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Combining Heart and Mind: The Hardest Skill

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lori Hardesty
October 27, 2023

I work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which is a public, mid-sized research institution in the Greater Baltimore region. We are a young campus, founded in 1966. Traditions are still forming; however, due to the amount of time gathered under our collective belt, echoes of the statement “this is how we’ve always done it” can still be heard. Our president, Dr. Valerie Sheares Ashby, is the first woman (and second person of color) to lead UMBC. Now in her second year as UMBC’s sixth president, Dr. Sheares Ashby follows in the well-earned footsteps of Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, the first man of color to hold Presidency, who lead for 30 years—almost half of UMBC’s existence. 

As a Baltimore County resident, I have observed numerous changes in local and state public administration over the last year: a new Principal at my daughters’ Baltimore County public high school, a new Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent, an Interim State Superintendent of Education in Maryland, a new Comptroller of Maryland, a new Governor and a new Lieutenant Governor. These are all women, with the exception of Governor Wes Moore, whose co-leader Lieutenant Governor Aruna Miller is a woman (both who broke barriers as people of color). I am deeply fascinated by all of these transitions. I have maximized “meet and greets,” researched what they stand for and absorbed their visionary communications.

Dr. Sheares Ashby provides the closest proximity of living out a new leadership chapter. As a member of UMBC’s Staff Senate, I have been in numerous spaces and places, observing her attentiveness and listening to her lessons. Last spring, she attended all of UMBC’s Bold Conversations which concluded with a total of 22 listening sessions with different focuses and over 1,000 participants. For each topic, there was one virtual and one in-person session. All were welcomed to any/all sessions. Now in her second year, Dr. Sheares Ashby is making this role her own in partnership with stakeholders to move our institution forward as we prepare to launch our new Strategic Plan.

It is a busy time in the educational sector. Many institutions of higher education are now past the mid-semester mark of this fall semester. Next week, the first quarter concludes for my high school daughters. All the feelings, the stress, fear of missing out should they choose to study and questioning their identities to best fit in. Additionally, the quick pace of the holiday season is fast upon us, all while the struggle for power and a total disregard for people takes place across the world. 

Reflection is at the forefront of my frontal lobe. It’s my 50th year on this Earth. Professionally and personally, I have held numerous leadership roles to include: big sister, captain (high school and college), many roles in a neighborhood association (except for treasurer), campus shared governance, committee chair, instructor, mentor, coach, supervisor and mother. Sometimes these roles collide with monster-truck force, arriving at our doors without knocking for permission to enter, nor patience to wait their turn. 

This is also a time of transition on my team. Together, we are engaging in our own clarity-seeking process. Over the summer, we did a deep dive on mission/vision/values work; now we are “rebranding” our roles and updating our position descriptions. 

As leaders, we need to walk the walk of lifelong learning. Challenge ourselves and create learning communities to reflect on how we moved through those challenges. As the artist Sampa the Great shares in her collaboration with Angelique Kidjo, “Let Me Be Great”, “you can never lessen with the lesson.” I’ve been absorbing a number of resources to strengthen my toolkit to include Simon Sinek, Brené Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Valarie Kaur’s “See No Stranger:  A Memoir And Manifesto of Revolutionary Love,” has been a go-to. She contends that in order to live in this world without carrying the burden of hate, listening is critical. Ahead of Chapter 5, “Listening,” Kaur features a single page with this quote from author and educator bell hooks.

“How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” (pg. 137 in the book)

That’s exactly it.  

This summer, I completed a 3-day Restorative Practices “Train the Trainer” session. The reminder of high support and high accountability really stuck with me as a parent, colleague, mentor and instructor. Leadership involves significant listening, no judgment, blame or knee-jerk reaction. Never throw someone under the proverbial bus. Patiently put all of the pieces together. Understand our mission, vision and values. 

Since the pandemic, communication and grace have risen to the top for me as important aspects of every day. I also think about that support as a vehicle driving on the left hand side of the highway, moving forward with intention.  Behind it in the next lane, further back, staying steady is a vehicle that carries the questions of “what can we do differently next time? What policies and procedures can we build into orientations? What are the gaps in communication? How can we do better next time?” A commitment to supporting the next go-around on that beltway of life. I found fellow PA Times contributor LaMesha Craft’s recent “Your Leadership Style(s) & Delivering Feedback” to have great ideas regarding the delivery.

Let’s return to my position description. While the goal is to identify specific responsibilities (program oversight, staff supervision, fiscal responsibility/management, etc.), I would really like to list “individually connecting and listening” as one of the most important things I do. My supervisor, Joby Taylor, Assistant Vice Provost of The Shriver Center, described the conundrum of soft versus hard skills. Interpersonal connections, high emotional IQ, context and words matter, the high care and high accountability…these skills are actually the “harder skills,” cultivated with time and experience, reflection and self-awareness. That’s exactly it. 

Author: Lori L. Hardesty, MPA, is the Associate Director of Applied Learning & Community Engagement at The Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She enjoys strengths-based leadership, partnership-building, youth development, and coaching. Lori earned her B.A. in Psychology from Johns Hopkins University and MPA from the University of Baltimore. Email [email protected].

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One Response to Combining Heart and Mind: The Hardest Skill

  1. Heather Wyatt-Nichol Reply

    October 27, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    Words of wisdom that we should all consider during our daily interactions in work and life.

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