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Of models and mentors

  • Published at 04:46 pm July 7th, 2017
Of models and mentors

I shy away from using entirely personal reflections here, because that’s not the purpose of op-ed columns. Rather, such columns should bring a decided outlook on an issue, phenomena, or policy that has a more general bearing.

There are occasions when the two intersect, and this is one of them, because organisational leadership -- as a practical endeavour -- has more and more resonance as nimble, effective organisations in business and in the non-profit sector become the pivots of societal change.

Last week was the end of a quarter century of public service for my boss, who I shall call Dr Dale.

As he retired on Friday, there was little of the phony emotionalism that is wont in most such events at colleges and universities.

Rather, there was some wrapping up of work, upbeat goodbyes and see-you-arounds with colleagues, professional development advice to subordinates, and a simple reception where people came by, paid their respects, and moved on. No fake tears, no overwrought commemorations of greatness and whatnot.

Well, it is very appropriate for the boss.

See, for the seven years I have worked for him, he has been about two things: Modelling and mentoring. Sure he works a lot with organisational models and forecasting models; but that is not the only modelling of which I write.

In exemplifying the work-life balance, the pursuit of excellence, and discernment of the difference between the important and the inconsequential, Dr Dale provided both a model for the 21st century workplace and an example that can be continuously refined ... which is appropriate considering he is a big aficionado of the management concept of continuous quality improvement.

A successful higher education executive who is a voracious reader of both professional and recreations material, the boss is also an even-keeled family man who, with his equally resourceful wife, raised four successful children, volunteers regularly in the community, takes care of elderly parents, keeps a respectable social schedule, and is considered a veritable national authority in his line of work. And all that without any martyr complex or periodic mental breakdowns.

That is not a manager; that is a leader who models leadership.

In gingerly stepping into his very big shoes, I have had a sense of being overwhelmed, but that sense is tempered by the realisation that each of my days at work over the past seven years, Dr Dale was consciously mentoring me and others who worked for him.

In matters as arcane as office protocol, to issues of technical expertise of great import, he quietly and unobtrusively made sure there was something to learn above and beyond our own duties.

Do I really need to have the 30-minute pre-coffee chat with the boss about some seemingly irrelevant topic such and such executive was obsessing over this week? Yeah, in retrospect, I did.

He dressed well but professionally. Why? Because, when you look professional you are more likely to act that way too and, as important, others pick up the vibe

He had the organisation’s portfolio of institutional effectiveness; knowing the organisation in its fullness of process and personnel dynamics was a key in making it more effective.

Over the seven years that I served under my boss, I learned slowly but surely. Rarely did he chide us for being a few minutes late; but he didn’t have to: Rarely was he not there in the office an hour before the expected starting time of eight in the morning.

Why? Because that was the time when one could, in relative peace, take a stock of the day about to start, plan accordingly, and get some quiet strategy time.

He went fully prepared (often, to us his underlings, over-prepared) to meetings with the facts, the data, and the intended outcomes well marshalled out.

Why? Because only then, amongst prima donnas that are as prevalent in academia as they are in the business world, did one have a commanding presence to be listened to with rapt attention.

He dressed well but conservatively and professionally.

Why? Because, when you look professional (instead of “comfortable”) you are more likely to act that way too and, as important, others pick up the vibe.

That is mentoring in the quiet and effective way; few words and lots of simple action.

While many of us are saddened to see the boss retire, we also realise that we are better prepared to handle his absence than would have been the case had he been not the model and the mentor he has been, perhaps unbeknownst to himself.

And, lucky us, the good Dr Dale is hardly walking into the sunset, but only moving to other pursuits not too far away. See, we have his email and phone number, just in case!

This is the kind of individual that leadership is built upon and organisations draw their viability from.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.

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