Fusion Leadership: A Path to Purpose in Times of Extreme Change

Editor's Note: On Tuesday, Aug. 25 (2-3 p.m. EST), ACUI will host the free webinar, A Path to Purpose: Fusion Leadership in Times of Extreme Change, with the author of these articles, Joanna Iwata, and four student affairs professionals versed in implementing fusion leadership models into their work lives. Mark your calendars now and be watching for registration information.

This is the second part of a two-part series on fusion leadership, a method for managing and leading organizations based on fusion, or joining together, rather than fission, or separation, that seeks to bring together whole individuals to accomplish mutual goals based on shared vision and values. The articles are based on the 1998 book Fusion Leadership: Unlocking The Subtle Forces That Change People and Organizations, by Richard L. Daft, professor of management and director of the Center for Change Leadership at Vanderbilt University, and Robert H. Lengel, associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas—San Antonio.  

In the first part of this series, the seminal leadership and management principles associated with Fusion Leadership: Unlocking the Subtle Forces that Change People and Organizations, were shared. The six subtle forces in action -- mindfulness, vision, heart, communication, courage, and integrity – were examined, and readers were asked to review and reflect on which qualities best characterized their own strengths by identifying three things one does best and three things you are most challenged by. The “reflections” Daft and Lengel offer to choose from with respect to the six subtle forces are:

The Six Dimensions and Associated Reflections


Mindfulness

  • Maintains an open mind.
  • Sets aside opinions.
  • Asks questions.
  • Challenges assumptions.
  • Sees whole and parts.
  • Encourages multiple approaches.

Communication

  • Listens.
  • Discerns other’s needs.
  • Cultivates face-to-face contact.
  • Celebrates completed tasks.
  • Floods information across boundaries.

Vision

  • Creates the future.
  • Inspires people.
  • Thinks big, does the impossible.
  • Focuses on values, yearnings.
  • Lives by hope and personal experience.

Courage

  • Follows a higher purpose.
  • Seeks to serve.
  • Supports failure as a way to grown and learn.
  • Acts on faith and trust
  • Accepts support from others.

Heart

  • Stays emotionally connected with people and work.
  • Looks for hidden potentials.
  • Be collaborative, interdependent.
  • Pays attention to ideas and people with emotional power.

Integrity

  •  Shares information, power, resources.
  • Meets unstated needs.
  • Affirms, builds, mentors others.
  • Empowers others, faith in others.
  • Deepens insight into self.
  • Inspires trust. 

These reflections can be illustrative of the transformative power the subtle forces can have upon teams that work closely together and eventually discover a process where breakdowns trigger breakthroughs, that teams can be at their best when emotionally invested in a change process that furthers a collective dream, and that through leadership, the motivation can be provided to take educated risks supported through our mentoring and coaching. 

While the subtle forces and reflections that support the fusion model may sound familiar one key noted in the previous article related to how language is used to embed principles into a team’s best practices. In seeking that “higher purpose toward which people work,” language can be used to embed these subtle forces into the collaborative team process and serve as a means of cutting through the panic and uncertainty that is manifested in these current times.  

This second and final article is an opportunity to view some of the best practices of five other student affairs professionals who have used language, the subtle forces, and the associated reflections, as an investment in transformative processes that can move others to work toward that “higher purpose.” Achieving fusion

A perfect starting point to begin to understand how best to effectively utilize these concepts within best practices might be to focus on the first three subtle forces, vision, heart, and mindfulness. We’ll begin with vision by sharing the thoughts of Debra Hammond, executive director of the University Student Union at California State University—Northridge. 

VISION 

  • Creates the future.
  • Inspires people.
  • Thinks big, do the impossible.
  • Focuses on values, yearnings.
  • Lives by hope and personal experience. 

Debra HammondA key aspect of what Hammond shared was that in any of her various executive leadership roles, being able to create a compelling vision to share with others, and most importantly, invite others into her “visioning process,” were important foundational elements toward success. Her visioning strategies include integration into staff training for both students and professionals on her teams and for student leaders throughout the year. It didn’t matter where or when this was occurring. It could be fall kick-off events, retreats, mid-year assessments of individuals, or collective visioning processes for teams. Each of these create opportunities for reassessment and mid-course adjustments toward the successful enactment of visioning plans.  

Visioning exercises are utilized during the annual budget planning process, they are utilized as teams design strategic priorities for the future, and they are always viewed as part of an on-going evolutionary process that does not begin or end on any date, but rather continues throughout the year. 

Hammond also shared that the collective engagement process that she orchestrates is one wherein her teams and student leaders need to also be able to “see themselves in the vision,” as a team of imagineers that share in the responsibility of enacting that vision. It’s important to recognize that a vision remains only a vision if you are unable to act on it; they don’t happen overnight, but over time. One great example she shared was the vision she had to bring in a novel wellness program and service called the Oasis Wellness Center. It took several years to get the program off the ground, to build up the level of interest and full support on and off campus, but it eventually became a unique collaborative endeavor with the student health center and with faculty in the College of Health and Human Development. As a team, they jointly developed a vision that was then shared with other campus entities identified as having complementary missions, similar goals, and needed enterprise. 

Not everything with this project went smoothly, and at times she said the “stars were not aligned,” so there were occasions where reassessments were made about when to pause and when to re-address things in order to move the project forward. Realizing there were pros and cons associated with each project, as well as benefits and liabilities that needed to be accounted for, it was the use of data and assessment tools like focus groups and research that helped turn things around.  

Moving beyond where some were stuck on the idea of the Oasis being a spa, a luxury, or frivolous facility, campus partners were able to provide full endorsement once it was tied into student wellness and student success and retention. At that point the project seemed entirely feasible. 

The visioning process of building the Oasis project was an incredible experience for her and her teams as they were part of the actualizing process for the vision through purposeful and intentional discourse and engagement with multiple stakeholders. It was a process that also included tapping into the five other fusion leadership subtle forces of heart, courage, mindfulness, integrity, and communication during a process that addressed an important need on campus for the student body and set a new standard in the college union industry. 

MINDFULNESS 

  • Maintains an open mind.
  • Sets aside opinions.
  • Asks questions.
  • Challenges assumptions.
  • See whole and parts.
  • Encourages multiple approaches.

Jan JavierJan Javinar, interim vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Hawai’i at West O’ahu, shared that his usual standard operating practice is reflected in the qualities associated with mindfulness with respect to how he coaches, counsels, and advises professional staff and students by asking questions first (seek to understand in order to be understood) through an effective strategy he continues to use associated with creating “pauses” for his teams to reflect before acting or even before approaching with questions. 

 

Intentional pausing allows him to get a better sense of why his staff or students come to him in the first place. For instance, is it because they want him to help them solve a problem, to just vent, to ask for assistance with their program planning, or simply to provide him with updates on what is affecting them either personally or professionally? 

Being able to listen to how they frame their concerns, in relation to what they may need, want, or expect from him, helps Javinar to respond to questions in more mindful ways. It also serves to help him work with others to uncover their underlying intentions and motivation, because for Javinar, mindfulness is about convincing staff that their choices need not be seen as being either right or wrong, but rather about addressing the needs of students being served. 

The process may irritate some expecting an immediate response, but Janivar sees his key role as helping provide others with that moment to pause, challenge their own points of view, and reflect on their own intentions. This reflection, when practiced regularly, can transform outcomes related to discussions.  

Javinar has found this type of mindful approach works for the range of emerging to seasoned professionals. New professionals, for example, in their eagerness may need to impress upon how “right” they are through acting on their own points of view, a process that can often result in the expressed perspectives of students being cast as wrong or off-base. For these new professionals, being mindful of their points of view and intentions is important for their own personal growth and self-discovery. 

A mindful approach can also serve everyone well when working with more seasoned professionals. Raising questions, causing one to pause about intention, and insisting on thoughtful follow-up steps, brought a level of mindfulness on the part of these colleagues. Having seasoned professionals think beyond the “rightfulness” of their approach, points of view, and solutions, often helped to attain results that better served students.  

By helping teams through a practice of mindfulness that moves one away from an “I am right; they are wrong” moment and closer to getting to the bottom line of understanding how decisions would ultimately impact students is a service to all involved, he has learned. This approach helped to create better outcomes, particularly when advising students and staff on alternative options they may not have otherwise considered. 

Even with COVID-19 upending organizational operating systems, Javinar has not changed his way of operating mindfully with staff and students, even if he may find himself needing to act more quickly to address questions and concerns. He believes that when you do so through a mindful way it creates a better sense of transparency with staff and students, especially when this mindfulness is conducted in combination with another fusion leadership principle, integrity: operating out of one’s own sense of walking the talk and living up to what a person values to model the way with associates. 

THE HEART 

  • Stays emotionally connected with people and work.
  • Looks for hidden potentials.
  • Be collaborative, interdependent.
  • Pays attention to ideas and people with emotional power.

Dan MaxwellDan Maxwell, associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Houston, views his primary fusion leadership concept of “the heart” as one of the key and fundamental foundations for the other five, to operate from collectively, which he then describes as when he can operate at his personal best through the extension of an authentic ethic of care. 

Maxwell said that in any work environment how leaders choose to interact with others through the “heart” can build greater levels of trust, honesty, and transparency, which for him continues to be critical to his success in working with his teams. By working through the heart, it’s easier for him to examine what it takes for him to attend to the “whole person,” regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle, or personal beliefs.  

Maxwell noted that when administrators can operate from an authentic “heart” space, both students and professional staff will respond accordingly because they can easily surmise when someone is not operating in an authentic way. 

His approach constitutes exercising a reflective “heart” process of looking within oneself to bring a more authentic self into the workplace. Best practices that he has discovered include journaling, meditation, prayer, exercise (which defines the start and end the day, possibly lunch). These practices allow him to create, and sustain, a healthier workplace and workforce, and he recognizes the positive impacts for both, particularly with respect to new professionals. 

His challenge as a supervisor has been how to help “grow people” in their work lives and determine how they can reconnect with their “heart” sense. Maxwell helps develop action plans and career pathways that encourage others build a sense of ownership that are “fusion-based,” not “fission-based,” which allows team members to move away, separate but equal.  

How Maxwell orchestrates and manages an ethic of care in the workplace, where team members collectively work together on what matters most to them, is of the utmost importance. As COVID-19 affects the University of Houston campus, multiple, complex impacts have presented new and unexpected challenges to the entire team, which in turn has led to an opportunity for becoming even more focused on operating from an ethic of care. 

One new challenge has been responding to situations where students who have a more personal association with living on-campus rather than being at home have had to go home due to campus and residence hall closures. Another has been the challenge of working from home and what that entails, from self-quarantine and eldercare to childcare and home schooling. 

So now the onus for Maxwell and team has been focused on how to co-create virtual spaces that have “heart” for students and staff. Rising to the challenges of the job looks differently when you’re working together virtually, rather than in the same social and work environment. 

How do you build a new online, virtual health service that is to be provided by university health and counseling centers? What’s the best way to communicate and enact virtual programs sponsored by the student recreation center? (They used exercise videos created by students!) You can identify positive outcomes when looking at things differently than they were viewed pre-pandemic, but by still exercising care and heart.  

The pandemic has forced students, faculty, and staff to re-evaluate their authentic selves, Maxwell said, and that has presented a unique opportunity to “check-in” on how they are operating from the “heart” and to allow themselves some “grace” in how they extend care to one another.  

INTEGRITY

  • Shares information, power, resources.
  • Meets unstated needs.
  • Affirms, builds, mentors others.
  • Empowers others, faith in others.
  • Deepens insight into self. Inspires trust.

Lincoln JohnsonLincoln Johnson, associate vice president for student life at the University of Washington, earlier this year celebrated his 24th year of work at this campus. Cultivated over those years, Johnson addressed how the importance of operating from integrity speaks to a work ethic that can best engender a culture of trust, respect, and care within an organization. 

Moving from a director’s role at the student union several years ago into distinctly separate senior leadership within the division of student affairs afforded an opportunity for him to challenge himself through key life lessons learned from others who helped model the way for him to hone his integrity. 

Johnson shared how calling upon yourself to re-examine and the exercise best practices for sharing and communicating information and resources with team members can facilitate a shared leadership approach. By inviting team members, colleagues, and even student leaders, to confront and challenge him about what’s not working for them, and by him confronting others as well, helps build that shared leadership dynamic. 

These discussions can create a “flee/fear or flight” reaction among supervisors and team members, particularly if they may not be able to engage in constructive ways over disagreements. But Johnson said that by operating from a place of integrity, a tone is set that can effectively turn the attention away from himself or other people defending their own positions, perspectives, or ideologies, and toward reflection on best intentions that create winning solutions from working together. 

By doing so he said he can effectively foster an organizational culture of “grace,” even under fire with managing student protests or navigating through the unknowns associated with COVID-19. This culture of grace revolves around allowances given to all for a time to step back and reflect, review, and regroup, which then allows for a different level of care and response to be evidenced.  

This may not be an easy task for some senior administrators, but he reminds us that by operating from a place of integrity, you allow others to do so as well. This forms an extension of grace that sets another level of care, generosity, and responsiveness that can transform the norms on a campus. 

COURAGE 

  • Follows a higher purpose.
  • Seeks to serve.
  • Supports failure as a way to grown and learn.
  • Acts on faith and trust.
  • Accepts support from others.

Jeremy SchenkJeremy Schenk, the executive director of Northwestern University’s Norris University Center, addressed the importance he associates with what he defines as important for all leaders and managers: an ability to take courageous stands, especially in the face of adversity. 

In a study he conducted for his dissertation about new professionals, he found that most of the study’s participants rated their director’s abilities to encourage risk-taking as low, especially when they are unable to see their directors as effective in questioning or challenging the status quo. He also noted that this alone, according to his interviews, was a contributing factor as to why new professionals were choosing to leave the field within their first one to five years of work. 

What he believes is that new professionals want to see and be confident that their leaders and managers can take courageous stands to remove certain obstacles and roadblocks in order to ensure job success. Viewing a director as not being able to push back nor involve them and others in decision-making, he found, contributed to a lack of confidence in feeling as if they could also be courageous in their own leadership roles to make a positive difference. 

Still, Schenk said there are still positive aspects when directors and their teams take bold and courageous actions together. This has been particularly underscored during the COVID-19 crisis, when difficult decisions affecting the safety and care of students and staff carry financial implications.  

One example he shared was what occurred when students were sent home and the need arose to meet students’ needs virtually. From a place of courage, this became an opportunity to be creative and to think outside of the box in order to deliver programs and services, albeit differently, during the spring semester. They quickly extended their Zoom teleconferencing license, for example, in order to accommodate a greater number of students, then saw over 1,400 students attend. It was successful yet it took a courageous move on their part to host events, not knowing what the response would be. 

Schenk, ACUI’s current president-elect, has also held various volunteer leadership roles with the Association, some of which have called on his ability to be courageous. One example was the restructuring of ACUI’s regions, from 15 down to 8, and how to best do that. The process took several years, required a lengthy solicitation for internal feedback from membership and leadership, and the mining and review of data that would help support the plan for change. Now, three years after the changes were adopted, the new structure has been regarded a success by the Association’s membership. 

As we look ahead to the fall 2020 semester and what it may look like on all of our campuses, another series of contemplative questions may be in order to provide leadership with courage, and to make important decisions in doing the right things on behalf of our students and campus community. 

How can we work together to enact more constructive ways to challenge the process? How can we enable others to act responsibly? How can encourage the “heart,” where courage resides, to aid us in becoming effective stewards? And finally, how can we “seek to know” rather than “know to seek,” as courageous leaders on our campuses? 

 

COMMUNICATION

  • Listens.
  • Discerns other’s needs.
  • Cultivates face-to-face contact.
  • Celebrates completed tasks.
  • Floods information across boundaries.

 By Joana Iwata 

Joanna IowataIn consideration of what brings teams together or separates them, the illustration that Daft and Lengel provide related to the differences between a manager’s use of organizational strong forces that dominate a team versus the use of personal subtle forces are important distinctions. 

Organizational and personal forces

Examples we have seen in action over the past six months, more prominently at state or federal levels, by the responses of executive leadership and the trickle-down effect it has on public schools, campuses, and communities, are examples of decisions being made in a vacuum where strong forces dominate and override the six subtle forces of fusion leadership -- mindfulness, heart, vision, courage, integrity, and communication. 

 

In contrast, observe what can occur to incite social justice movements, nationally and internationally, to counteract strong force decisions through the embrace of the six subtle forces to equalize the use of force and unilateral decision-making. Not only can fusion leadership reverse and mitigate the stronger use of force, it can literally transform people in the process.  

An example in higher education was recent challenge at the federal level to reverse the decision on behalf of international students attending college in the U.S. on F1 and M1 visas that would have led to the exit of a large percentage of international students back to their home countries to study. In the California State and University of California systems chancellors, their legal teams, faculty, and student governments banded together to file lawsuits in opposition to the plan. Importantly, it also exemplifies the power of the subtle force of communication when it synergizes with the other forces to address inequities and, in turn, create a “new” normal for empowerment on campus. 

Translating these examples of communication to the micro level as effective change agents for leaders on campuses is possible as administrators and managers listen, discern others’ needs, cultivate face-to-face contact (even virtually), and provide information across existing boundaries, all while celebrating small team wins as tasks and projects are completed successfully. 

As an adviser to student government leaders who act as advocates on behalf of 6,800 students, orchestrating different communication channels in support of their work requires a multifaceted, not singular, approach. Experience with leveraging informal and formal networks on campus provides the entree student leaders need to interact with other administrators and colleagues as part of the problem-solving and project fulfillment process. For instance, the cancellation of commencement ceremonies during the pandemic had a larger than life effect on seniors. The impact was particularly pronounced, from the landscape of a Hispanic-serving institution, for a significant number of first-generation students and their families who missed this poignant and landmark event. 

When the student government association wanted to weigh in on deliberations being made by the university’s commencement planning team, a manager in the role of a communicator was able to connect them to the chair of the planning team, leading to an invitation for two student government officers to take part in the time sensitive discussions. This also led to one of the student senators drafting a survey, fine-tuned by the planning team, and sent to all graduating seniors. The student response was overwhelming with over 400 students responding in less than 48 hours, and in the three days, over 700 responses, with important information then provided to the commencement planning team. Serving as communicative administrators, professional staff also acted as sounding boards, behind-the-scenes supporters, and advisors to student leaders who rallied to address the Black Lives Matter and DACA movements, in addition to the federal government limiting access to higher education to students from abroad.  

Communication can serve as a call to action within fusion leadership to analyze the existing norms, or “the way things are done around here,” that become routinized hierarchies of authority with very little individual incentives to do anything differently. It can address divisions of labor that split apart teams, often in the name of meeting a bottom line, acting as a means by which mindful and courageous communication within the appropriate time, place, and manner, can create positive changes that benefit an entire campus community. 

Effective communication can help to re-establish alliances, reinvigorate disenfranchised student governments that may have become isolated from the support of the administration, other campus departments, and identify and help build on our mutual interests like basic needs initiatives, advocacy-based outreach, and campus-wide promotions.  

Value-added work around communication can also include development of strategic plans, rebranding efforts, and other forms of outward communication that helps to define the psychological container within which other people work. These efforts can shape the big picture, tell people how they fit into it, and direct attention to what counts. Any opportunity to subtly teach the vision and values of your division in sharing with other faculty, staff and students, is an opportunity for a positive ripple effect. Leaders can provide a “mental picture and then free people to act within that picture,” Daft and Lengel note. Organizational fusion comes from the capacity to listen and respond by understanding when there is failure and when there are successes. “Listening produces change and growth,” they note with respect to the subtle force of communication. 

Orchestrating shared agendas using internal communication, giving credit where credit is due by way of external recognition, are critical to success, so managing communication channels with intentionality can have a qualitative, strategic, and political difference in the outcomes associated with student, faculty, staff, and administrator interactions. Listening to what stakeholders need to generate higher levels of campus partnership, participation, and attendance can lead to unprecedented levels of campus visibility that exceed the notion that the student union is only the living room on campus. The subtle force of communication revolves around a shared mindset of listening, respect, trust, and affirmation of others that can transform norms. 

In closing, when we consider these different fusion leadership applications in day-to day practices, in on-going staff development and student leadership trainings, what we discover is that when the situation calls to tap into any of the six subtle forces to respond to the different situations around us, it then allows us to transform the norms in substantive and meaningful ways. 

When we look around at what is occurring in the nation and world what may be missing has something to do with leaders becoming tactically and politically driven that they have forgotten or foregone the values associated with the six subtle forces of fusion leadership. How does this then play out in responding to the different needs of students?  Can we as leaders and managers restore a more distinctive ethic that draws from and appreciates people’s yearnings to “express their essence” as human beings?  Can we refocus on the subtle aspects of intellect, captured by mindfulness and vision, the subtle forces of emotion (revealed through heart and communication), or the subtle forces of spirit reflected in courage and integrity, to transform lives, teams, and organizations? 

As Daft and Lengel stated, “Fusion conversations can be designed by any leader in any setting...as it offers a spiritual freedom and a renewed sense of meaning…if you light the fusion candle, fires of change will soon burn throughout your organization.” This is especially true if you are committed to achieving your team’s higher purpose, and that can only happen if we possess the heart, the vision, the courage, the mindfulness, and the integrity to communicate it and make it happen. 

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