Adaptability, Curiosity, Courage
March 17, 2022
Saint Mary’s College President Katie Conboy has spent her whole life looking for ways to empower girls and women. She is now in her second year at the sister school of the University of Notre Dame, and she sees “interesting parallels between Culver and Saint Mary’s.”
Conboy told the special Culver Connections Weekend audience she sees a curriculum that is anchored in interdisciplinary, active, problem-solving learning. She hears similar words like “wellness” and “wholeness.” And she believes both institutions have a stake in introducing students to “a global, interconnected world.”
“And we share a deep belief that leadership is not about a position we hold; it is about the choices we make and the actions we take, day in and day out.”
Noting that it was also the 50th anniversary of Culver Girls Academy and Women’s History Month, Conboy said both the military and girls leadership education hold special places in her life. Growing up an Army brat, that lifestyle has been a defining moment of her life. She understands the military side of Culver and the commitment to service that inspires it. But she also understands the leadership side of Culver Girls Academy.
Conboy and her three sisters were raised to believe “we could do anything, and we’ve certainly tried just about everything.” And she has three daughters, so “I’ve always had a personal investment in making a better future for girls and women.”
She added that, while her passion is for women’s leadership, she hoped her message would resonate with both CGA and CMA students. “Men need to be just as committed to advancing women as women are, and women need to help mentor the next generations of men to be even more inclusive leaders.”
She quoted a speech by Hillary Clinton to the United Nations, where she said “’Human rights are women’s right, and women’s rights are human rights.’ In other words, the world will never really get better until and unless it gets better for women.” That is why she is so animated about making Saint Mary’s – the only women’s college in Indiana – a national model for advancing girls and women across the life cycle. “We want to be a force for good in the economic and social empowerment of women.”
She talked about Culver Women’s Celebration speakers: Dr. Jennifer Thorington Spring, Kayla Miracle ’14, and Timika Shareef-Horton ’86 and their messages to CGA students. She also touched on the speech by angel investor and author Fran Hauser, who addressed the student body during a special session sponsored by The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur.
“Patience, flexibility, mindfulness, attention, trust, empathy, compassion, and warmth: these leadership qualities identified by your earlier speakers have already brought so much wisdom to the leadership conversation here at Culver this year,” Conboy said, and she had a hard time finding something new and meaningful to bring to the conversation.
Culver Connections Weekend
But there are three qualities “that have been central to my experience of leadership.”
The first is adaptability. Growing up as an Army brat, her family moved across the country and to Germany. She cultivated “the skill of adaptability. I had to learn – without anyone to teach me – how to start in a new school, how to make friends with people I didn’t know, how to speak a new language, how to ‘fit-in’ in a new culture. And I had to do it over and over again.”
But, as she looks back, it opened her up to other kinds of adaptability. She learned not to make judgments about situations or people upon face value; to be open-minded; to wait and see what happens; and be willing to change her mind as she got new information and insights.
This “adaptive leadership” allows her to embrace change, experimentation, and innovation as well. “I also recognize that I simply don’t have all the answers,” Conboy said. “I need a talented team to bring multiple perspective to the work and gather insights from elsewhere in the college. I need to include people who disagree with me and who look in new and different directions to solve problems.”
This adaptability is one of her “core strengths,” Conboy said, and she thinks “every single student at Culver” is developing it, too – even though they may be unaware of it happening. Leaving home for boarding school, figuring out how to live and learn together, working in teams, experiencing new kinds of discipline, wearing uniforms, conforming to rituals and traditions is central to life at Culver.
“You’ve become a family,” she explained, and when the students go home for breaks, they adapt to their domestic families and friends. The adjustment may be hard. “But try to let yourself learn from it. Feel the strength that comes from doing it a little better every time. Ask yourself what it might be preparing you for.”
Her second leadership quality is curiosity. Conboy said the best leaders “always want to know more. They ask questions. They want to expand their minds, expand their connections, expand their experiences.”
She recommended the students read “and read a lot.” She also encouraged them to “learn languages, travel to unusual places, seek out experiences different from your own.” And, Conboy explained, that can start at Culver. “There are plenty of people who are different from you. Sometimes we gloss over those differences because acknowledging them makes us uncomfortable.”
But “your best work and your best selves will emerge from situations where you are uncomfortable. Where you have to work with people – or live with people – who are not like you. Who don’t look like you. Who don’t think like you. Who hold different beliefs. Whose life experience differs from yours.”
Be curious about your peers, she said, and be energized by the differences. Be an active listener to their ideas, especially when they disagree with yours. Curiosity is a leadership skill and practicing it is the only way the world “will get better.”
As an example, she explained that her daughters currently live in South Africa, Massachusetts, and Egypt, and they have studied in and lived in other parts of Africa and Asia. “They are living evidence that the world really is open to us. But our experience of the world is impoverished if we are not open to it.”
Her third leadership quality is courage. She said she reminds herself and her team that it is easy to lead when things are going well. But leading during tough times, when problems are complex, requires courage. She said Winston Churchill was right when he echoed Aristotle: “’Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s display of courage is galvanizing his people with the simple decision to be present, she said. To fight with them and for them. To become a “true servant leader.” He is a leader “people can actually imagine becoming.”
Courage also comes on a smaller stage, “but it’s still centerstage, even playing across multiple theaters, where multiple leaders are grappling with the same problem in their own environments.” The handling of the pandemic at Culver, Saint Mary’s, and every other residential school and college required making difficult decisions so the institutions could work as well as possible for students and keep the community safe.
And, sometimes, Conboy said, there is no stage at all. It’s living out “our ethical principles in the face of peer pressure, direct opposition, or even the rule of law.” From choosing not to be bystanders, to not cheat, or standing with someone who is marginalized takes courage. She quoted primatologist Jane Goodall, who wrote: “’What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’”
None of your decisions will be made in a vacuum, she added. Everyone lives in communities, “and we are responsible to our communities.” Right now, for the students, it’s the Culver community. Soon, it will be a college community, then a work community, and a family community, and civic community.
And, when something needs to be done in a community, “you can lead from wherever you are.” That includes leading groups through change and introducing “a little disequilibrium” and finding ways to interrupt the existing state of affairs.
For her, that involved issuing a statement on systemic racism after the death of George Floyd and others. Some people thought her statement went further than it should, especially since she was so new to her position at Saint Mary’s that she hadn’t met everyone yet. “But it felt like a little miracle that, by the end of the day, my entire cabinet asked to co-sign it.”
Soon, alumnae and students of color presented a list of demands to the administration and trustees. “We had to do more than say something, we had to do something,” she said. She held six listening sessions – modeling curiosity – to better understand their experiences. The school then modeled adaptability by making the necessary changes.
“I felt grateful to discover that students and alumnae felt Saint Mary’s was a place where they could raise their voices.” Students of color and LGBTQ+ students felt they could ask Saint Mary’s to “to live up to the ideals we espoused. We were already a good place, they were telling us, with good intentions, but we needed to get better.”
“We talk a lot at Saint Mary’s about using your voice, and it’s an important skill,” she said, but she is also reminded of another Churchill quote: “’Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Her willingness to listen earned her the respect among students “and I have to note that I expect that students will sit down and listen in turn when I ask them to.”
The 'Hat Trick'
Conboy told the students to use her “hat trick” for leadership wisely. And to keep your leadership respectful and civil, even as you participate in changemaking. Seek out mentors, especially those different from you.
“Much of leadership is about influence. What do you want to influence toward? Is your influence life-affirming? Does it leave the people you interact with better for your having been there.”
And, Conboy said, remember the old saying about sled dogs. “The lead dog has the best view. But we should also take note that a sheep dog leads from behind and alongside. There’s more than one way to be a leader.”