Dr. Rodney D. Smith is the inaugural Vice President for Access and Engagement at William Jewell College. In this role, Dr. Smith provides strategic leadership for the college regarding issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Smith also oversees the work of the Center for Justice and Sustainability, which promotes cross-cultural engagement among students, faculty, staff, and community members of all identities and backgrounds. In this episode, we’ll learn about Dr. Smith’s personal experiences when it comes to toxic leadership.
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Counteracting Toxic Leadership Through Mentorship By Dr. Rodney D. Smith
We’re talking to Dr. Rodney D. Smith. He’s the Inaugural Vice President for Access and Engagement at William Jewell College. In this role, Dr. Smith provides strategic leadership for the college regarding issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Dr. Smith also oversees the work of the Center for Justice and Sustainability, which promotes cross-cultural engagement among students, faculty, staff, and community members of all identities and backgrounds.
Prior to joining Jewell, Dr. Smith served as a consultant with Sophic Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he cofounded. The firm specializes in equity and inclusion consulting as well as business and not-for-profit management solutions. Dr. Smith also holds a Graduate Adjunct Professorship with the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he teaches courses that address racial, ethnic diversity, and cultural understanding.
Over his career, Smith’s scholarly interests have taken him to aim at the implications of race and racism in American society. Dr. Smith wrote and published a book entitled, Are We Really Crabs in a Barrel?: The Truth and Other Insights About the African American Community, as well as a chapter in an anthology titled, The Trayvon Martin in US: An American Tragedy. Dr. Smith holds a Doctor of Education degree from Tennessee State University, a Master’s of Education degree also from Tennessee State University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Morris Brown College. We got Dr. Rodney Smith. Rodney, how are you doing?
I’m doing well. Good to see you.
Likewise, I want to thank you for joining in on the show. Before we jump in, tell the readers about your story, journey, and what you’re working on.
It’s a long story. I’ll start with South Carolina and I’ll move quickly. I grew up in South Carolina. I went to college in Atlanta. I went to a historically Black college, Morris Brown College. I studied Architecture, believe it or not. I worked at an architecture firm in Atlanta before the Olympics came to Atlanta. After working for that firm for a while, I recognized and realized that architecture bored me out of my mind. It didn’t suit my personality type. I don’t think it was my calling, for sure.
I left the architecture industry altogether. I went back to my alma mater to work in the admissions office as a recruiter and that’s when the education bug bit me. I’ve been in higher education ever since. I started as Vice President for Access and Engagement at William Jewell college here in Liberty, Missouri, which is a suburb of Kansas City. It’s a new role for me and a new role for the college.
You create leaders by giving people responsibilities as opposed to telling people what to do.
On this show, some of the stuff we talked about is toxic leadership and toxic organizational cultures, whether it’s research, coaching, or personal experience. Talk to me about your entry point into that topic. What comes to mind for you?
Mine was more of a personal experience, this idea of toxic leadership. In addition to having studied leadership as a graduate student, both my Master’s and my Doctorate are in educational leadership. Even from a young kid, I often found myself in leadership roles where I didn’t necessarily want to be in these leadership roles, but I found myself in these roles. Be it on the football field when I was a high school athlete or be it in the student government organization, I found myself in these leadership roles.
Leadership has always been something that was of interest to me and something that I admit that I knew little about as far as the technicality of it. It was always interesting to me because I found myself in leadership roles. As far as this notion of toxic leadership, most of my commentary would be in reference to experiencing what I would describe as toxic leadership throughout the years of experience in higher education and beyond and before that.
What are some of the things you learned about leadership in school versus being a leader or experienced in the real world? What are some of those gaps that you saw?
It’s always this notion of theory, practicality and putting those theories into practice. One of my professors used to say that people are infinitely variable. You say, “This personality type. This is how you manage people and you use this approach to deal with this type of situation.”
You go try it and then you’re like, “Why didn’t it work?”
The textbook is a textbook. It doesn’t necessarily always line up exactly what happens in the real world. There’s a learning curve if you will. A theory has its place, but it is indeed a theory where scholars perhaps are hypothesizing, inferring this may happen, but there’s no guarantee that’s good.
Being in the higher education space, you’ve probably noticed differences in leading students from an age standpoint, leading employees, and things like that. Are there any insights that you got there?
The biggest one there is this idea of leading with and not for. I know that’s a small semantic difference, but it has an exponential impact when you understand the concept behind with and not for. Some of my greatest lessons in leadership have come from students, whereas I’m programming and planning curriculum for students and then they’ll say, “Dr. Smith, I love the plan. That’s great, but you didn’t include us in the plan. You didn’t ask for our input in the plan.”
That’s one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the years doing this work with those that you serve as opposed to for those that you serve. I know that may sound like a small difference in wording. It insinuates that people have information about themselves that is valuable to and for themselves as opposed to us having all these plans for people without ever considering the intelligence and value that they bring to the conversation about themselves. Sometimes this notion of doing things for people, we can easily slip into this condescending, paternalistic position.
That’s where we get to that toxicity. Too much of that paternalistic nature and things like that get to toxicity. When you see a high authoritative leadership style, extremely micromanaging, or all those extremes that we run across in everyday work, when we encounter that, what do you see as the impact on people?
It stunts growth and creativity. You don’t find leaders that way. You create leaders by giving people responsibilities as opposed to telling people what to do. If you give people responsibilities and you give them perhaps assignments and things of that nature and you don’t put too many stipulations around the assignments as to how they should do it, their creativity can blossom. One of the big challenges of that authoritative style to leadership is this overseeing. It does not value the intelligence and moxie that people bring to these leadership opportunities.
It’s the whole reason we hire the employee for what they have and then we stuck to growth when they get here. I use an analogy of I’m going to give you the canvas, but I’m going to let you paint.
That’s exactly what leadership is as opposed to telling people what to do and you say, “I want you to lead the way I would lead.”
Versus, “I want you to lead the way you would lead.” These seem like simple concepts and yet it doesn’t happen. What do you think gets in the way?
People are not the problem, but people are affected by problems.
This gets into one of the questions and we’ll get to the spark of that. That leader who’s an authoritative leader and that leader who is micromanaging, in them, there’s a level of insecurity. There is a level of uncertainty in themselves. If you constantly have to remind people that you are the leader, who then are you reminding? You’re reminding yourself.
I walk in that door and I know you’re a good leader. You got the title.
The leader reveals him or herself. I read this wonderful book that talks about a little bit of this cast. Isabel Wilkerson talks about this. Often in our society, when we’re talking about leadership, we use terminology relative to wolf packs and how wolves operate in environments. The most insightful thing that she said and resonated with me is that we’ve learned wolf pack behavior from wolves that are in captivity.
If you notice wolves in their natural habitat, in their natural environment, the alpha dog, the alpha male, never has to assert his power because everybody in the pack knows that he’s the alpha. He never has to assert. He never has to bully or fight. Everybody in the pack knows who the alpha dog is, who the alpha male is.
You’re right about wolf behavior, where everybody in the pack knows their role. It’s clear. It’s not about hierarchy. It’s about we take care of the group.
It’s about serving the group. When you do that well, the group will, in turn, serve you. I heard this wonderful story in a leadership program that I was a part of. One of the speakers that came in was the nephew of a four-star general. I can’t remember what general was, but I remember him telling the story that his uncle said that when he was over in Vietnam before he became a general, he was a sergeant or a lower-ranking officer at the time, but he was in charge of his platoon.
They would have these rations that the whole platoon would have to eat. He would allow the guys in his platoon to eat first and he would always eat last. He always noticed that these rations were not appetizing anyway. He always noticed there was always one ration left in the bin and it was the one that he liked the most. It could have been chicken noodle soup or beef stew. Whatever flavor he liked the most was the one that was always left in the bit. His soldiers were always looking out for him because he was always looking out for them.
It’s like reciprocation. With a toxic leader or a toxic work environment, it takes a lot to maintain and sustain that. As you think about that, a lot of our perception goes down to our mindset and how we view the world. When you think about a person working in that toxic work environment, maybe it’s the leader, maybe it’s the whole culture, talk about what mindset is somebody adapting in that?
I’m not speaking from experience because I didn’t have these mentalities and mindsets when I was in situations with toxic leaders. There’s another concept that I’ve been trying to master and it’s in relation to equity. It’s in relation to trying to meet people where they are. It’s this notion of equity, giving people what they need to meet the goal. In that same vein, the mindset that we have to have is seeing our leaders as people who are affected by problems themselves.
I’ve had this epiphany and it’s helping me to see an individual, in retrospect, differently. Somebody who I used to work with some time ago and someone that you know well as well that we both used to work with, I’m now beginning to see that individual differently because I’m no longer seeing that individual as the problem, but that individual is affected by problems. In this conversation about equity, Bryan Stevenson talks about in Just Mercy and a lot of his work that he talks about trying to get proximate to the problem and recognizing that people are not the problem, but people are affected by problems.
What that reminds me of is centering humanity, which is something that I speak about a lot. It’s hard to do it when we’re in the environment. When we’re swimming in that water, it’s hard to do it. One of the most sought-after leadership skills is emotional intelligence. How can I even be empathetic to you when I’m harmed by you? This goes to my second question I’m thinking about and I want to hear from you. Let’s say I’m in this toxic work environment. There are a lot of people who are in environments that aren’t conducive to their being. What are some tools or what are some things you would recommend? What are some things you’ve seen work?
Some of this is in retrospect. It’s not that I’ve perfected it when I was in these toxic environments. To your point, it is quite challenging to have these wonderful mindsets when you’re in the middle of the fight or when you’re in the thick of it. A lot of times, you feel like you have to defend yourself and you’re always on guard looking for the next thing. If you’re contributing to the toxicity in the office or the work environment, are you trying to help navigate over around and through the toxicity?
One way that you can examine where you are situated is whether people come to you to gossip about the toxicity in the office or come to you to try to find advice. If people are coming to you to say, “I need some help trying to navigate this,” then you’re not contributing. You’re contributing to solutions. If people are coming to you to gossip about it, then you’re contributing to the toxicity in the office yourself.
You’re part of the gossip culture. You’re complicit. Unfortunately, we’ve been in both roles throughout our lives. I know I have. I’ve been on both sides of that coin. In years past, I may have been a part of the whisper culture and saying certain things about certain individuals and not contributing to any solutions. As I’m older and perhaps a little bit more wisdom has set in, I know not to participate in those activities and try to provide some wisdom to get around, get over, or get through the toxicity in the environment.
Belongingness is the lubricant to learning.
With that, I want to take you down a path. Imagine I’m a student who graduated from your university and you’re mentoring me. In my first job, I found myself in this type of culture and under this type of leader who is extremely micromanaging, self-centered a little bit, and I don’t see a way out. What advice would you give me?
I was in a similar situation. I went to a trusted advisor, I went to a mentor and he told me this long-drawn-out story, but the ultimate conclusion to his position and his words of advice to me was, “Comport yourself. Unfortunately, do what your supervisor is asking you to do.” I know that sounds counterintuitive. In my situation, it so happened to me, I went to a mentor who knew the whole situation.
They had knowledge of it.
The mentor I went to was the supervisor to my supervisor. They were in it, but I didn’t go to him in a supervisory role. I went to him as a big brother, an uncle type, “I need some advice.” I kept it high level. I didn’t know how much he knew about what I was dealing with. He knew way more than I thought he did about my situation.
He told me this long story and he said, “I can tell you about a situation where I was in a work when I was a young engineer. I designed this cooling system for a building. I studied the building for about a year or maybe two years. I knew every water entrance to this building. I knew that I had designed the right cooling system for this building. When I showed it to my supervisor, he said, ‘No, don’t do it that way. Do it this way.’”
I said, “What did you do?” He said, “I did it his way.” I said, “What’s the logic behind that?” He said, “Unfortunately, everybody knew my supervisor’s reputation in the organization that he wasn’t good to work with, but if I can prove to my organization that I could work well with this guy, then it’s a feather in my cap.”
He’s like, “Everybody knows who this guy is. If I can show others that I can work with this guy even though people don’t necessarily want to work with him and I can put this other way of doing something in my cap the way he wants me to do it, now I can say I have the skill of knowing it the way he does it. I also know the skill of the way I do it. Now I am adding it to my toolkit.” It was liberating for me, believe it or not. It gave me a strategy. It gave me something to work on. It gave me a different way of seeing it. It gave me a different way of looking at it.
You go back to your work environment, to the supervisor. Talk to me about that.
There are certain approaches that he wanted me to take to my work. I used his approach to the work.
How long have you stayed in that supervisory relationship?
It didn’t last long for some other reasons. It was successful for the time being. It bought me some time. It also allowed me to continue to serve in my mentorship role to some of the students that I was serving. It’s not that I was the only person available to students to be a mentor, especially for African American male students. I was in an environment where there were few African American men on the campus in leadership roles. It allowed me to continue in those important roles as well as opposed to me leaving a situation and leaving the institution. It bought me some time.
It sounds like shifting your mindset of the situation helped you stay. It helped you be resilient.
In some cases, what is required and needed is resiliency to weather various storms. All work environments and all work situations are not going to be exactly what you want them to be.
You go to college. You get sold a story and then you go to work. You’re like, “Hold up.” You have to build that resiliency. Another nugget was having that mentor to talk to.
That’s point number one. Always seek wise counsel. Whenever you’re in situations that you’ve not confronted before that you’ve not seen before, there’s someone who has. To the men that are following your show, a lot of times, we think that we can do it alone. We let this machismo take over and we don’t need help. We all need help. I would advise all of us, any and everybody that’s reading, always seek out wise counsel. There’s someone in your life that can help you navigate the challenges that you’re confronted with because they’ve navigated them already.
You’re not alone. Thank you for your wise counsel. Before we go, share with our readers any initiatives you’re working on or how we can reach you.
Thank you again, Dr. Smith.
My role at William Jewell is helping to lead the college do its equity initiatives, thinking about how do we draw the circle wider to include more people and all those things. Prior to that, a lot of my work was more concentrated because I’ve been doing this work for many years. I’ve been focused on this idea of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I’m helping people and students, particularly to find a sense of belonging on our campus.
Belongingness is the lubricant to learning. If you can find a place and a space on campus, you then don’t have to worry about the academic piece. You can be freed up to do the academic piece. I have a particular interest in the African American community as well as African American males. I am particularly interested in the progress of African American males. A lot of my focus is on helping younger men find themselves, their lane, their trajectory in life, and actualize what is that they want to be.
I hope people reach out. That’s good to hear. There are not a lot of resources that are open, especially for young African American males. Go on LinkedIn and find somebody to talk to. Where do I find that wise counsel?
I would advise even people like us, middle-aged guys that have been in this industry for a bit and gave wise counsel, we always keep wise counsel as well. As old as I am, I still talk to my mentors, my father, and people that have been in the industry longer than I had. I still call guys, girls, and ladies who I look up to in the industry and life in general. It’s not necessarily professionally but personally. I’m a husband and a father. I need advice in those areas too.
The professional and personal lines sometimes blur.
You need help navigating that.
I appreciate talking to you. I hope we get a chance to talk again. It’s been helpful and a wise counsel for this show.
My pleasure. Any endeavor that you’re a part of, I want to be a part of it and see you be successful.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.
- William Jewell College
- Sophic Solutions LLC
- University of Missouri-Kansas City
- Are We Really Crabs in a Barrel?: The Truth and Other Insights About the African American Community
- The Trayvon Martin in US: An American Tragedy
- Just Mercy
- @DrRodneySmith1 – Twitter
- @DrRodneyDSmith – Instagram
- @ToxicLeadershipPodcast – Instagram
- @ToxicLeaderShow – Twitter