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Change Comes from the “Gray Middle”, With Elissa Tenny, President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)

“Years ago, a faculty member who is a choreographer taught me a powerful way of thinking about leadership in times of change. Essentially…


“Years ago, a faculty member who is a choreographer taught me a powerful way of thinking about leadership in times of change. Essentially, she advises concentrating your efforts on that group of people, usually the majority, who are potentially opened to change. She calls them the “gray middle.” If you are lucky, you have a group of “champions,” people who — out of fidelity to you as a leader, innate predisposition to mixing things up, or partisanship with the change being considered — will be eager to do something new. They are great allies in implementing change. You also certainly have “resistors” at your organization. While they serve a valuable function in second-guessing and double-checking any proposed changes, likely clarifying your decision-making, they are intransigent. They will remain skeptical of change until, and only if, change brings positive results. Don’t stifle progress failing to persuade those who won’t be convinced or flattering yourself with the reassurance of those who don’t need convincing. Instead, focus your attention on the “gray middle.” They offer you the greatest potential for new energy in designing and realizing change.”


I had the pleasure to interview Elissa Tenny. Elissa is the president of the Art Institute of Chicago’s art school, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Elissa is the first woman to lead the school in its 150th — year history.


Thank you so much for joining us Elissa. Can you tell me the “backstory” of how you reached this point in your career?

I originally came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to serve as provost in 2010 after thirty years of experience in academic leadership at Bennington College and The New School. Then in the summer of 2015, my appointment as SAIC’s fifteenth, and first female, executive was announced. I assumed the presidency of the School already knowing how curious and talented our students are, how passionate and involved our faculty are, what depth of knowledge and loyalty our staff exhibit, and the high level of generosity and hands-on commitment so many of our board members volunteer. I also had the support of the director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, the School’s partner museum, and, most importantly, I had the mentorship of SAIC President Emeritus Walter Massey, who preceded me and continues to be a leader in higher education and the city of Chicago.


Can you share five lessons learned from your experience that you would share with a new executive?

At the core of the advice I would give to any new executive, including my former self, is the process of discovery and the validation of self. As a spokesperson, a president is asked to embody the will of an organization while still being both an individual, who will need to incorporate that responsibility in a unique way, and a human being, subject to the fallibilities that are integral to the human condition. These five bits of retrospective wisdom (plus a little extra credit) anticipate that an executive flourishes through their presidency, which is something I definitely learned from SAIC students and their brave explorations in art, design, and scholarship:

1) Be Yourself like an Artist

One of the most important jobs artists do in our culture is to use their work as a vehicle for expressing their feelings, inner truths, and unique perspectives. Looking at the work of artists, particularly the emerging ones I am privileged to work alongside every day, I see how the best artwork is arrived at when the artist is in tune with their inner self. Just like an artist, your work will be better when it is more in line with who you are. The first step in cultivating self-realization for yourself is to allow your work to be a place where you encounter, rather than hide, yourself.

Several weeks into my presidency, I was surprised by how apart from the day-to-day management of the School I felt. I was also sensitive to the emphasis my new job placed on being an external figure, representing the School in the public sphere. And I didn’t want my colleagues to think my new position undercut my long-held faith in their abilities.

Self-knowledge proved to be the first step in aligning my job with my talents, dispositions, and values, which is the second example artists make in their practice. After an artist recognizes themself through their work, an artist also uses that same work to broadcast that same self.

2) Share Yourself like an Artist

Key to an artist’s self-discovery is the disclosure of their realizations through their artwork. Similarly, I found I needed to share my early sense of separateness from the work of the School as an executive officer. Through discussion with my peer network and closest colleagues, I realized that not all presidents shape their leadership the same way, and I needed to help the organization see what kind of president I could be.

Being aware and involved with internal operations fuels me and helps me accomplish the external demands of the presidency with more confidence and enthusiasm. Fortified by this realization, I worked with my cabinet to shape a presidency that balances my need for internal involvement with their autonomy as experts in their areas of the organization, which just underscores how important your leadership team is to your success.

3) Appreciate Your Team

Unless you are an entrepreneur entirely new to the work force, you have likely had a lot of work experience and professional feedback before you reach the executive suite. You have a candid sense of your own skills, even if you occasionally struggle with imposter syndrome, and you know that a diverse staff with complementary skills helps compensate for your own weaknesses, broadens the perspective of the entire organization, and creates opportunities for new ideas and creativity.

As president, these truths become abundantly clear. You are no longer responsible for a discrete part of an organization; you are accountable for all of its operations. You should cultivate and nurture your team, as individuals and as a working unit, to make sure they have opportunities to do their jobs in ways best suited to them as individuals. I encourage my vice presidents to pursue professional development opportunities. We go on leadership retreats together and celebrate accomplishments together. Entrust your team with a sense of ownership over their shop and encourage their sense of belonging to the institution.

4) Presidents are People

I often say I stumbled backwards into my career. As first-generation college student, a life in higher education was not what I anticipated. I stumbled into media studies, and only through working towards my master’s degree did I connect with a love of learning, which lead to a series of jobs that found me, to my surprise and delight, in Chicago and as president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I am lucky enough to have ended up with work that I love, which makes overdoing it all the more likely. The days are endless when you are president, and many demands are made on your time. But you must be among your top priorities.

Take care of yourself. Your self-care does not have to be elaborate or impressive. In fact, it probably should be something easy that gives you a break. I favor durational activities that give me a sense of accomplishment or time for contemplation such as running, spinning, and stealing away to our on-campus gallery spaces for some midday art appreciation.

And, most importantly, you need to be forgiving towards yourself for not being able to do everything. Remember that any misstep can become the opportunity for new discoveries. Self-acceptance is part of self-knowledge, and you should allow yourself the same limitations you would extend to anyone else in your organization.

5) Change Comes from the “Gray Middle”

Years ago, a faculty member who is a choreographer taught me a powerful way of thinking about leadership in times of change. Essentially, she advises concentrating your efforts on that group of people, usually the majority, who are potentially opened to change. She calls them the “gray middle.”

If you are lucky, you have a group of “champions,” people who — out of fidelity to you as a leader, innate predisposition to mixing things up, or partisanship with the change being considered — will be eager to do something new. They are great allies in implementing change. You also certainly have “resistors” at your organization. While they serve a valuable function in second-guessing and double-checking any proposed changes, likely clarifying your decision-making, they are intransigent. They will remain skeptical of change until, and only if, change brings positive results. Don’t stifle progress failing to persuade those who won’t be convinced or flattering yourself with the reassurance of those who don’t need convincing. Instead, focus your attention on the “gray middle.” They offer you the greatest potential for new energy in designing and realizing change.

Thank you for these profound insights!

Originally published at medium.com

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