TITLE: Courage and the Path to Greatness AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 08, 2010 4:34 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last spring, a colleague commented that he didn't think our department spent enough time trying to be great. This made me sad, but it struck me as true. At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond. All groups have their internal politics. Some political situations are short-lived; others are persistent, endemic. We are no different, and maybe even above average. (Someone has to be!) Political struggles take time and energy. They steal focus. I think everyone in our group desires to be great. Unfortunately, that's the easy part. For a group to achieve greatness, individuals must work together in a common direction. In our group, it is hard to build consensus on a shared vision. I don't pretend that once we share a vision that greatness will come easily, but it's hard to get anywhere unless everyone is trying to go to the same place -- or at least is using the same criteria for progress. As for me, in my role as department head, I have not always found -- or created -- the will, the energy, or the tools I need to help us move confidently in the direction of greatness. So, at times, we seem to settle, working locally but not globally. This train of thought reminds me of a couple of comments James Shore made about stumbling through mediocrity in the context of agile software development:
The emphasis [in the software world] has shifted from "be great" to "be Agile." And that's too bad. As much as I like it, there's really no point in Agile for the sake of Agile.
The point is to be great, or perhaps more accurately, to do great things. Agile approaches are a path, not a destination.
I want to work with people who want to be great. People who aren't satisfied just fitting in. People who are willing to take risks, rock the boat, and change their environment to maximize their productivity, throughput, and value.
One of the things that has surprised me so much about group dynamics since I joined a faculty and perhaps more so since I've been in the position of head is the enormous role that fear plays in how individuals work and interact with one another. It takes courage to take risks, to rock the boat, and to change the environment in which we live and work. It takes courage to be honest. It takes courage to take an action that may make a colleague or supervisor unhappy. Without courage, especially at key moments, opportunities pass, sometimes before they are even recognized. I have experienced this in how I interact with others, and occasionally I observe it how colleagues interact with me and others. I never thought that this would be a major obstacle on my path to greatness, or my department's. (For what it's worth, Shore's second passage also describes the kind of students I like to work with, too. If it is hard for experienced adults to have this sort of gumption, imagine how much tougher an expectation it is to have of young people who are just learning how to step out into the world. Fortunately, as teachers, we have an opportunity to help students grow in this way.) -----