A discussion on character with Rachel Swartzendruber Miller……..
VL: What do you believe are a few character traits that describe your organization, Hesston College?
Rachel: Nurturing, friendly, supportive. This flows right out of our mission statement. Including the word ‘nurture’ in a mission statement is unique for an institution of higher education. This characteristic really speaks to what kind of place Hesston College is. This is a place where, yes, we want you to excel academically, but we also want to know how you are feeling through the process.
Another word I would use is faithful. Hesston works really hard to maintain a spiritual center, incorporating faith into everything we do, from staff and faculty events to meetings with prospective students.
VL: While you have been at Hesston, are there any personal practices or spiritual disciplines that helped you grow or ‘nurture’ your own character?
Rachel: On a personal level, I value conversational prayer. While I’m driving, I’m having conversations with God, giving thanks and asking for the daily grace and love that each of us so desperately need. If it’s daily conversations, faith feels more like a friendship.
In regard to character, another personal practice is to continually push myself to stay grounded in “leadership best-practices.” As leaders, we need to constantly circle back to and deepen our understanding of our own leadership successes and failures as well as academic leadership theory.
I challenge myself to lift up others around me, to energize others, to highlight the gifts of those on my team. But in order to do that, I must manage myself and stay aware of what character I am leading with. Self-awareness can be the catalyst for discovering a path forward when adaptive challenges or crisis loom.
VL: How do these practices help you as a “value-based leader?”
Rachel: Linking to leadership training I received at the Kansas Leadership Center, I feel that leadership is an activity, not a position. If you’re not empowering others, managing self, engaging the unusual voices and considering the different groups your decision might impact, I think you’re relying on your position and your power to get you through rather than practicing value-based leadership.
VL: This seems like an easy trap to fall into. Any suggestions on how a leader can be character-focused to avoid becoming reliant on the power of their role?
Rachel: One thing I’ve tried to do is honor those on my team by getting into the mess with them. They have to know I’m in their corner, that I truly believe their gifts are unique and valued and that respect is given instead of expected. If they don’t feel respect from me, why in the world would I expect respect from them?
A lot of people say, “You need to earn my respect, and as a boss, I should just get yours.” I would say it’s the other way around. Maybe that’s an idealistic, millennial viewpoint, or maybe it’s just grounding oneself in a bit of humility.
VL: Do you think there are Anabaptist values that have shaped that perspective?
This perspective has been instilled in me through Anabaptist organizations that I have worked for. Because of them I am a better leader and a better follower. They instilled in me to seek out and learn the different stories that are within my society, my church, my community. Christian or non-Christian, urban or rural, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. It’s about getting to know the “other” and respecting their story, even when it’s very different than my own.
VL: Are there resources that have been especially helpful for you?
Rachel: Take part in any quality leadership training you can find, be that Kansas Leadership Center, Values-based Leadership Program or by simply reading articles or books linking to leadership theory, such as Leadership on the Line and Servant Leadership.
VL: Last but not least, as a borderline millennial, any specific resources you would advise for our next generation of character-driven leaders?
Rachel: For a younger millennial, I would encourage finding a leader with the kind of character you are drawn to. Who out there has the character you want to model yourself after or integrate into your leadership style? Seek that person out as an individual mentor.
For me, these relationships were the most formative, more than any book, more than any course or any workshop. Mentors can make the difference, help you put the pieces together, push you beyond your own expectations and unlock the gifts you never knew you had.
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