Gratitude in University Leadership: Challenges and Insights:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 183 with Dr. Drumm McNaughton

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Changing Higher Ed podcast 183-Gratitude in University Leadership- Challenges and Insights
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

28 November · Episode 183

Gratitude in University Leadership: Challenges and Insights

10 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

In this episode Drumm takes a moment to reflect on thankfulness and gratitude in the role of effective leadership for university presidents.


In this unique episode, Dr. Drumm McNaughton assumes both the role of host and guest, focusing on the theme of thankfulness and gratitude in university leadership.


The Importance of Gratitude in Leadership

The podcast illuminates the natural tendency to prioritize problem-solving over appreciation.

“Your brain is designed to problem-solve rather than appreciate. So, you must override this design to reap the benefits of gratitude.” ~ Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Drumm emphasizes the need for leaders in higher education to cultivate a mindset of gratitude. As noted by the Mayo Clinic, this shift can lead to numerous benefits, enhancing mood, immunity, and overall well-being and improving the ability to deal with challenges.


Gratitude in the Context of University Governance

In university leadership, gratitude is not only about personal well-being but also about effective governance. Leaders, especially university presidents dealing with issues like enrollment declines and high turnover rates of higher ed presidents, can greatly benefit from a perspective of gratitude. This approach helps in focusing on possibilities and positive aspects, enhancing their leadership effectiveness.


Three Key Takeaways for Higher Education Leadership

  1. Presidential Onboarding: New presidents should focus on learning about their new campus and stakeholders in the process of presidential onboarding. This is essential for understanding the dynamics and trust relationships within the campus.

  2. Leadership Through Empathy and Praise: The best leaders are those who take the time to learn people’s names, care about their station in life, and are quick to praise others and take blame. The importance of being humble and grateful is critical to success, recognizing the privileged position of leadership.

  3. Fiduciary and Moral Responsibilities: University leaders hold fiduciary responsibilities towards their stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students. They are also reminded of their moral responsibilities to help others grow and be the best they can be. Emphasizing humility and a collective approach to problem-solving is a part of this responsibility.

Final Thoughts

Drumm brings to light the transformative power of gratitude in reshaping leadership styles and outcomes in higher education. By acknowledging the challenges and utilizing gratitude as a tool for positive change, leaders can create more effective, empathetic, and responsive academic environments. This approach benefits not only the leaders themselves but also the broader academic community they serve.



Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 183 

Gratitude in University Leadership: Challenges and Insights


Drumm: Thank you, David. And hello to everyone.


This is a little different podcast than what we’ve typically done. Normally, when we’ve done podcasts, I have a guest on. This time, the guest is me. It shouldn’t be anything different than usual. I talk to myself all the time, but here we go.


Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a tradition we have here in America, roots going back to 1621 and the Pilgrims, who fled England in search of religious freedom. As the story goes, the Pilgrims and Native Americans put aside their differences and came together to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first good harvest since arriving in the New World.


Since then, the celebration of Thanksgiving has spread to many countries, including Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, Australia, and others.


We had a wonderful day here at Thanksgiving. We had our number two son and his fiancée over to the house along with our grand dog, Wensley. And it was a wonderful time. We had great conversations and shared a lot of things. But what really struck me was how people today, especially family, associate expressing gratitude with things.


More folks today express gratitude for things, and you know, that’s perfectly normal.


According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s actually a very good thing. From their website, they say expressing gratitude is associated with a host of mental and physical benefits. Studies have shown that feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood, and immunity. It can decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain, and risk of disease. They go on to say if a pill could do this, everyone would be taking it.


Your brain is designed to problem-solve rather than appreciate. So, you must override this design to reap the benefits of gratitude.


Years ago, I went through a course called Appreciative Inquiry, which is a way to do culture change and many other things in organizations.


And one of the exercises that we start off when using Appreciative Inquiry is getting people to think about a time where they we’re doing well, the institution was doing well, et cetera, and it changes the way that they think. They start thinking about possibilities instead of trying to problem solve and fix things.


In this time where we see increased closures, we see enrollment declines, we see problems with shared governance, there’s a lot of things out there to make us feel more negative to take our attention in that way, and I would caution you and really encourage you to be grateful. Yeah, there are problems out there; we all know that be grateful for what we have.


As far as university presidents, yours is the most challenging job in the world, with the possible exception of hospital CEOs who have life-or-death decisions to make.


And there are many universities that have medical facilities there.  So be thankful for what you have. It really is an amazing job that you are privileged to be in.


I really wanted to just chat about gratefulness and the importance of that. Take a moment to say thank you to all those who serve. Whether it’s on the front lines in the fight against aggression and racism or terrorism.


In the hospitals and medical facilities. We’ve come out of the pandemic, but we still have quite a number of cases of Covid going around.


Our military, who spends their day defending our freedoms.


Or for yourselves, helping to improve someone’s station in life through education, which is very critical.


You know, even little things, or they’re not really such little things, as being a good spouse, or a parent, or a child. You know, ways that we can make our world a kinder and more gentler place, a more peaceful place to live.


We face lots of challenges, but with all the negative news that we’re exposed to, we tend to forget the blessings that we have in our lives. On this Thanksgiving and going into the holiday season, let’s remember those blessings and give thanks to that giver who gives us all these things.


So, just briefly to wrap up, as we always do, three takeaways for university presidents.


As I said, yours is the most challenging job in the world. So, for new presidents, what I would say is to learn about your new campus. Do presidential onboarding; it’s critical. You don’t know who you trust. You don’t know who has your back. You don’t know what the things are that are going on.


Your interview process, and we’ll be doing a podcast on this coming up in the next couple of weeks. You’re coming on board to a completely new campus. Find out what’s going on. Find out what drives people there. That’s really important.


Be leaders. Take a moment to reach out to everyone on your campus. You know, the best leaders are those who take the time to learn people’s names and truly care about their station in life.


You hear many stories about presidents who bump into the groundskeeping or the janitorial staff. They know them; they have conversations with them. Be like this person. You know, people will treat you as you treat them. And sometimes it takes a while to gain trust, especially in situations where there’s been very little trust between faculty/ administration, staff /administration, etc.


Be quick to praise others. The best presidents don’t take credit for the great things that happen. They give the praise to others.


Be humble. Be quick to take the blame. As President Truman said, “the buck stops here”. Have your people’s backs, always.


And lastly, be grateful. Yours may be the most difficult position, but you’re privileged to hold it. Yes, you are and should be well compensated, but gratefulness should go beyond material things.


Yours is a fiduciary responsibility to your stakeholders, your faculty, your staff, your students, and especially your students, but more than that, you have moral responsibilities to help others grow and become the best they can.


Don’t forget that in this litiginous world we live, it’s very difficult to say, “Yeah, my fault. I take the blame”, even if it wasn’t what you did.


You can teach people so much by being humble and saying, “Let’s figure this out; let’s do this together.”


So those are my three takeaways for presidents, and my own three takeaways are giving thanks to my clients and hope that we’ve been able to help them address their challenges.


Thanks to my family, who’ve put up with my idiosyncrasies for a long time, and they’re still with me. They’re the real saints here, not me. And then finally, to our Heavenly Father, to whom all thanks for everything in my life goes.


Happy holidays, everyone. May this season bring peace and joy to all people in all nations of the world, and I look forward to seeing you at the next podcast.

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