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Culture and Energy on Campus

Seventh in a series on the reopening of West Texas A&M University in the midst of COVID-19

Written a number of years ago and updated for its value as we return to campus.

A culture is created and sustained by human energy expended to attain shared purpose.  Leadership sets the tone and pace, particularly in challenging times. We are in challenging times.

Leonard Bernstein said, “The key to the mystery of a great artist is that for reasons unknown, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another… and leaves us with the feeling that something is right in the world.”

Bernstein’s energy expenditure principle applies to any work people undertake—from digging a ditch to conducting an orchestra, or teaching, studying and learning. Campus energy is created by individuals working independently but motivated toward a common goal. Our goal is a sense of positive routine, a campus cadence, not a rut, but a rhythm for teaching and learning.

At Toyota, the Creating an Energetic Workplace initiative, introduced in 2006, was intended to develop strong relationships and a more energetic work environment. An enthusiastic environment is appreciated at WT. The world’s largest vehicle manufacturer believed energetic communication would lead to “employee happiness.” Toyota wanted employees to have fun. This may sound like a truckload of naiveté on its way to Oz for a hard-boiled manager. But, the principles of workplace satisfaction, a.k.a. “happiness,” lead to increased effectiveness, even if it sounds trite to a sophisticate. As you might imagine, Toyota’s empirical measurement and positive trends substantiated the “bliss” brigade. Effective leaders at every level, and everyone at WT is a leader in one or more ways, engage people in shared decision making.

Jeff Wolf, president of World Management Consultants, says simply, “people work for people, not companies or organizations.” Energetic work and study environments are nurtured by people working towards shared goals. WT has a number of shared goals developed through a few years of community discussion and articulated in WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World.

Wolf confirms the Corporate Leadership Council idea that effective leaders should openly share values with faculty, staff and students—not just for adoption, approval or agreement, but for transparency and insight. The power of honesty and transparency is particularly important in current times. 

Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy reveal in Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, in the Harvard Business Review, that longer hours do not always lead to higher levels of productivity. What’s more, taking a page from the Toyota experience, all that work with a lackluster return on investment may diminish “happiness.” Exhaustion does not equal excellence, even for a rabid fan of hard work. Effective leaders should celebrate value in positive contributions. Challenging times seek the value of positive contributions, and solutions are particularly valuable. WT will pursue positive contributions from every available source.

Schwartz and McCarthy suggest, “in order to get more out of people you have to put more into them.” This is not a technique for squeezing more juice from an orange, but rather giving the tree light and water, which in turn produces oranges that have more juice. I concur with Tony Schwartz’s chapter head in the ASTD Management Development Handbook: “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: More and More, Less and Less.” Schwartz’s assessment: Energy on the campus, and for all at WT, creates a powerful college culture. He says, “We are guided by a fatal assumption that the best way to get more work done is to work longer and more continuously.” The power of energetic shared achievement rests on everyone’s shoulders. A positive campus culture resonates with teamwork, and we should all get more out of ourselves in service to our students.

Such a mindset might exist at Toyota, but it absolutely must permeate a university, particularly during this time of COVID-19. Distributed leadership at its zenith exists when human energy is expended to provide educational opportunity for faculty, staff and students alike with ubiquitous and unbridled uniqueness.

WT should always be a fountain of human energy, but particularly in trying times.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.