Brian Davenport was close to completing his Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington last summer when he started looking for a job in teaching at the college level.

“I enjoy research, but I’m a teacher at heart. I almost didn’t apply for the position at Lewiston-Auburn College. I thought the University of Southern Maine was a big state school and I wasn’t sure that was where I wanted to be,” said the professor.

But then Davenport delved further into USM LAC and discovered that what goes on at Lewiston-Auburn College is different than what he had at first thought. “It’s not a big state institution. It’s a small liberal arts school and I was intrigued,” he said.

Davenport came to Maine for an interview at LAC. “My campus interview was what sealed the deal. It’s rare that a community is so invested in what happens at a college,” he said. As part of his campus interview, he went to dinner with community members who had a voice in his hire.

“That’s not typical for schools to want input from community members. It’s not typical for community members to want their voice heard and feel that they have a right to speak their mind. For me, that lack of following the norm, that difference, was something that I wanted to be a part of,” said Davenport.

Gonzaga is a wonderful school in Spokane, according to Davenport, but it is also right in the middle of the worst neighborhood in Spokane. “Security notices go out all the time about students getting mugged off campus, things like that. It’s always struck me as curious that the presence of Gonzaga doesn’t have more of a positive impact on the surrounding community,” he said. What he saw going on at USM LAC was completely different — and inspiring.

“The whole purpose of LAC is to be involved in, to give back to and contribute to the growth and well being of the L-A community. That’s what a college should be doing. Clearly, the school’s presence in L-A does have a positive impact on what’s happening in the community,” said Davenport.

Davenport teaches in the Leadership and Organizational Studies program at USM LAC. Students are taught to question all aspects of leadership, from how to lead an organization to how does an organization lead within a community.

“TD Bank is a great example. It’s the largest employer in Lewiston-Auburn. A question that we might ask is not only what are individual leaders within the organization doing but how is the organization connecting to the community?” said Davenport.

Robert Greenleaf is a leadership scholar that students in the LOS program read from and discuss in Davenport’s classes. “Greenleaf writes about how organizations should have a positive impact on communities. When you’re studying leadership, you need to look at how an organization is structured and how it is having an impact,” said Davenport.

LOS students learn to look at organizations through a “leadership lens” and begin thinking about how their actions impact people and the community, according to Davenport. “The world needs better leaders. I think one way to get those better leaders is to begin asking questions and looking at the world through that leadership lens,” he said.

Students find that after using the leadership lens for a while it becomes second nature and when they are watching a movie or show on television in their leisure time, that lens comes on and they start thinking about the leadership within the film.

“My students tell me that they can’t just go watch a movie now without thinking about the lessons they’ve learned in class. I think that’s really good. You need to look at everything that’s happening in your life from a leadership perspective so you can begin thinking about how we are impacting and interacting with one another,” said Davenport.

Both traditional and non-traditional students make up the students in LAC’s LOS program, but the majority are non-traditional. “They are here because they want to be here and they are here because they want to grow. They want to take this knowledge back to where they’re working. They want to use it today,” said Davenport.

A lot of students tell Davenport that his classes have already made them better at what they’re doing. “There’s a local distillery that’s going through an organizational change. One of its managers is in one of my classes and he’s having to use this organizational change stuff right now. It’s fantastic!”

Davenport’s hope for the traditional students is that they will begin to develop leadership skills, good habits from the get-go. The LOS program has traditional students who are in leadership positions on campus or are already working full time in an entry-level position but they are still able to use what they’ve learned in their LOS classes right away. “It’s nice to hear how they put their studies to practical use,” said Davenport.

Students in the LOS program come from a wide range of fields, from law enforcement to university to nonprofits down in Washington, D.C. to National Guard/military to the business world.

“My students have varying backgrounds, and experiences with school, and are here because they want to be better at what they do. I see my job as putting that leadership lens in front of them and then supporting them as they really look at themselves and their organizations through that lens,” said Davenport.

Davenport’s students tell him that class sometimes feels therapeutic because there is so much reflection on questions like: Who are you? Who are you as a leader? “It’s important to look at yourself in addition to your organization as you develop into a leader,” he said.

Both of the classes Davenport is teaching this semester are online. He said that there are pluses and minuses to online versus traditional in-person classes. “The benefit is that you don’t have to be some place at a certain time. As a student, you can fit class around your busy schedule,” he said.

The syllabus for Davenport’s online courses is the same as it would be for an in-person class. “Online, I try to simulate the discussion we would have in a face-to-face class. We use discussion boards, similar to having a conversation on a social media site where people exchange ideas. The key is that it’s classroom discussion supported by what you’ve been learning so rather than just saying your opinion which is often what happens on social media sites, it’s your opinion based on what you’ve read,” said Davenport.

In online and in-person classes, when Davenport asks a question he wants student to refer to the text when they answer. “We are doing that within the discussion board format, too. The nice thing about the online class is that you can spend more time thinking before you answer. In-person classes have limited time and so the conversation may have moved on while you are still wrestling with a particular idea and then don’t have an opportunity to contribute and be heard,” he said.

The trade off to the convenience of an online class is that there’s no way to simulate just being together, according to Davenport. “There’s always something unique and dynamic going on when you bring a group of people together in the same room. There are a few things that I try to do to get past that in my online classes” he said. That includes having a conversation with each student at the beginning of the semester. The conversation could take place face-to-face, via Skype or the phone.

“We don’t really talk about anything in particular. I ask what they want to get out of this class. But the goal of the conversation is to break down the online barrier and get to know the person on the other side of that cursor,” said Davenport.

“One of the fun things about the LOS program at LAC is that it is interdisciplinary because leaders are found in just about every field and industry and the courses take that into consideration. The program will offer a class this summer called Leadership and Spirituality, because regardless of your personal faith background there’s a spiritual side to all of us. Even if you’re an atheist or agnostic there’s still this way to get in touch with things outside of yourself, whether it’s nature or a higher power,” Davenport said.

How would organizations be different if part of what leaders do is unplug every once in a while, to stop, and just be, Davenport wondered. “Focus on the human being rather than the human doing. That’s a lot of what spirituality is about — stopping, trying to quiet down.”

Stop trying to solve problems the way we’ve always solved them, let’s think of something different, Davenport said. What can we do to foster that type of creative problem solving? “Creative problem solving is one of those things that even in radically different industries there are common denominators that can apply. For me, that’s what makes leadership fun to study: it’s useful but also you can go in a lot of different directions with it,” he said.

As an example of a leadership case study in his classes, Davenport’s students will be reading “Ender’s Game,” a military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. “We will read it and ask ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s a way to make our study of leadership more accessible, not get hung up on jargon. I don’t have tests on defining leadership terms. That’s not useful. That’s not something you can actually use to be a better leader. Instead I want to know if you understand leadership theory. Can you apply it? Can you explain it?” Davenport said.

“A lot of leadership studies is actually about doing the hard work. Looking at one’s self – always hard. Learning how to engage with others — that’s hard. We’re not all on the same page. It’s challenging and so figuring out how to do the hard work so that we can get to a better place is important. I don’t think getting to a better place is easy, but I think it’s worth it,” said Davenport.

For more information about the Leadership Studies program or other programs offered at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, visit www.usm.maine.edu/lac or call 207-753-6536.


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