Listening, to lead

Inside the lighthouse on Sapelo Island, the climb is steep and winding. For the people of a culture known as saltwater Geechee, the struggle to preserve their island heritage has been much the same. Now they are working with a team that includes geneticist Stephen Kresovich to reintroduce Purple Ribbon, a sugarcane first grown on the island two centuries ago. Because rare and desirable varieties of cane are prized by modern chefs and distillers, the project may cultivate an economic opportunity deeply rooted in the past. Read more in Sweet Hope for Sapelo Island. Photo by Jim Melvin.

The word leader has long implied one person, strong and decisive, who sets a course for others to follow. The leader speaks, the followers listen. But complex modern ventures rarely work that way, because the challenges are so complex that they exceed the span of any one person’s grasp. As Marissa Shuffler is finding, modern leadership often succeeds best when a coordinated team of people unite their diverse skills and insights into a unified vision and effective action.

Shuffler studies leadership in the context of the military, medicine, and space exploration, but her findings would also apply to a project called Indigo Pine. For more than two years, students and their mentors from multiple departments have planned, designed, and built their way toward an international showdown, in October of 2015, known as the Solar Decathlon. The decathlon, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote innovation in energy-efficient housing, is the most complex and daunting endeavor many of our students have ever encountered. And for more than two years now, it has put team-based leadership to the test.

The test was never easy. “We had a lot of strong personalities, and we were always butting heads,” says Will Hinkley, a graduate student in architecture. “But we had a common goal, so we figured out a way to work together. And we had a lot of fun.”

On the Indigo Pine project, architects learned to hear the engineers and vice versa. Chemists, physicists, social scientists, package designers, and many others all had a say. And listening, they found, was the essential ingredient, the number-one skill that moved the project forward.

Modern science, too, depends on that skill. The effort to reintroduce an heirloom sugarcane to Sapelo Island, for example, began with listening. The team, which included the renowned geneticist Stephen Kresovich, listened to the Geechee people, and heard about their hopes for a new crop, new employment, and a way to keep their heritage alive. Without that careful listening, even the best ideas can fail to thrive.

At Clemson, we talk sometimes about the will to lead. We intend to lead as a research university, an institution of higher learning, and a force for serving the public good. The will we speak about—a strong determination and resolve—can motivate us as individuals, yes. But even more importantly, we aspire to lead collectively, as a diverse group of people who can listen to each other and, for all our differences, achieve a common goal.

R. Larry Dooley
Interim Vice President for Research