Facilitating Creative Thought
…the main focus of a leader
By Heidi Macpherson, Ph.D.
President, The College at Brockport, SUNY
About ten years ago, when I was a college dean, I undertook a 360 evaluation, and one of my reviewers characterized me as a “facilitator for creative thought.” I’d never thought about myself that way before, but I liked the description so much, I decided I would try to live up to it. Facilitating creative thought should be the main focus of any leader, because leadership is not about the individual: it’s about the collective. How can we make our institution or community better? How can we work with good ideas to make them great ideas? How can we see multiple viewpoints and draw them together?
I loved teaching and researching; that’s why I got my Ph.D. and became an academic, and I miss being able to do those things on a regular basis now that I am a college president. The fact that I loved what I did has sometimes made people question my career path: why give that up? The answer is: I also know that every decision entails a loss, but also offers an opportunity. As a college president, I can help people solve problems at a higher level and across a greater field than I can in the classroom. So the decision to pursue a presidency meant that I had to give up some of the work that was so rewarding, but I also knew I’d have an opportunity to continue to teach and research, albeit on a smaller scale and in a different context. Thus, I undertake a small amount of academic research, because doing so connects me to my life as an academic, and I don’t want to give that up entirely.
I firmly believe that if we forget our original desires and skills, we are not as effective as leaders. And each year, in order to remain connected to my identity as an educator, I mentor students in our leadership development program at Brockport. I also look for opportunities to speak with individual faculty members who undertake leadership development opportunities, because I know what a difference good mentoring made to me at every stage of my career. As a young academic, I needed someone to say, “I think Heidi would be good at that,” because I didn’t always have the confidence to say it myself. And those mentors and role models pushed me to be the best academic I could be, the best leader I could be, the best contributor to our academic community I could be. The most effective mentors are more than role models; they are active participants in building the skills of others, and in asking questions that help individuals find the right answers for them, about their place in the organization and in the world.
What I love about leadership is the opportunity to help people get their nascent ideas off the ground, because I have access to the resources to make it happen. I don’t pretend to have all of the ideas (I think any leader that does is doing a disservice to the organization). What I can do is help others shape their ideas into workable initiatives. Thus, leadership and partnership go hand in hand.
What I love about The College at Brockport is that we are all committed to these same principles, whether we are working directly with students in the classroom or helping them learn outside of it. Our Brockport promise is “to engage our students each day in cultivating their capacity for intellectual, physical, and creative accomplishment.” Our faculty and staff work exceptionally hard to promote these ideas, and I am honored to serve as their president.
Heidi Macpherson, Ph.D. is the 7th President of The College at Brockport and the first woman to hold this role. She has more than 20 years of experience in higher education as an English professor and administrator in both the United States and England. She is an active member of Rotary International, and serves on the boards of the Rochester YWCA and the Willow Domestic Violence Center.