by David Seibel, Head of School
In the winter of 2017, I went from being totally committed to teaching high schoolers to being keenly interested in institutional leadership because of one person’s example as an interim head of school, Dr. Blair Dowden. I watched Dr. Dowden graciously navigate the death of a teacher, courageously stay the course while parents gossiped about his decisions, and respectfully listen to the students who disagreed with his approach. Since 2017, I have gotten to know to Dr. Dowden more and three key ideas rise to the top when it comes to his life and leadership:
- Leadership is not a marathon, but a relay race.
- All good things come to an end.
- David killed bears before he defeated Goliath.
In Project Legacy 2.0, I sit down with influencers that are seeking the truth and that care about the inheritance that we are leaving our children. You can see previous Project Legacy 2.0 articles of Dave Neff, Dr. Piotrowski, Jon Laster, Doug Endicott, Scott Eckart, and Micah Beckwith or check out the first two years highlights. Also, be sure to check out Dr. Dowden’s VIDEO (see below) of his best leadership experience where he served as president of Huntington University for more than two decades — Dr. Dowden is an Experienced President Emeritus with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. Skilled in Nonprofit Organizations, Conflict Resolution, Editing, Volunteer Management, and Public Speaking. Strong business development professional with a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) focused in Higher Education/Higher Education Administration from Ball State University. He is now part of the team at SunFundEd and Credo.
1. Leadership is not a marathon, but a relay race.
When I asked Dr. Dowden to describe his leadership team at Huntington over his 22 years, he responded,
“I had always said to those on our leadership team that we rise and fall together. My style was relational and accountable so we would do retreats together a few times a year to build trust, and we would also share the big goals for evaluation purposes. Most of them were team members for 17 or 18 years.”
What Dr. Dowden means by the idea that we rise and fall together is that the team needs to work toward mutually agreed goals, and that each member of the team needs to be held accountable for individual goals that complement each other and that work toward common objectives. However, he clarified that it is the leader who will be held accountable for the team’s success in accomplishing its goals. So in that sense, the team needs to work as an effective unit but it is the leader that falls or succeeds based on the teams meeting or exceeding their individual or group goals.
I’ve heard people tell me before that leadership is not a sprint, but a marathon. This is a necessary statement but insufficient on its own, because leadership is not an individual race. One of my favorite books the past year has been The Ideal Executive: Why You Cannot Be One and What to Do About It, because it dispels the myth that one person’s skillset is adequate to enable an institution to become both efficient and effective in the short-term and long-term.
Jim Collins expresses a similar idea in his bestselling book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t when he describes the difference between a Level 4 Leader and a Level 5 Leader. The Level 4 Leader is essentially ‘a genius with a 1,000 soldiers.’ Although the Level 4 Leader is quite effective at catalyzing commitment to a clear vision and increasing performance, the charismatic Level 4 Leader does not raise up leaders that can exponentially grow the institution. The Level 5 Leader is like a clock builder who sets his successors up for success by focusing all ambition on the institution rather than any one individual.
2. All good things come to an end.
Yes, leadership is a relay race, but sometimes the runners get changed out. I had witnessed Dr. Dowden graciously ‘change out some runners’ in his time as interim head of school but I wanted to hear about this during his time at Huntington. Dr. Dowden shared,
“Increasing enrollment was not happening — there was a ‘if we build it, they will come’ mindset, and it was not happening. I started my presidency in 1991 and the previous enrollment estimates were far too optimistic and we were facing a huge budget deficit. We cut a lot to make the budget that year and I had to let a beloved Huntington employee go that had been at the school for more than two decades.”
Dr. Dowden has been placed in situations on multiple occasions where he had to choose between an individual’s preferences and the institution’s overall health. Conflicts of agenda between individuals and institutions are bound to happen, so it’s pivotal to have a leadership philosophy that can make sense of tough decisions that impact individuals. One book that’s been helpful is Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships that All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward. Henry Cloud writes,
“Without the ability to end things, people stay stuck, never becoming who they are meant to be, never accomplishing all that their talents and abilities should afford them.”
Pruning is a necessary part of the growth process and there are times when all good things must come to an end. As it says in Ecclesiastes 3,
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.”
Dr. Dowden was someone who helped me see that the pursuit of excellence is glorifying to God and tolerating mediocrity in the name of Christian grace is not a biblical ideal. If you put a Jesus fish on a car, you better follow the speed limit and not cut people off. In like manner, Christ-centered institutions should be controlled by the highest standards of excellence in performance. In an article entitled “How to Lay Someone Off Like Jesus,” Brad Larson describes the tension between the individual and the institution well,
“In a situation like this, if you are a leader, you have to decide whether you will sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one. What I mean is this: allowing an underperforming person to continue to flounder in your organization will affect the organization at large, and thus will affect many people.”
3. David killed bears before he defeated Goliath.
Dowden’s ability to run the relay race of leadership was forged over decades. When I asked Dr. Dowden when he knew he wanted to be a president, he said,
“When I was in my 20s, I was attracted to the prestige of the role. But when I served as special assistant to the president, I realized the long hours and the frustrations associated with the role. After my EdD, I had interviewed for some presidencies which I am thankful did not work out, because I was not ready yet. I served as the VP for Advancement at Houghton College. It is a labor of love that I did for the cause and the mission.”
We know from Scripture that God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called. We also know that God rewards faithfulness with increased responsibility, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:23). We see this in the life of David in the Old Testament,
“Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a sheep from the flock, 35 I went out after it and attacked it, and rescued the sheep from its mouth; and when it rose up against me, I grabbed it by its mane and struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Sam 17:34-36)
When I observed Dr. Dowden’s paradoxical tenacity and tenderness in 2017, I did not realize all of the work that God had done in him and through him in previous decades to faithful navigate those tense moments. I now know that his maturity was forged over decades in various positions of leadership. It is tempting to see leaders that are at the ‘defeating Goliath’ stage of their careers and forget the decades of bears and lions they fought in order to succeed in those larger battles. Yes, God qualifies the called. Yes, God prepares people over time. Even Jesus spent 30 years as a carpenter and 40 days fasting in the wilderness before he began his ministry. As a Christian leader, we must run our relay races with endurance, we must be
“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In order to finish the race, we must run according to His grace.
Classical Reading List
How to Raise Strong Children During COVID-19
Webinar with DeeDee Feeney
Are you overwhelmed with the demands of parenting due to COVID-19? In this webinar, DeeDee Feeney, a long-time educator and a mother of five flourishing adults, shares the four parenting secrets she used during her children's' formative years.
The Essentials of Choosing the Right School for Your Child
Webinar with David Seibel
When it comes to picking a school option for their child, you may have realized that the status quo is not working out. This webinar will present you with the essential knowledge you need to make the right choice for your family.
The DNA of Coram Deo Academy
Webinar with Coram Deo Staff
More parents are seeing that not all schooling options are effective in helping kids reach their full potential. Perhaps you are one of those parents. This webinar will introduce you to Coram Deo Academy as a partner in your student’s educational journey.