Walking the Talk

Walking the Talk: Rhetoric as a Practice of Ethical Leadership

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of CLAS

for the Wheelhouse Series of the Hauenstein Center

November 7, 2012


Thank you, Abigail, thanks to Gleaves Whitney for the invitation, and thanks especially to the fellows for the opportunity to address you on the topic of leadership. Colonel Hauenstein, thank you for all you’ve done for my home town, and for my University.  On behalf of the Fellows, thanks especially for this program.  Its results will exceed your most robust dreams for promoting ethical and effective leadership.  And thanks to everyone else who came on Election Hangover Day.  I hope your favorite candidate won—and if not, in the spirit of bipartisanship I hope you don’t take it out on me.

Let me admit from the outset that I’ve found this assignment of talking about leadership a humbling topic.  It certainly has served to make me live that much more of an examined life for the last few weeks, and for the Fellows, I hope some of my thoughts today will be transferrable, in ways I can’t begin to anticipate, for the leadership roles you will play.

To start, I want you to put yourself into my shoes almost 9 years ago—and I continue to tell the story that I finally sent in my on-line application less than ten minutes before the deadline.  Imagine considering a Dean position where the Provost expects you to unite three divisions of the university that had been so separate that they had different personnel, tenure and promotion processes, different curriculum development, even different ways of keeping the books!  The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, CLAS, was formed through the merger of three existing divisions each with their own individual strengths and traditions, as well as with some people who had looooooong memories of, and deep convictions about, the structures which predated, and those which should succeed, those divisions (I wonder if it occurred to anyone, as it does to me, that calling an academic unit a “division” might not be the most positively suggestive name?).  Although several universities include colleges of arts and sciences of similar size and scope (in fact I came here from being an Associate Dean at one of almost exactly the same size) there were deeply felt concerns about keeping the best from each of the divisions, keeping the Grand Valley character of them.  During the Dean search, some skeptics came to call the position the “UberDean.”  I think this sometimes expressed real concerns about the job, and sometimes their estimate of the unlikelihood of finding someone who could meet its requirements as they understood them. That is, they framed their worries to be about me, and who I was. Today I want to talk about examples of the rhetoric by which I tried to ease those concerns, sometimes without directly addressing them—and thereby, to reframe the issue to be about an emerging Us, about who we could be together.  I choose three areas of leadership not because any one of them throws off particularly original or innovative examples in the life of a dean, but because seeing leadership practices as acts of rhetoric puts them in a specifically ethical context—ethical not with respect to observing or violating any set of rules, but with respect to how rhetorical practices inescapably feed back on the development and practical capacities of a leader’s, and a community’s, character.  


I probably don’t have to argue to so sophisticated an audience that integral to leadership is the power, even just the commitment,   to persuade.  As the website of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s program in Rhetorical Leadership notes, “[l]eadership through rhetoric is vital for those with limited resources and formal authority who must rally others primarily through language and arguments.”[1]  I think that even those who have less limited material resources   (rumor has it that there are still some of those) and those able to muster formal authority should rally others through persuasion.

And this is hardly some novel discovery of mine.  Whole books have been written on the relation of Presidential leadership and persuasion, for instance.[2]  Or, take Nick Morgan in Forbes[3], who wrote that what “[t]he communicating a leader does is all, essentially, persuasion. That's what leaders do. They persuade people to work together, to achieve more than they ever thought they could, to reach for apparently impossible goals, to put personal interests aside (at least temporarily) in favor of some larger group purpose.” And Morgan sees some added urgency given the nature of our times. “Electronic communication and globalization have further eroded the traditional hierarchy,” he continued. “People who perform work don’t just ask ’what should I do?’ but ‘why should I do it?’… Persuasion is widely perceived as a skill reserved for sales and negotiation. Now, it’s an essential proficiency for all leaders.”[4]

Because I’m a professor of Rhetoric, you might expect me to talk today about leadership and words. There’s a good talk there; maybe you’ll invite me back.  Instead of  talking about talk, though, I want to describe leading through rhetoric understood as an ethical practice—that is, how a leader can, and should, Walk the Talk.  

Any rhetorician after Aristotle will tell you that some of the most important elements of persuasion include the establishment of an authoritative ethos, one projecting good character in the form of an abiding concern for the audience and its mission, good sense in the provision of assent-worthy reasons, and good will in the nurturing of shared passion.  But let me put a finer point on that truism, in my claim that rhetoric is an ethical leadership practice.  On one level, that means that a rhetoric of leadership is not made only of words, although words remain necessary.  Ethical leadership comprises the deeds that illustrate, manifest, enact the words.  I’m not just saying what Emerson did when he went out on the Lyceum circuit, that “what you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say” although he certainly had it right about when one’s words and actions conflict.  But the positive principle is perhaps even more useful: what you say can speak louder, clearer, and more credibly if it’s demonstrated, inhabited by what you do.

To take on the UberDean’s duties but not all the unwieldy baggage that people’s concerns had packed for me, I had to make it clear that I was not distant from the realities of the academic work they faced every day at Grand Valley.  I had to Walk my Talk—because only by that walk could I transport myself to a place from which I could best be heard.  The question was, who did I have to be, or become, in order to have the authority to say what as a Dean I had to say?  Let me illustrate in terms of three examples that you’ll encounter as a leader too: workload, public events, and communication.

As Dean, I’ve always taken on duties of a faculty member.  I regularly teach courses.  I don’t mean just drop-ins into class sessions that happen to concern my expertise.  Don’t misunderstand, even such appearances are good for every administrator to do.  It’s telling that President Haas finds the time to set a good example in this way.  But I have taught whole courses, at every level from beginning Gen Ed to graduate courses, and I know what they’re like and where glitches come up from first- day roll to the semester’s final grades.  Since as a leader I’ll be known by the company I keep,   I’ve encouraged all those with doctorates in the CLAS college office to also take regular turns in the classroom, and I’ve urged the associate deans to continue their research and service agendas to the extent they find practical.  As a result of their work, my associate deans have received university and community recognition for research and service as well as teaching.  It perhaps goes without saying to you that I’m very proud of them (which may in turn have an effect on how they do their work and how they enjoy it).  But it’s important to add that the faculty and staff who know them are proud of them too. I’ve also tried to keep my hand in the research end of my discipline, by serving as an NEH fellow a few years back and starting this year by giving service from an eagle’s eye view position of leadership as the executive director of the Rhetoric Society of America.  CLAS faculty by and large know that they are led by people who are like them also practicing teacher-scholars; we get the benefit of identification.  

This is what I mean when I say good leadership is an ethical practice. Leadership involves not only what you say, but who you are, and are becoming.  Your rhetoric includes not only your words, but public actions giving meaning and a human pulse to your words.  Put that another way, because your rhetoric is public, it is action on others—and in acting on others, it inevitably acts on you.  But sustaining one’s credibility is not an isolated gesture, it has to be a continuing discipline. You need to keep Walking the Talk. One-time behaviors won’t do in my case because there are always new people in the college and the realities of university life are too fast-evolving to rest on old laurels, or on aging understandings of a truly dynamic scene.  While I hope my rhetoric is ethically changing other people’s minds, and informing them, and building community consensus, it’s also an ethical leadership practice in that it changes me—changes my actions, and thereby shapes how, and with what credibility I can be heard. Let’s put it this way. An audience simply listens differently to someone who takes a turn with them at the oars, instead of just calling the cadence.

There’s another rhetorical effect that feeds back on how I can lead—and maybe, how I can avoid some basic mistakes of leadership. Doing the tasks myself, I’m saved from making easy mistakes regarding academic work: I have everyday experiences that make me respect and identify with how demanding that work is, and how difficult it is to do well.  It’s easy to become impatient and frustrated with the sometimes glacial pace of academic change.  I’ve seen some administrators  who have given up the experience of also being faculty fall into “us” and “them” binaries.  As long as I maintain this practice and stay in essential part one of “them”, it’s easier for me to see a larger, much more diverse Us. 

I also participate in events wherever MY time and talent is adequate to the task—however hilarious the results.  For example, I’m famous for the passages I read in our Homerathon (personally, I think it’s good for you to hear your dean read a blood-curdling passage from the Iliad).  I agreed to appear in the Bollywood version of Midsummer Night’s Dream (they gave me a cool role, the buffoon who provides a moment of comic relief, but then articulates Shakespeare’s aversion to Elizabethan censorship.    For some reason, though, they wouldn’t let me join the company in a dance).  Where I can’t jump in myself, I’m an active creator of lots and lots of traditions for our still-new community, ranging from tuba bands at the holidays (you’re all invited to the lobby of the Kirkhof Center, December 12 at 1:00, to get your brassy Yule groove on) to a set of awards distributed at our two annual public events, recognizing everything from great teaching to leadership in governance to devotion to student safety in studios and labs. 

Yes, part of the leadership is what Aristotle called epideictic—that is, to be cheerleader-in-chief—and it turns out that is the easiest, most informative, and most fun part of the job.  Having always to know more and respect more about the cutting edge of knowledge in the arts and sciences, in our pedagogy, and our service to students and the broader community is just one of the ways my ethos, my character, is committed to, and to a tangible extent changed in, my leadership practice. 

Now in a college that has, in any given semester, eight or nine hundred faculty and staff working towards its goals, we have to think about internal communication as a necessary scene of leadership. I want to talk about this in two ways that are based in action: communicating by cultivating leaders, and by understanding the needs of broader audiences. 

In a large college department chairs must be leaders.  I want my department chairs to know that I value their time and efforts.  So our meetings have to reflect that value.  We avoid wasting time simply dispensing information: whenever possible, we put that in a weekly unit head mailing.  Instead, we use our time together as if it were a scarce (that is, precious) resource; we have conversations that actually change minds, including mine.  We regularly ask them to share their best practices about problems they are facing,  consistently request and respond to their suggestions for the meeting agenda, often bring in experts on topics they’ve told us are of interest to them. They come to feel a stake; gradually it becomes their meeting too.  And it’s regularly one of the most functional meetings I’ve seen in an academic setting, because the chairs are disposed by the way we treat them to be leaders themselves.  I’m not saying all of them reach that status quickly and easily, but some do, and it’s important for my own morale and the way I will go on to treat them that disappointment at a few instances of the former never obscure all the shining instances of the latter.

To help spread these benefits to the faculty, staff, alumni and other audiences, my office produces many kinds of communications.  

  • on a daily basis for the website, http://www.gvsu.edu/clas/
  • on a weekly basis in a lean e-mail newsletter, http://www.gvsu.edu/clas/unit-head-and-faculty-weekly-mailing-archive-59.htm
  •  in a monthly faculty e-newsletter http://www.gvsu.edu/clas/clas-acts-faculty-newsletter-167.htm that includes a column called From the Dean’s Desk, an accounting of what the associate deans are doing—at the request of faculty who sometimes have a hard time imagining the nature of our work–and feature articles about the work of individual faculty in the college so we can better appreciate one another’s contributions and spot candidates for collaboration, or, alternately, articles that explain our workings-- such as a understandably popular annual article on the college budget.
  • In a 25ish page annual report we focus cyclically on teaching, scholarly and creative achievements, service and, every four years, provide an overview so that we are always transparent and accountable on the issues of central concern to the life of the university as it is lived by those who provide and support the education of the students.


What characterizes them all, however tacitly, is that each is tailored to specific audiences, and each timed for when that audience needs to know.   So, not only do they convey information.  They say, we know who you the recipient are, and we know what you’re facing right now.  So what might otherwise seem burdensomely additional information becomes instead a little more like a lifeline extended by a sympathetic and knowledgeable friend.

Now, with your indulgence I’m going to talk like a rhetoric professor for just a few sentences,      because all of these leadership practices belong to the context of the history of rhetoric.   Kenneth Burke studied identification—the kind that can happen when people come to see you     less as a distant UberDean and more as someone sharing something special with them—credentials, experiences, values.  And Burke gave us a critical methodology to analyze the pageant, the ritual, the dramatic action (and I’m only partly joking here of College events.   Aristotle’s development of the enthymeme, of different enthymemes for different audiences,    theorized why you don’t belabor what any set of listeners will already grant you, but give them what they need at the moment when you know they need it.  Timing, kairos, is part of the realm of rhetoric.  And my own mentor Wayne Booth explained how selves are forged in Rhetoric: how “a self is “essentially rhetorical, symbol exchanging; a social product in the process of changing through interaction, sharing values with other selves.  Even when thinking privately, ‘I’ can never escape the other selves which I have taken in to make ‘myself,’   and my thought will thus always be a dialogue.”[5]

But that in the end doesn’t address the practical question.  Obviously this kind of leadership is more work, at least at the front end.  It certainly puts more of the leader’s character at stake.  Why should another Dean, or a prospective leader of any kind, listen to any of this?

Like any other form of leadership, the reason is rooted in the practices you’re leading.   The vocation of teaching and learning is a high passion enterprise, for both our faculty and for our devoted staff.    We are a dream factory.    What a professor does is make opportunities, open gateways to better lives for many people who just barely dared to dream it could be possible   for someone in their family—first gen in college people, like me.  I came back to Grand Rapids to provide people I know and people I am related to (well, by now, mostly their kids and grandchildren) with just such opportunities.  I came home to invent CLAS as exactly this kind of generational gateway.  As an academic leader, I can’t forget that the heart of what we do is to put dreams in reach. 

And if that’s the purpose our practice, attention must constantly be paid to the emotional well-being of the College, CLAS’s Dean must regularly and publically articulate, appreciate, and reinforce our commitment to what matters among US. 

How do I know it works?  There are lots of kinds of proofs, but I’d like to think one bit of evidence is the emergence of many new leaders, each developing his or her own distinctive voice in the course of their leadership (let’s make the irony explicit: to play in the region of this kind of power, you have to be willing to give up a little control. There’s another talk in that—I work cheap, invite me back!).  When your faculty take up key positions within the larger university structure (as ours have in CLAS departments, the Brooks College, the Provost Office, and Faculty Senate) or your “coaching tree” includes deans at other colleges in places as disparate as Ypsilanti, MI and Universidad de Ibague in Tolima, Columbia;   when a student on your advisory committee, in what seems the twinkling of an eye, becomes your dog’s veterinarian, when your faculty are contributing spectacularly to everything from GVSU’s enviable record of producing Fulbright Scholars, to a flurry of major grants at a rate more than twice the national norm,  to bringing their disciplinary colleagues from all over the region and nation here to GVSU in large conferences that show off the university and the city—well, then you can tell that at least some things are being led in the right direction. 

About Grand Valley’s largest college, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,   I can proudly say all these things are broadly, frequently, and powerfully true—have been true for more than 8 years, up to this moment, and I’m very proud—not of anything an UberDean did, but of just about everything that we’ve empowered our College to do together. 

I say this knowing that empowerment takes constant renewal.  So, no later than this afternoon, I better get back to being the Dean I’m always beginning to become in my rhetoric.



[1] http://www4.uwm.edu/letsci/rhetlead/

[2] Craig Allen Smith, Kathy B. Smith, The White House Speaks: Presidential Leadership As Persuasion (Praeger, 1994). See also Mary Stuckey, Leadership and the Bush Presidency (Praeger, 1992), and Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity (Kansas Univ. Press 2004).

[3] “Leadership Is All About Emotional Persuasion”, Nick Morgan, 02.02.10 Forbes.com

[4] http://dwp.bigplanet.com/workingresources/professionaleffectivenessarticles/article.nhtml?uid=10043 [4]


[5] Wayne Booth, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, University of Notre Dame Press, 1974, p.162.

Page last modified March 9, 2018