Friday Focus: Leading with the information we have

Chancellor Dan White
UAF photo by Eric Engman
Chancellor Dan White

Jan. 27, 2023

— By Dan White, chancellor

Retired Army Maj. Gen. General Mark Hamilton was the University of Alaska president from 1998-2010. For those who know him, you know that he is a wonderfully gifted storyteller. As president, he lifted many up with stories he shared to which all could relate to their own lives in one way or another. It created a sense of belonging for many. Many of his stories were about leadership. One of my favorite stories he told at UAF was his great Americans story. At least that is what I call it. I paraphrase it here with plenty of literary liberties taken.

When you enter the military, as a private, there are many pressures. Pressures of new environments, new people, and training. When you are a private in the Army, the sergeant tells you what to do all the time. And they don’t understand. They don’t understand you and what you need and want. Surely there must be something wrong with them. That is, until you become a sergeant and you realize that they are all just great Americans, doing the best they can with the information they have. Then you realize there are a lot of pressures to being a sergeant, what with trying to corral a bunch of privates who are new to the military, who are adjusting, growing, and you have to get a job done. What you realize when you are a sergeant is that it is the officers who don’t remember what it is like to be a sergeant and don’t appreciate how hard your job is. The corporals, it is them who don’t understand you. The personal and professional pressures on a sergeant are real. That is, until you become a corporal. Then you see a bunch of great Americans, doing the best they can with the information they have. Well so the story goes until it all comes down to the generals. Those highest in rank who have not been a private and maybe never were. Those in the elite four-star rank who have lofty goals, are mission focused, and making orders that have to be executed through a command structure with thousands of people across the world. Civilians and enlisted. It must be them who have lost touch with the difficulties of every person in service to our country. Until you become a general. That is when you realize that they are a group of great Americans, doing the best that they can with the information they have.

At the university we don’t have the same structure of the military. But the story is the same. At every level I have been at the university I have seen great individuals doing the best that they can with the information they have. Everyone has a boss, and that person has a boss. And I have a boss, President Pitney, and she has a boss (actually 11), the Regents. At all levels are great leaders doing the best they can with the information they have.

UAF has great things ahead because as I look up and down in our organization I see great leaders. Those who are in leadership positions now, those who aspire to be leaders, or those who are doing the job they have and  are destined for greatness at some other time and in some other role – hopefully somewhere in our university.

I would ask that each of you think about your path at UAF. How you serve in our organization today, and how you would like to in the future. On our performance evaluation form, the last question relates to this. Are you well positioned in your current role or are you looking for advancement? Talk to your supervisor about your aspirations. Talk to your supervisor, talk to a leader in your administrative structure at UAF or somewhere else. Or talk to me.

Our future depends on people who want to lead and take the time to learn what that means and how to be effective. I am confident that as you move throughout UAF what you will find is great leaders who are doing the best they can with the information they have, at all levels. 

Thank you for considering how you serve in this great university. Thank you for your commitment to being a leader in whatever way you choose.

Thank you for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.