors who demonstrate the discipline it takes to make changes to other people’s lives and to our world.”
Note the emphasis on others, the extent to which this definition judges leaders by their ability to bring out the best in those they lead, rather than the power they wield. Berkeley represents the very antithesis of a command-and-control organization. Our staff and faculty are profoundly connected to, and invested in, our mission. They feel a sense of ownership and take great pride in what we do and what we stand for. They want and deserve to be heard and engaged.
Over the course of this challenging year, I have seen, time and again, this orientation towards the team prove its worth and relevance. Once we, together, established the values and objectives for our response to the pandemic, the inherent resilience of Berkeley’s professional community emerged not because of a directive from the center. Rather, it arose from every corner of campus, from teams and individuals who embraced and were accustomed to devolved responsibility. Our staff took the initiative and found innovative and adaptive ways to sustain the excellence and scope of our academic programs, as well as the services we offer to support student academic success and well-being. Our faculty developed pedagogical muscles they never knew they had, finding new ways to convey knowledge and love of learning. Leadership was everywhere, diffused throughout the institution and applied in ways that no highly centralized system ever could.
That resilience, perseverance, and sense of purpose in the face of extraordinary challenges is why, in many ways, our university is emerging from this year stronger than ever.
I also learned—again—that humility is an essential attribute for every leader. Assuming leadership is like stepping into a river. The river has flowed to the point that we enter it, and it will continue to flow after we step out. An important part of being a leader is understanding the course the river has taken, the broad sweep of its history, and the powerful context of its values. We must take into account the mores and memories, ideals and aspirations that took root long before we ever arrived on the scene and will persist long after we leave.
This is particularly true for Berkeley. If we have emerged stronger from this year it is because we understand the source of our collective resilience. Our university is both a public service and a public good. We not only profoundly change the lives of the students we educate, we also touch and improve the lives of people around the world.
In fact, the institution itself occupies a unique leadership role in society. Our university was established as a means to promote democracy, advance the greater good, and spread the blessings of an excellent education beyond the offspring of the elite. Today, we celebrate our identity as an engine of socioeconomic mobility, as an institution animated by a determination to make the world a better place.
We are living in a historic moment when things are shifting about us in ways that will have a profound impact upon the future. What animates us as a university is individual and institutional agency—the notion that through the discovery, dissemination, and discussion of knowledge we can make the world a better place. This may be a perilous time, but so, too, is it a time of creative ferment and possibility, and that is prime time for this public university.
As a leader, I have the privilege—and the responsibility—of supporting and directing that agency so that it advances our mission, adheres to our values, and supports the people we serve. There is no place I would rather be, and there is nothing more meaningful that I could ever do.
From the Summer 2021 issue of California.