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Dealing with Leadership Change

NAU Franke Craig Van SlykeJust a week ago (as I write this), the Northern Arizona University community learned that our next president would be Dr. Rita Cheng. This announcement ended a season of much speculation, but it brought about considerable uncertainty – “What will our new president be like?” “What changes will she make?” and most importantly “How will the changes affect me?” A change in leadership often brings about great anxiety and stress. I must admit that I’ve felt some of this myself. Being a reflective sort, I’ve thought quite a bit about my reactions to our pending leadership change. This reflection led me to some conclusions that you might find helpful when facing similar change.

Uncertainty causes the anxiety and stress that accompanies change. Aristotle called this “the anguish of uncertainty.” You know life under the current leader, but you can’t really know what life will be like with the new leader. All you can really be sure of is that some things will be different, you don’t know what or how; you only know that things will be different. That’s a lot of uncertainty. My favorite philosophers, the Stoics, give us some thoughts that might help us deal with this uncertainty. First up is Seneca, who advises us to root out two sources of pain: “The fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering.” Let’s add to this Epictetus’s advice to “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” What these Stoics are telling us is that rather than wasting energy in worrying about what might happen, we should save that energy for dealing with what actually does happen. Then focus on what you can control, and let the rest go. Developing plans for dealing with potential events is a good idea, but don’t be consumed with worry. Put that energy into planning.

It is easy to get caught up in speculation about life under the new leader. Engaging in some speculation is fine, but don’t get carried away. Most speculation is based on a shaky foundation of limited knowledge based on past events. Keep in mind that leaders grow and learn. Even if you learn of some past offenses, you shouldn’t automatically assume that these will be repeated. Hopefully, you learn from mistakes; it’s likely that the new leader will as well. Practice the same tolerance and patience that you would want to enjoy. Trust me, it takes time to learn a new landscape. The new leader needs time to understand the organization, its environment and, most importantly, its people. Expecting the new leader to arrive with this understanding is unreasonable. Basically, I’m saying to cut the new leader some slack. Jumping all over early (perceived) mistakes is bad for the leader, bad for the organization and bad for you. Don’t do it. Also on your “don’t do” list is paying too much attention to rumors. Rumors are always colored by the perceptions of those spreading them; most are complete hogwash. Don’t base your judgments on rumors; base them on your own experiences and observations. Please note that none of the above is intended to relate to Dr. Cheng’s leadership record, which is outstanding. I’m speaking about leadership change generally, not any specific case.

Let me leave you with two thoughts. First, be careful not to read too much into early events or decisions. I have a tendency to look for symbolic messages embedded in events, which leads me to getting a bit carried away in interpreting those events. Sometimes I find hidden messages that are hidden because they aren’t really there; I’d be better off to just relax. Finally, a change in leadership is much easier to bear calmly if you have a strong sense of purpose. Changes in leadership may change how you pursue your purpose, but they never, and I mean never, prevent you from pursuing your purpose. Understanding this wards off the uncertainty and anxiety by giving you the sense of control that leads to happiness, even in uncertain times.

By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. Send your comments and feedback on these columns to craig.vanslyke@nau.edu. Follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.

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