Effective Leadership Theories: eLearners Interview

Working with Central Michigan's student leaders makes coming to work every day a joy

Working with Central Michigan’s student leaders makes coming to work every day a joy | Photo Credit: Steve Jessmore

In a recent interview with eLearners, Kelly Bray DeSola asked me a fundamental question about my work to develop the next generation of leaders, “What would you say are the most important traits of an effective leader?”

I believe that successful leaders believe in their organization and understand that its greatest asset is its membership and their capacity. Successful leaders seek to create other leaders, understanding that through the creation of leadership they make their influence increase exponentially.

See the full interview online at eLearners.com.

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Christmas in Canada

Shoppers pause to take a selfie in the Toronto Christmas Market

Shoppers pause to take a selfie in the Toronto Christmas Market

The week between the Thanksgiving holiday and the semester recess is a slow period on our campus; I took advantage of this to sneak away for a few days to Toronto, Canada with Erin!

Our winter adventure began early on Tuesday, December 2nd.  We traveled to Windsor, Ontario and boarded VIA Rail Train 72 bound for Toronto. A few short hours later we pulled into the beautiful Union Station located on Front Street in Downtown Toronto. This iteration of Union Station opened its doors in 1927. Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, cut the ribbon on the structure, which was a collaborative project between the Grand Trunk Railway, Northern Railway, Great Western, Railway, and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

Our first day in Canada was eventful. The highlight was the evening’s entertainment at Second City. Although Erin and I have seen more than 20 performances at the original location in Chicago, this was our first in Toronto. The cast’s production of Holidazed and Confused was a hilarious compilation of holiday-themed bits.

The trip’s second day again featured a ride on the rails—GO Transit brought us from downtown to the Scarborough neighborhood, where a TTC bus route dropped us off at the steps of the Toronto Zoo. The zoo’s great ape house is a wonderful attraction, but the draw these days is the two Chinese guests. Er Shun and Da Mao, two giant pandas, are on loan from China until 2018.

A final day of shopping and dining completed the trip. Our evening was spent in the distillery district. This historic precinct is located just east of downtown and is wonderful case study on the effects of neighborhood gentrification. Dinner was provided by the Mill St. Brewery, and carolers and the Toronto Christmas Market (pictured above) entertained us for the evening.

Friday morning we boarded VIA Rail’s corridor train 73 for a return voyage to Windsor.

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Primal Leadership: Emotionally Intelligent Leadership


Dan Gaken presents on emotional intelligence at the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce Professional Development Series

Dan Gaken presents on emotional intelligence at the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce Professional Development Series | Photo Credit: Nicole Baer

On Wednesday, November 19th I had the pleasure of serving as the speaker for the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce Professional Development Series. Thirty-five community members participated in the session titled: “Emotional Intelligence: Who Do I Want To Be?” The workshop delivered an introduction to emotional intelligence theory as well and provided participants with a toolkit to allow them to enhance their ability to lead in a variety of groups and situations.

Many academic leadership programs, even if unknowingly, start with a basic premise of emotional intelligence: you must know yourself before you can lead other. Leaders who successfully utilize emotional intelligence are aware of their emotions, what triggers them, and how they respond to their own emotions. Individuals who have a unique ability to be introspective, and accurately self assess, will find that their emotional intelligence ability exceeds their peers. It can be difficult, but being honest with ourselves and owning our emotions gives us an ability to recognize how we relate to others.

If we believe that leadership is about relationships (and I do), then it is an easy association between emotional intelligence and leadership. In his book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman remarks, “Skilled leaders tend to have resonance with a wide circle of people – and have a knack for finding common ground and building rapport. That doesn’t mean they’re always socializing; it means that they work under the assumption that nothing important is done alone.”

As the workshop progressed I introduced the four resonate leadership styles identified by Goleman:

  • Visionary
  • Coaching
  • Affiliative
  • Democratic

Each of these styles creates a positive environment where productivity is boosted through building capacity in team members.

One of the particular strengths of Goleman’s use of Emotional Intelligence is his recognition that effective leadership is not always resonate.   He notes that two dissonant styles exist – pacesetting and commanding, that can be terribly effective, but unfortunately are used in inappropriate contexts too often.

During my session a participant used Steve Jobs to illustrate the visionary style of leadership. Clearly, Jobs was a visionary. He could foresee a world that did not yet exist, and through his will and ability to move others, created that world. Don’t believe me? He built a computer company in his California garage at a time that IMB estimated the world market for computers to be four – today most Americans carry computers, phones, and cameras in our pocket that could outperform a Saturn V rocket.

Yet, for those that worked with Jobs he was an all-together different person. In his biography, Walter Isaacson describes the man as hard, unforgiving, and at times even hostile to those in his employ. Could this man, who we all know as the turtleneck, blue jeans, and round eyeglass visionary really be this other character? Certainly. Jobs, in this capacity is the pacesetter. He has an incredibly capable team that is comprised of the best technical and creative minds in the world – his role has been reprised as the man in front with an unrelenting desire to achieve.

As we know, Jobs’ style worked. Today the net worth of Apple exceeds many nations and the company is the standard of industrial design. His adaptability perfectly highlights Goleman’s thesis: adaptability, one’s ability to match her style to the unique needs of the team, more so than physical traits, intellect, or power, predicts one’s ability to successfully lead.

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Freshmen Leadership Scholars Become Freds

LDR 100 students present their Fred Factor project

LDR 100 students present their Fred Factor project

For the past five years students enrolled in my LDR 100: Introduction to Leadership Education and Development course have been assigned Mark Sandborn’s Fred Factor. In addition to being an author, Mark is a well-known speaker and trainer with a specialty in leadership, team building, and customer service.

I was introduced to this wonderful book by my friend and leadership development colleague Gary Baker (whose blog, Between Mouth and Mind, is much better developed than mine, and a great read if you’re looking to recapture the glory of the NBA in the 1990s).

The Fred Factor outlines Sandborn’s relationship with his postal carrier, Fred Shea. Upon moving to the Denver area Mark was introduced to his mailman. However, the relationship proved to by anything but ordinary. Fred went out of his way to provide Mark, and every other resident on his mail route, with exceptional service. Mark details on instance where UPS, the competitor of the United States Postal Service, had accidently delivered a package of his five doors down. Fred, recognizing the mistake, brought Mark’s shipment to his home, wrote a note, and then attempted to hide the box so as to make is less conspicuous to would-be thieves. “Not only is Fred delivering the mail, now he’s picking up slack for UPS,” Mark exclaimed!

Through his interactions with Mr. Shea, Mark deduced that this was a truly remarkable individual. Though not in a position of relative power, nor someone who had other exemplarily, attributes, Fred was making a difference in Mark’s life. Mark made a wonderful realization: “everyone makes a difference.”

Throughout the book Mark delineates four principles that make someone a “Fred:”

  • Everyone makes a difference,
  • Success is built on relationships,
  • You must create value for others, and;
  • You should reinvent yourself on a regular basis.

Each fall I charge my LDR 100 students to go develop a project that makes them “Fred.” For a semester they ponder how to create value for others, how to reinvent themselves, and how to use their new relationships to make a difference.

Without fail the results are amazing. This year was no different. Today the first two groups (of six) shared with the class their presentations. One group developed a simple project themed “My name is . . “ through which they sought to let others know that they are capable of being a difference in the lives of others, and then encouraged them to take a pledge to do so positively. Their presentation was inspiring (a tough task for one which used Eminem’s song of the same name as a theme), and even enlisted University President George Ross!

Our second presentation was equally well received. #StopNPop was the theme, and it employed 175 linear feet of bubble wrap. Well-timed, the group set forth onto a campus under the weight of exams and the end of the term with a simple message: take time to de-stress.

When asked if they enjoyed the project, and would do it again, both groups enthusiastically replied that being a “Fred” is important. Through creating value for others, they found joy for themselves.

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Unified Detroit


Jordyn Salerno, a CMU freshman from Brighton, works with Project UNIFY students in Detroit, MI

The unique partnership between the Central Michigan University Leadership Institute and Special Olympics Michigan continued to grow on November 12th.  More than twenty Leadership Institute volunteers traveled to Detroit, MI to facilitate a daylong program for Detroit Public School student members of Project UNIFY. Thirteen schools from the DPS system brought delegations to the event. In total, we had more than 325 students engaged in the program.

Unified Sports allow people with and without intellectual disabilities to compete on the same team. The goal is simple: to promote inclusion.   Our goal for the day was to help every student in the crowd understand their place in the Project UNIFY movement. And their place is securely at the heart of the movement.

For three hours everyone in the room was on the same team: Central Michigan University students, Detroit Public Schools students, and Special Olympics athletes. We learned each other’s names, what they like to do, and then spent the remainder of the morning learning that we can all learn from each other. To close, we celebrated the most important lesson learned: being here together is important. Every student had the chance to walk through our line of facilitators and their peers and be applauded for their participation. To be told that their presence was appreciated.

In the words of one athlete, “today I learned how to make new friends and that they care about me!”

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Connections 2014: Built to Last


At the 2014 Connections Conference participants made relationships that were built to last

The Central Michigan University Leadership Institute hosted the 16th annual Connections Leadership Conference November 8th through 9th at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City, MI.

Connections is a celebrated tradition at CMU. Student leaders, both established and emerging, converge on the northern Michigan town for a two-day conference. At the heart of Connections are the campus institutes. These three-hour activity blocks afford participants the opportunity to meet other student leaders from their communities. This year we shifted the conversation: instead of completing a needs assessment (or asking, what’s wrong with our group), we instead asked them what they do well. The results were amazing. Participants laughed, shouted, and gleefully shared what it’s like to be at their best. We made lists, pages long, of our talents. Those lists then became our asset maps.

With a new mindset (look at what we have to work with!), we approached the second day of the conference with a new energy. We talked about what our groups could be and where we want our organizations to go and grow. Every member of the Institute built an action plan, a series of steps to take the day they get back on campus.

The best part? Those actions plans, which are labor-ready project that will enhance our campus, are not the products of the Institutes. The real take away is the ability to think this way. We all have tremendous assets, and know others who do as well – imagine what we can do when we realize that and put those assets in motion.

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When I Am At My Best

The Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0

The Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0

Do you get to do what you do best everyday? It seems like a simple thought, but the truth is many of us find ourselves struggling through work, school, or personal relationships mired in tasks that do not allow us to excel.

Every year the CMU Leadership Institute staff, both student and professional staff, has a developmental focus. This year our staff is utilizing the Clifton Strengths Finder to allow us to be at our best, more often.

Did you ever play a sport? Think back to the best game you’ve ever had. If you were a basketball player you might have had a game where the hoop just seemed bigger, where no matter what you threw up at the rim, it seemed to go in. If you were a runner, it might have been a race where your legs felt great all day, almost as if you were the only runner with a tail wind.

For me, my best day came as a pitcher in a high school baseball tournament. We were playing the second-ranked division one team in the state and I was on the mound. My control was impeccable and my curveball had so much break that I almost fooled my catcher. I threw one scoreless frame after another. The top half of the seventh inning started with me in the on-deck circle. Our leadoff hitter reached third base on a double and a throwing error. Stepping to the plate I looked to my coach and third base. Just as asked, I laid down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt and the runner crossed the plate. Taking the mound in the bottom half of the inning I had an air of confidence that I’ve never had before. I wasn’t tired, instead, my adrenaline added an extra jump to my fastball. I struck out the next three batters – our team won a one-run game where I had pitched a shut out and had the game’s only RBI. I was on top of the world.

To this day I can tell you everything about that day. The weather, the field conditions, the count on the final batter. I can still connect with the emotions of that game – what it felt like to record the final out, the way my teammates celebrated, the excited phone calls to family and friends. Every game after, I was striving to be at that level again. We can’t always be the hero, but reconnecting with moments like that, and remembering what we did allows us to be one step closer to being there again.

As a leader, that is my goal: to help those around me be at their best more often.

In StrengthsFinder 2.0 Gallup unveiled a new version of its popular assessment, language of 34 themes, and much more. While you can read this book in one sitting, I’ve found myself referring to it weekly.  Dr. Donald O. Clifton, along with Tom Rath and a team of scientists at Gallup, created the online StrengthsFinder assessment. In 2004, the assessment’s name was formally changed to “Clifton StrengthsFinder” in honor of its chief designer.

They studied more than one million work teams, conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, and even interviewed more than 10,000 followers around the world to ask exactly why they followed the most important leader in their life.

Along with our team in the Leadership Institute, I completed the online Strengths assessment. According to the instrument, my top five themes are:

  • Achiever
  • Input
  • Belief
  • Discipline
  • Learner

When looking at this, it is easy to see why I’ve been so energized at work this fall. This year, more than in any recent year, I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I do best in my job. There are many reasons for that. I’ve learned how to manage my work to put myself in position to excel. I have an amazing team of students and professionals who are also doing their work exceptionally well, allowing me to thrive in my area.

My work lately has aligned well with my strengths. People who share the theme of belief are energized by work that supports their core values. As we being to reimagine the Leadership Institute, I love to have conversations about where w can go to help our learners be at their best, to become the next generation of ethical leaders. The learner theme causes me to seek to know more, to grow, and continually improve. As an achiever, I am driven to put forth an effort that is worthy of this endeavor – I am determined that together, we can build the nation’s best leadership program. And that excited me.

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A World United: The Centennial College LeaderShape Institute

Irfan, a Centennial College student, provides feedback to his peers on how to bring vision to reality.

Irfan, a Centennial College student, provides feedback to his peers on how to bring vision to reality.

The Centennial College LeaderShape Institute was held  in October in London, ON. Fifty-nine Centennial students gathered at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre for the six-day experience.

Centennial College in itself is unique: it is the oldest provincial college in Ontario, the college is comprised of four campuses and awards certificates, diplomas, bachelors degrees and post graduate certificates. 20,000 students from across the world (more than 80 languages are spoken on campus) study at the college.

My week with Centennial was unlike any previous LeaderShape experience. Looking back at our six-day journey, I’m struck by a number of things.

  • Fourteen years later, my own LeaderShape experience still shapes the way that I see the world. As a college freshmen I attended the first LeaderShape Institute held by Central Michigan University. Anything that could go wrong did. The program coordinator had not prepared the faculty for their role, the facilities were less than ideal, and only about half of the participants even showed up. Nonetheless, this week was life changing for me. I learned to open up, I learned to dream, and I started to believe that I could make a difference in the lives of others. During this experience I connected with three outstanding student affairs professionals that would be important to my career. The session was co-led by Cathy Clark, a professor as Appalachian State and Les Cook, the Vice President for Student Affairs at Michigan Tech. My cluster facilitator, Nathan Westfall would later serve as my supervisor as a student employee and his own advancement would pave the way for my first professional position at CMU. This week I was reunited with Cathy. Serving as her co-lead for the week gave me a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the memories of my own LeaderShape. Often during our session, while listening to Cathy, I would drift back to our LeaderShape experience at CMU.
  • The basic tenants of LeaderShape are true. This week saw 59 students from more than 30 countries come together. Our learning community was not only representative of the Centennial campus, but the world. Participants from Europe, India, Asia, Africa, South America, and Canada filled the room. While our differences at times caused misunderstandings and language barriers delayed comprehension – through a mutual desire to understand each other we learned about each other’s hopes for the world. By the third day each member of our community was able to write “Tomorrow’s Headlines.” In this exercise every LeaderShape participant is asked to draw the front page of a newspaper, online news source, or publication the day that their vision becomes reality. What we saw was amazing. Across languages, cultures, and faiths the room had a strong desire to better the world – not just for themselves, but for others. The basic tenants that we espouse at LeaderShape: that inclusive communities are inherently successful, that relationships are the foundation of creating change, and that integrity is essential for effective leadership, spoke to every person in the room.
  • I gained a new appreciation for education. I live in a country were the value of education is unfortunately overlooked.   We underfund our schools, and as students we fail to appreciate that our educational opportunities unlock so many doors. I myself am guilty of this – my best memories from preparatory school? The hope of a snow day.  Centennial Students reminded me that education is to be prized. Each of their stories unique, each inspiring. One young woman was already enrolled at Centennial after graduating from her Nigerian high school at age fifteen. Others were returning to learning new skills after immigrating to Canada and seeking new opportunities. Still more were seeking to provide a better life for their own children. But what they all had in common was a strong desire to learn and achieve. This was never more evident that the pride exhibited at our commencement ceremony.   Nearly every participant proudly displayed their certificate while posing for a photograph with their faculty.  Their attitudes reminded my of Malala’s inspirational story. She notes that we often don’t value what we have, until it is taken away. Her own education became synonymous with the power of women and youth – but illustrates that education allows one to make their way in the world.

See photos from my amazing week in Canada here.

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Special Olympics Fall Games

A high school student participates in the SOMI Project Unify Summit at the 2014 Fall Games

A high school student participates in the SOMI Project Unify Summit at the 2014 Fall Games

Special Olympics Michigan hosted the inaugural Fall Games in the Ann Arbor metro area September 26-28, 2014. The event combined several independent tournaments into a large celebration of the Special Olympics movement. Athletes from across Michigan, some as far as the western edge of the Upper Peninsula, traveled to compete in flag football, soccer, cycling, softball and golf.

Nearly 1,700 athletes and countless volunteers made these Games happen. I was lucky to join nearly 30 members of the Central Michigan University Leadership Institute who traveled to Ypsilanti to volunteer. Together we helped athletes compete in a series of golf events and shagged fly balls in the home run derby.

For the Leadership Institute volunteers the main event was Friday. Friday saw Leadership Institute volunteers take the lead on the Project Unify Summit. Unified Sports allow people with and without intellectual disabilities to compete on the same team. The goal is simple: to promote inclusion.

Promoting inclusive environments aligns very well with the efforts of the CMU Leadership Institute, and those shared values produced a wonderful program for the Project Unify Summit. Twenty-five student members of the Leadership Institute created a two-hour training block for students to develop leadership skills that would allow them to promote Project Unify in their schools and communities. In true unified spirit, the workshop participants included students with and without intellectual disabilities working side by side to make their school a more inclusive place.

It was a powerful and rewarding experience to see our student leaders in action performing one of leadership’s most critical functions: making more leaders.

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Multicultural Education Excursion with Residence Life


Saul Raimi, Nazi Prisoner #76593, with Dan Gaken in April 1997.

In April of 1997 I met Saul Raimi. Saul was born in Mlawa Poland in 1924, a small town 80 miles outside of Warsaw. He told me of his life as a young boy in Poland. One of six siblings, Saul was the son of a grocer. When he was 14 the Germans invaded Poland, Saul and his family were sent to Lubartow to live in a ghetto.  Saul and his sisters had physical features that allowed them to pass as Polish Christians, under this disguise; they fled the ghetto and returned to Mlawa. Here they hid until they learned that their parents had been taken to Treblinka and murdered by the Nazis.

Saul obtained counterfeit documents that identified him as a Christian Pole. He used these papers and his mastery of the Polish language to smuggle goods and food between the Warsaw and Mlawa ghettos. He was living in the Mlawa ghetto in 1942 when it was liquidated. Placed on a train, he was shipped to Auschwitz.

Arrival at Auschwitz for Holocaust victims was a hellacious experience. Having spent days in a cattle car, the arrived on a platform to blinding light, shouting German guards, barking dogs, and an overpowering smell from the crematoriums that burned bodies night and day. Physicians, including Dr. Mengele, sorted arriving Jews based on their physical state. Saul, 16 at the time and in good health, was chosen for a barrack of laborers. He was issued a serial number, 76593, and had it tattooed to his forearm.

He laid bricks in Auschwitz until January of 1945. With the Red Army approaching, Auschwitz was emptied. Three days of marching led to a seven-day journey in a train car. After ten days he arrived at Buchenwald. As Allied forces neared the camp the Nazi SS took the remaining prisoners on a death march. Saul, weighing only 75 pounds, was liberated by the United States Army near Cham, Bavaria in April 1945.

When I met Saul I was 16 years old, the same age he was upon his arrival to Auschwitz. I don’t know that I was able to understand what he had seen in his life. Now, 18 years later, I recount my time with Saul and feel very fortunate to have met him.

This past Friday I joined more than 50 members of the Central Michigan University community on a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI. This was the first time I had returned to the museum since meeting Saul. I searched for his image amongst the museum’s “Portraits of Honor,” and I thought a lot about his life during our visit. He lost four sisters and both parents. He lost his childhood. He lost his home. His travels took him to Isreal and Canada before he moved to Detroit.

Later that day our group visited the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. I had never been to this facility. A wonderful museum, it tells the story of Arabs who have moved to the United States and outlines their contributions to our culture and society.

Our visit began with a Cultural Competence presentation delivered by a member of the museum staff. She disclosed to us her experience as an Arab American, and shared with us her story. Her family, originally from Palestine, was displaced when the State of Israel was created in the wake of the Second World War. She declined to comment on the ongoing Israeli—Palestine conflict.

It was a moment of surrealism. The horrors of the Holocaust, outlined that morning by our first museum visit, brought many members of the group to tears. For a people to endure such an experience clearly warranted a global response. They had lost everything. To have a place to build a future does not seem like too much to ask.  Yet, here was another family, another people, for whom home was no longer a place of comfort.  I was quickly struck by a simple fact: our world is interconnected in every way.  No action takes place in a vacuum.  Every thing we do has an effect on others.

To make sense of this world, and how it has challenged others so much, yet provided me so much comfort is beyond my ability.

During our visit Friday we were presented a gift. A Holocaust survivor, of which there are fewer every day, shared with us her story. Perhaps Paula Marks-Bolton said it best when summarizing her thoughts:

“My message for future generations? To love each other. It should never make any difference what nationality, what religion, what color of skin a person is, we must love each other. We must speak up whenever there is injustice. Together we will make a better world. You must help those that cannot help themselves.”

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