“Being a Leader of Possibility” by Cathy Smalley Pales


Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.” 

Leave it to Ralph Waldo Emerson to sum up in sixteen words the theme of this blog.  I will try to limit my thoughts to 500 words.

I believe that leaders and teams can become their best and achieve great results if they are able to stop standing in their own sunshine.  They inhibit their leadership growth and development, and in turn organizational effectiveness, by focusing on what’s not working as opposed to what is working. 

Student affairs leaders face a wealth of challenges including limited resources and the competing interests of multiple stakeholders.  All too often work days are spent reacting to problems – issues that need “fixing”.  The question, “What’s wrong and how do we fix it?” becomes standard operating procedure.  The danger in getting trapped in this way of thinking is that it maintains the status quo and limits possibilities.  We end up standing in our own sunshine.  If we define a challenge as a problem, we are limited to one response – to fix whatever is wrong.

There is another way of thinking – a possibility seeking point of view.  Leaders of possibility, when faced with a challenge, ask, “What’s working and how do we build on these successes?”.  They use both their individual and their team’s personality and behavioral strengths to address the challenge.  The challenge is reframed as a statement of reality – it is not given the “problem” label.  By doing so, there are multiple options in which to respond, many of which may involve positive change. 

Let’s suppose that attendance at residence hall programming is down 10% over the previous year.  That is a statement of fact on which all can agree.  If this statement of fact is labeled a problem, there is only one possible response – raise attendance at residence hall programs.  However, if the statement of fact is not saddled with the subjective view that it is a problem, then there are multiple possibilities for response.  A leader of possibility would say, “Residence hall programming attendance is down 10% – how do we respond?” as opposed to saying, “Residence hall programming attendance is down 10% – how do we fix that?”.  By leaving off the “problem” label, the team is in a much better position to brainstorm creative responses, including the possibility that reduced attendance is a positive outcome (e.g. more personal attention given to programming attendees).

It is human nature to give attention to what’s wrong.  Think about the last time you were involved in a SWOT analysis.  Chances are greater than not that more energy was given to identifying Weaknesses and Threats instead of Strengths and Opportunities.  Leaders of possibility give much more energy to an organization’s strengths and lessons learned from past successes to respond to current challenges.   

About the author:

Cathy Smalley Pales is president of Powerful Purpose Leadership, LLC, a leadership and team development firm that specializes in working with higher education institutions.  Dr. Pales has 20 years of experience in leadership development. She spent most of her career in higher education serving in administrative leadership positions and designing leadership development curricula for college and university students. Dr. Pales later became a higher education association executive and created professional development programs for higher education administrators and business professionals serving the higher education market.

She received her Doctor of Education in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Virginia and is an adjunct faculty member for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at the University of Virginia.

Cathy Smalley Pales, Ed.D. csp@powerfulpurposeleadership.com




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