Lessons about Leadership, Teams, and Love
The Black College Institute just finished. It was a three week labor of love. 114 rising high school students for six days;
and then another 121 rising high school students for another six days;
and then, 127 rising high school juniors for four days.
As I watched a team of 40 work with these 362 students,
I reflected on what makes The Black College Institute at Virginia Tech so amazing and so successful. These are ten lessons about leadership, teams, and love that I learned from the Black College Institute.
- Care, compassion, and kindness
- Contribution to a greater cause
- Diversity and Inclusion
- Human Interaction
It started with a vision. Visions are often inspired by an energy. The energy for me was the Hispanic College Institute, hosted at Virginia Tech. Given that Virginia Tech ranked at the bottom of the list of state schools for the percentage of African-American students, I thought about a Black College Institute.
I was told at the time — 3 years ago — that Black students didn’t want to come to Virginia Tech. Realizing that most of the larger urban areas with a larger percentage of African-Americans were three, four, and five hours away, I recognized that many families might feel hesitant to send their child across the state, to a predominantly White rural school, a former military academy. I, too, was hesitant to come to Blacksburg, Virginia, in southwest Virginia in the Blue Ridge mountains. But, once I stepped on campus, I felt a shift. I wanted others to feel that shift and I knew the shift could only happen if we could convince families to drive their children across the state to experience Virginia Tech.
The program, now in its third year, is for students interested in the African-American experience. It is a residential 24/7 immersion leadership experience. It is not only African-American students, but a diverse group of students. You must start with a vision, but vision without execution is blindness. All visions must be executed to be seen.
This program – a free program – requires an institutional commitment. Not only a financial commitment, but an investment in talent and a recognition of the value of representational diversity and the importance of access as a land-grant institution. This program is the work of over 100 faculty and staff members who agree to invest their time. Every college creates a 2-3 hour hands-on program. The admissions office engages 10-15 counselors to speak with students. Career and Professional Development invests in the etiquette dinner and in preparing students for networking. Campus faculty and staff dedicate their time to “speed network” with students. This program only works because the commitment is institutional. It is InclusiveVT – our institutional and individual commitment to Ut Prosim (that I may serve) in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence. A commitment requires manifestation, otherwise, it is only a promise. This program is supported by the president, Tim Sands, who spoke at the opening ceremony, Week 2; the provost, Cyril Clarke, who spoke at the opening ceremony, Week 1; and all the deans and vice presidents who championed this program and encouraged their teams to engage and support the program. This is commitment made real.
3. Team Work
The coordination and collaboration of the senior leadership team of 10 is essential. The senior team works on planning every detail over a nine-month timeline. And they also hire 30 students leaders — current students, recent graduates, some undergraduates, some graduate students. These students become Student Staff Leaders. They are paid to work the summer program, because this program is also an investment in our students. They learn leadership skills, time management skills, and this program becomes an internship for them. They say, team work makes the dream work, and that is absolutely true. One person or a few people cannot manifest big dreams. Large teams are needed for large dreams.
The team works only because the team communicates. I have witnessed first hand the necessity of communication – effective, efficient, and consistent communication. Groupme, Text, Emails, Google drive. Feelings and emotions matter. In person meetings matter; debriefs matter. Difficult conversations matter. Calling out a colleague, in friendship and with grace, matters. If we don’t talk, often, quickly, genuinely, and authentically, a team becomes ineffective.
5. Care, Compassion, and Kindness
Teams that create outcomes do so because they are committed to making a difference and can see results of their work. The unique structure of this program promotes compassion, care, and kindness. This program provides the opportunity for each student staff leader to take care of, to care about, to Ut Prosim another person, another mini-me, another student who perhaps was them, a few years ago, in high school—thinking about their future, their next direction, what college to go to, wondering who would care about them. It is a powerful gift to give another — being a caretaker — if only for a few days. The gift of care. compassion, and kindness. At Virginia Tech, there is an ethos of kindness and that is one of qualities I love about Virginia Tech.
Our closing speaker left a gift for students — empowering them to remember their greatness: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1MpYhmE9vqFyVaMDa-SDxnjS81RhUF-kY
6. Contributing to a greater cause
The gift of this program is not only the opportunity to care about another person, but to care about a cause greater themselves. That cause is the African-American experience in the United States. As part of this program, students have to identify a social justice project related to the African-American experience and design a social media campaign. The students in the program begin to think about the world and how to Ut Prosim, how to serve the world, how to impact humanity. Every group of 10 students designs a project and presents it to a team of judges. The projects: stereotypes, media portrayal of African-Americans, gun violence, school inequality, food insecurity, among others — all causes greater than themselves. The leadership team is also committed to Virginia Tech — a cause greater than each of us. An institution on the cusp of actualizing its greatness.
Details are an undervalued quality. Attention to details creates quality programs. There are a million details that have to be care about, reviewed, and refined. Programs fail because details are ignored. Detailed oriented people are invaluable. You need big picture people, but without details, quality cannot be achieved. Executing details is essential to excellence. You cannot have excellence without a meticulous attention to execution at a seeming level of minutiae — amount of food to order; time for the food to arrive; transportation, reminder emails; ordering supplies; and on and on. Details matter.
8. Diversity and Inclusion
This team works because there are so many strengths. I realize often this is the value of diversity. Diverse teams bring amazing complementary strengths. Diversity also brings challenges. It requires figuring out how to work together with very different personalities. It requires acknowledging that even though there are similarities based on membership in traditionally minority populations, differences of gender, generation, and background create complicated dynamics that have to be recognized, acknowledged, and valued. A team cannot come together a produce results in 3 weeks without investing in the team, getting to know and identify the strengths and also challenges. The investment in the team took years. We needed to understand the strengths and accentuate them and respect the weaknesses and compensate. Teams needs seasoning. Time to ripen. Our team has taken 3 years and we are well seasoned. And we are invested in excellence.
9. Human Interaction
This summer program is special because it works to accentuate an important life skill. Conversation, engagement, and interaction with individuals. As the world becomes more technology based, app focused, cellphone defined, I believe we are losing the capacity for human interaction. Not human –machine interface. Human to human interaction. In this program, friendships are formed over three days to five days that are deep and genuine and lasting. It is an example of what the academic university experience should do. It should bring individuals into personal contact with others to form new and hopefully deeper and meaningful relationships.
As a society, we rarely associate love with leadership, with teamwork, with success, and excellence. But love defines this program. It is a labor of love. It is about love for Virginia Tech. It is about love for a cause and a calling; it is about love for the team and each member. This is a special team that genuinely and deeply cares about each other and about the cause. When there is alignment and love, amazing work can happen.