Inauguration Week Reflections

By Sarah Bonewits Feldner

This week the Marquette community looks forward to the inauguration of Father Scott Pilarz, S.J. as our new President.  As an organizational communication scholar, I am interested not only in experiencing the pomp and circumstance that is sure to come along with event (though this I can only imagine because I have never actually experienced such a change in leadership) but also to how the leadership change speaks to issues that are central to my teaching and research. The ritual itself will tell a particular story about Marquette to the larger community. It will also reaffirm Marquette’s identity to those of us who work here. Beyond the event itself, the change in leadership gives me pause to consider the connections between the identity of an institution, its culture, and its leader.

An organization’s identity, while complex, is inextricably bound to the leadership of the communication. A leader’s efforts alone cannot form the identity of an organization, yet the leader does “speak” for the organization. Beyond speeches and formal announcements, the ways a leader goes about his or her daily business sets a tone and contribute to an overall communication climate. The communication from the top of an organization can create spaces for productive communication throughout the rest of the organization. Whether organizational members choose to follow these cues or to set an entirely different course, the very culture of the organization is defined in part by its leader (that is, even in choosing to go another way, we are influenced by the direction that we are not choosing).

For me, the significant links between organizational identity, culture, and leadership were best captured in Phillip Tompkins’ Organizational Communication Imperatives, an exploration of NASA in the Wernher Von Braun era. For many, Von Braun’s hands-on leadership style encapsulated NASA’s high accountability culture at the time. He was meticulous and involved in every aspect of NASA’s work, but at the same time appreciative of the insight and expertise of his employees. He was known for asking every manager to write him a “Monday note” outlining departmental progress for the week. Von Braun read the memos and wrote notes in the margins, duplicated all the memos, and circulated all of the memos along with his comments on each throughout the organization. In this way, everyone knew how his work fit within the whole and every person was accountable to the overall success of the organization.

Von Braun sometimes challenged the thinking of employees but also was quick to point out a job well done. His approach helped create an organizational culture in which all employees challenged each other, pushing for the best possible result. I do not think that Von Braun alone created or maintained the identity and culture of NASA, but I do believe that the culture and identity would have been different were it not for his style and approach.

Tompkins’ characterization of Von Braun is in the background of my thinking as I prepare to experience a shift in leadership. As faculty member, I am keenly interested in any potential shift in identity and culture that may be linked to our new leadership. Von Braun’s Monday Notes were an innovation of that time and that particular culture, Father Pilarz undoubtedly will establish communication that fits in this time and place. Already, Father Pilarz has reached out to students and faculty and sat down with them over meals and meetings to gather impressions. These meetings will allow him to learn about this institution by hearing directly from some of the many diverse voices that make up our community. Direct conversations such as these provide hints of what this leadership change might mean for all of us. Changes might best be seen as opportunities.

So, I look forward to Friday’s inauguration and for the year to come as both a member of the Marquette community and as an organizational communication scholar. In the former role, I’ll be watching the changes and adapting my routines to fit within and support the Marquette culture. In the latter, I’ll be considering the interrelationships between organizational leadership and the resulting organizational identity.

Sarah Bonewits Feldner is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Corporate Communication at Marquette University.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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