Notes From The Workfront: FSU History Alumna Tamara Spike (PhD 2006)

Picture of Dr. Tamara Spike

I have never had any desire whatsoever to be a department head. Yet after fifteen years at the University of North Georgia, that’s where I find myself. Perhaps it was inevitable. There is some truth to the old saying that the department head (DH) you want is the person who does not want the job. Technically, I am the Associate Department Head (ADH), but UNG has five campuses. I supervise two campuses, where I assume all duties of department head except for budgeting. We serve five-year terms and can be re-elected. Most often, the ADH goes on to serve as the DH. It is effectively a ten-year commitment. And so I find myself a reluctant leader, but one committed to leaving the department in a better place than it was when I moved in to the DH’s office. Maybe you, like me, find yourself in the position of a new and perhaps reluctant leader. For what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’ve learned and how I’ve grown in my first three years in leadership.

I’m incredibly lucky in that I have inherited a stable, well-run, and collegial department. In great part, that’s been the result of conscious and constant work by both members and leaders of the department. I’m surrounded by trusted people that I can turn to for help and advice. The leadership of UNG is filled with past heads of the Department of History, Anthropology, & Philosophy (HAP), including two Associate Deans, the Dean of our college, and an Associate Vice President. Finding new mentors to help me grow as a leader was as easy for me as walking out of my office and across the hall, or picking up the phone to call the other half of my new team, my Department Head. I have always tended to favor having many informal mentors; perhaps a more formalized relationship with just one person would be more successful for you. Looking back to apply old lessons in new ways is also important. In my time at FSU, I had a masterclass from my major professor, Robinson Herrera, in understanding and functioning within inter-departmental dynamics, a lesson I’m now applying at the University level. I also had practical lessons in motivational techniques, from the reading of the riot act (well-deserved on my end) to how to effectively support and strategize to make the most of (or thrive in spite of) unconventional decisions. Here, I’m specifically thinking of Robinson’s support of my decision to have children during graduate school. His first reaction was to help me identify possible pitfalls, and strategize how to avoid them. To his great credit, his poker face never cracked. That in and of itself is a valuable lesson for me today; a leader needs a good poker face. Mine is passable, but I’m still nowhere near his league. I learned invaluable lessons in team-building from Rod Anderson at the Guadalajara Census Project. And Matt Childs taught me how to be a generous academic and give the best of yourself to others. I’m using and reapplying all of these old lessons in new ways as a leader.

Also invaluable is finding a new peer group in leadership positions. I joined the UNG Department Leadership Group and the New Department Heads Workshop, and reached out to other new department heads. I also attended an AHA Department Heads Workshop and joined the AHA Department Chairs Digest listserv, allowing a larger view of leadership issues (good and bad) at the level of the University and the discipline.

New job, new self-evaluation. On the day my ADH came to my office to shut the door (never a good thing) and 'voluntell' me that I needed to take his place in department leadership as he moved into University leadership, I had a good handle on who I was as a teacher, a researcher, and a colleague. Stepping into a new role both reinforced and upended my understanding of myself, my colleagues, and the department. I spent some time in my first summer thinking about who I wanted to be as a leader, what I had to offer my colleagues, and what I needed to work on. I am a natural consensus builder, and I lean in to this as ADH. I communicate frequently and freely with my colleagues about departmental decisions and initiatives, and work to build accord and enthusiasm. At times, this drive to achieve consensus can hamper decision-making; I try to recognize when it’s time to move forward. I am a good team player, which is especially important in our model of department leadership. Having effectively two department heads is necessary at UNG. Our two most remote campuses are 121 miles apart, after all. However, ours is also a model that could encourage factionalism and discord, and we have seen this in other departments in our university. My department head and I work to build strong ties and goodwill across the campuses. I am a good listener, which has paid dividends in my new role. Within this skill, I’m working on going beyond being a collegial help meet to listening with the intent to mentor. (What is your solution, and how can I help with it, rather than here is a solution.) Finally, I have a strong sense of work/life balance and have managed to carry that forward into the new job. I have discovered that the first few years in a leadership position are much like the first few years as junior faculty. It’s all too easy to become buried in the new job, so it is important to establish boundaries.

There are, of course, plenty of things I struggle with. Unsurprisingly, many of the issues are things I’ve long known about myself; they are my old nemeses.I am a procrastinator. You’ve seen tweets and cartoons and memes that talk about avoiding the thing that only takes 15 minutes to do in the end? Hello, that’s me. As ADH, this is a tendency I can no longer afford. Some days, I enter the office with a set to-do list and a deadline to meet, only to find an immediate problem that consumes the entirety of my day. As a result, I am slowly turning into a more proactive, get it done now kind of person. I really dislike confrontation, and try to avoid it. This can be a real liability in leadership, allowing small problems to grow unchecked into serious issues. It is one of the issues that I’ve sought help with from mentors and leadership peers, and I’m building skills in conflict management. This is, however, the area that I remain most uncomfortable with and uncertain in, and I am sure that I’ll still be working on it as I finish my term as Department Head years down the road. Finally, I am working on all kinds of issues in setting, understanding, and accepting new boundaries in new and old relationships. For example, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I am some of our new faculty’s first department head. It seems wrong; I shouldn’t be sitting at the grownup table in this fashion. It’s just a new version of the old imposter syndrome, I know. Boundaries concern me in other ways as well. I’ve always been my most authentic self with my colleagues. But in my new role, I often find myself thinking about how what I say or do can sometimes sound different or land differently. This is especially true for situations where I am asked to go back and forth from colleague to leader in the course of a conversation. Sometimes I leave a social interaction with my colleagues thinking that I should have shut up more, taken more of a back seat in the conversation. While I might see myself as participating as just a colleague, my perception isn’t the one that matters in this situation.

Over my first three years, I’ve tried to keep a few ideas in mind in my role as a leader. First, a question. Does my behavior inspire trust? For me, this follows naturally from my role in the classroom and dovetails with the second thing I’ve worked to live up to: to embody the culture you want to see in the department. Taken together, both seek to maintain and renew the stable, well-run, collegial department that I inherited. The strong ties that we’ve created over many years have borne fruit during the chaos of the pandemic. For example, for more than ten years, the department on my campus have informally gathered every Wednesday afternoon with caffeine and snacks to talk about anything and everything. When we went remote in March 2020, our department “cruise director” (fellow FSU alumna Vicky Hightower) moved us online into Teams. Our weekly “tea” has remained our touchstone, and although we haven’t seen some of our colleagues face to face in over a year, I still feel that strong connection, and I think that the same is true for others. Finally, and back to me as a reluctant leader, a thought that is a comfort to me. I’m just a link in the chain. Others built this house, and I can turn to them when I need help. And someone else is going to take this office, this position. On that day, I hope that I will return to full time faculty status with new skills and a new spring in my step.