The secrets to Sarah Holtan’s leadership success: Integrity, citizenship and the Dream Team. Read on…
What does it look like to be a woman in a leadership role? How does Christian faith impact leadership? And what happens when you put the two together?
To find out, we caught up with Sarah Holtan who is the Chair of the Department of Communication at Concordia University of Wisconsin. Sarah has been at CUW since 2001 and has held numerous roles there. She holds a B.A. in Mass Communication and Political Science from Augsburg College, and M.S. in Education for CUW, and a Ph.D. in Journalism Education from Marquette University. Sarah is also a speaker at the upcoming WLI National Conference where she will lead a workshop on Speaking 101: Delivery That Delivers.
We asked Sarah a few questions about her job and her views on Christian leadership:
What’s the favorite part of your job?
I love developing curriculum, energizing class discussions, mentoring, career counseling, and inventing fun “side” projects completely outside my job description.
How do you bring your Christian values into your work?
Integrity: Via role modeling; and holding myself, peers, direct reports, and students accountable to expected standards.
Citizenship: Integrating current events into course curricula.
Service: Offering short-term service learning projects in a few courses; serving on many committees; and nearly always saying yes to special requests, tasks, and duties.
Work Ethic: A disposition of gratitude toward my professional vocation; being willing to roll up my sleeves and do the work.
Can you remember a specific experience where you relied on your Christian faith or values to lead you through a tough decision or important task?
I was the Dean of Students for several years at CUW and the Chief Conduct Officer. I had to make many tough decisions. One of the toughest types of decisions was whether a student had to be removed from a resident hall or the University following a serious violation. I had to weigh the rights of the individual student and the concept of forgiveness against the rights of the community and the concept of consequences. As such, I often relied on my values of integrity and citizenship. I don’t know if I got all the tough decisions right but I’m hopeful that God was able to use any mistakes for something good.
How does working in a religious or secular setting change the way you lead as a Christian?
I’ve worked in both settings and they do seem different. Perhaps I am more thoughtful about how my decisions affect others now that I work in a religious context. My success seems secondary to others now. However, age and maturity might be the key contributors to becoming more other-centered. It’s important that Concordia prepares students to be Christian leaders wherever they work, regardless of the setting.
Who are your biggest role models as a leader?
I am blessed to have a peer group that has supported and helped me grow professionally. We call ourselves the “Dream Team,” although no one else has adopted that moniker! Our similarities drew us together and aided in our bonding. Our differences challenge us and spur growth.
What most prepared you to be a Christian leader in the workplace?
Ironically, it was the creation of an in-house, faith-based leadership program for faculty and staff at Concordia. A colleague, Prof. Tracy Tuffey (Psychology Department) and I developed the program from scratch. We created a proposal, pitched it to the higher ups, secured funding, generated buy-in from participants and administrators, organized the logistics, facilitated the sessions, assessed the program, and turned it into a research project. Prof. Tuffey and I simply wanted to fulfill a perceived need on our campus. No one asked us to do this nor compensated us. It’s actually been an enormous energizer for me at work. It’s also taught me a lot about having an original vision and seeing it through, despite the obstacles. I believe vision and perseverance are two hallmarks of leadership.
What challenges do you face as a Christian leader in your workplace?
I’ll answer the same way I’ve heard others answer: the scrutiny of being a Christian. It seems to be held against us at times. It’s quite impossible to be perfect and people watch us very carefully! I have found that when I try to defend my Christian perspective (e.g., consequences along with forgiveness), I just end up sounding defensive. That is something I am working on.
What is the most important piece of advice you would want to pass along to other Christian women in leadership?
Fight the Good Fights. Ask yourself a few questions to discern the difference between Good and Bad Fights. Does justice need to be served? Does a person or a cause need advocacy? Is this project/task/duty worthwhile personally or professionally, even if there is no recognition or compensation? Would you still take this project/task/duty on, even if creates a headache or full-blown backlash? Could you defend yourself with evidence? If you took your ego out of the equation, would you still engage in this conflict? If you “lose” the fight, can you turn the “loss” into a valuable lesson? I don’t mind a good loss. It can ease my conscience, serve others, and possibly even build some credibility and trust along the way. Ideally, it paves the way for change in the future. Sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s been my experience.
On a still Saturday morning in September, on the campus of Concordia University Wisconsin, fifty women of all ages and educational backgrounds journeyed together on a Road to Becoming a Confident Leader led by founder, speaker and author of the Backbone Institute, Susan Marshall.
Susan described a three-ring diagram, in which our comfort zone lies in the center, surrounded by our learning zone and outwardly a panic zone. As human beings, we tend to operate in “safe mode,” engaging in conversations and interactions with others where we feel most comfortable. Periodically, we have an opportunity to venture out and discover more, perhaps even welcome a period of information gathering and learn more about a situation or opportunity. When conflicts, contradicting values and the otherwise unknown alter our critical thinking, decision making and ultimately shake our confidence in our leadership ability, we’ve entered the panic zone.
After sharing her personal leadership journey, Susan invited the women to share with one another their own journeys, and then set out to dispel the myth of total confidence, all couched within the spiritual perspective that God has a plan for our lives (Jer. 29:11) and that sufferings produce endurance, character and hope (Romans 5:3.)
- Confidence is having a positive expectation for a favorable outcome.
There is no such thing as total confidence. When worried, fearful or unsure of our leadership abilities, critical thinking is not making assumptions, wishful thinking or based on memories.
- Critical thinking is the willingness and ability to see reality as it is, and make decisions accordingly.
When faced with a challenge or dilemma, critical thinking involves:
- Recognizing other people involved in the situation and their thoughts on the matter
- Addressing any assumptions you may have made about the situation itself, those involved and your leadership
- Considering who might be impacted by your decision, and what kind of impact
- Identifying compromises, and whether you can live with any of them
- Naming your desired outcome
- Taking action; even just by doing one thing to begin resolving your challenge
Things to remember:
- Consider those around you. Perhaps ask them which zone they fall into regarding the conflict – comfort zone, learning zone or panic zone.
- Consider the impact your decision may have on those around you.
- Not acting is not a strategy.
- Compromise is a potential strategy.
Susan’s workshop allowed ample time for the women to identify their own challenges and immediately apply the above critical thinking process. She called on us to both prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13) call on the Holy Spirit for power, love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).
- Feedback is another person’s response to something you do, which results in an emotional response by you. You then have an opportunity to accept it and act on it, or leave it be.
Whenever you receive feedback, “Sarah” is there:
Upon receiving feedback, whether good or bad, it is common to experience some or all of the above emotions. Consider asking yourself, or, if you’re feeling courageous, the person giving you the feedback, three questions:
- What can you do more?
- What can you do less?
- What should you continue to do?
Alternately, if you are the person giving feedback, prayerfully and thoughtfully do so with compassion, but be direct. Be certain the person knows exactly what they should do more, do less, and continue to do well.
After spending time together, the attendees were given the opportunity to give feedback about one another, which certainly produced some emotional responses (Sarah). However, this ultimately led to an awareness of the effectiveness of feedback in a leadership setting. Susan reminded us that God is on our side (Romans 8:31; Isaiah 41:10.)
The women leaders left the workshop with renewed feelings of encouragement, hope and confidence, as well as tools to equip them for exemplary Christian leadership in the home, church, workplace and the world.
"This photo is from the workshop is of all undergraduate and graduate students from CUW who attended. Twenty-one of our registrants were students! We are so excited to see the involvement of CUW and other university students with WLI! This group is truly for everyone."