Sub Rosa Leadership

Today I heard from an OER leader, and s/he described the work of OER as operating “Sub Rosa” at her/his institution. Because I’m learned woman of letters, my brain blew up in a ten different directions wider than the sky. Here’s a sampling of my inner dialogue and how I completely went away into my own thoughts for a good ten productive minutes.

Leadership Sub Rosa. Sub Rosa. Rosa. Rosa. Rosa. Sub Sub Rosa Subrosa. Brosa!

Fabulousa! Rosa Beggeriana, you take over my garden. Lay me down in a bed of your delicate petals, Rosa Beggeriana. Sub rosa. Under the rosa.

Where is my mind? Rosa! Surfer Rosa by The Pixies. Rosa rosa rosa rosa!

Sub of The Rosa: A Sandwich Made Of Red Coldcuts

Under the rose. Secrecy. Clandestine.

Off the record.

Sub Rosa: A Memoir of Lady Leadership

That’s it. Yes. That. Is. It.

How much effective leadership happens sub rosa? Who chooses to operate sub rosa? When do clandestine plans become openly strategic? Why? When? With whom?

Whether it is open education, pedagogy, or organizational change, you sometimes have to make space to meet below the roses. If you can’t find that space, you may need to create a new garden. I’m simplifying–it’s not that easy. Everything is complicated.

Let me tell you a little story. That’s the bloggy blog of blogginess, right? What I write here may or may not connect to any projects or anything at all. Just write. A rose is a rose is a rose.

This is the first summer that I have done zero gardening. Zero. Haven’t pulled a weed. Planted a plant. Watered a garden bed. Nurtured seeds to sprout. Transplanted plants from pots. Hung out in the garden wasting time. My garden. It’s been a very long year in the City of Roses, and this lack of gardening is starting to get to me. This time next year, I hope to be typing with calloused hands overlooking a little garden of my own.

As I started to type this, I remembered my post Tending Other People’s Gardens where I complained at length about my passive aggressive landlord. How odd that I would use my blog to complain. How predictable! I was really writing about something else not just the garden, truth be told.

Here are a couple of highlights:

But I’m tired of tending other people’s gardens. I’m ready to plant my own garden and get so nutty with experimenting with landscaping design. I want to build a little forest with a bunch of different beds. I want to mix vegetables and flowers and let ferns get huge. The clematis would grow all over the railings. The daisies would grow over my head. Sunflowers would grow up to the roof and then slowly fall to the ground heavy with seeds. Then the birds would have a party eating the seeds. Then I’d clean it up. I’d have a whole front yard of tulips right now. I’d have one little patch of the grass for the dog, and the rest would be xeriscaped with plants and rocks. I’d grab a shovel and help the husband build his BMX pump track and then I’d landscape hardy plants around it. I’d sell the damn mower. I’d ditch the awful planters and buy handcrafted pots from art students.

In short, I’d let it get kind of wild and just see where it goes. Every spring and summer it would get better. I’d make sure everything was healthy, but I’d landscape it in a way where plants would benefit from being close to their friends—just like in a forest. I wouldn’t have to weed as much because I’d have every bit of land covered by plants or rocks. Right now there is a lot of weeding because the landscaping is that of a golf-course resort. It’s manicured. It’s tame. It’s predictable. It’s decidedly not me. Or the me I hope not to be.

But I tend somebody’s else garden because that’s my job. That’s what I promised. That’s why I pay less rent. I thought this plan was only going to be a year and now it’s turned into six. And here I am back again at the point where the weeds of winter must be tended. Torn up. Manicured. Tamed. Again. Shaped into a design that I can’t change or control.

At the time, I was frustrated that my “hippy aesthetic” didn’t align with the vision of the person who owned the property. Looking back at that post, I was tired of maintaining something I didn’t own. Looking back at that post, I had no idea then how much I’d eventually miss that garden. Looking back at that post, I was really lamenting how I’ve lost sight of the book I want to write. Again. And again. Looking back at that post, I was brewing up a plan to openly license a grant application so that no institution could own it. So that anyone could use it. Looking back at that post, I’m reminded of how much I used to read about leadership. How I was keeping my best idea of 2014-2015 completely, if you will, sub rosa. Change management is a thorny issue.

And here’s the thing. The quote I can’t let go:

Shaped into a design that I can’t change or control.

I wrote that sentence almost a year and half ago. Okay, ready for some leadership talk? Here we go.

Recently I travelled to a college, and I got to have 15 minute conversation with one of the most engaging interesting inspiring senior administrators I’ve ever met. I talk to a lot of them these days, and she is the bees’ knees. No exaggeration. I was eager to ask her so many questions that I’m sure I talked too quickly. Jumped around without transitions. Said something ridiculous. Had to stop myself from taking notes as she talked. Had to resist hugging her twice because I loved what she said about teachers. Resisted crying when she complimented me.

No sub rosa collaborations under a leader like this.

No need.

She told this story about helping a student figure out how to register for classes. She took the student to the area of the campus where she could get help, and the VPI noticed that everyone on staff looked unhappy. Everyone behind the counter looked tired. Grouchy. Worn down. Inhospitable to the student.

She said, “I realized then that these were people who had been left out of our transformation as an institution, and I needed to do something about it. So I put together a committee, and we looked at how to include these folks who were on the front lines helping our students. Turns out, they had a lot of really great ideas and moved our initiatives further faster.”

It took everything I had to not drop my jaw in awe. Who was she blaming? Herself! How was she doing it? Productively. Oh my gosh, the things I could learn from this woman!

Here’s another example. Over dinner, a dean was talking about how they had a problem with daycare on campus. A lot of their students are single moms struggling with day care and school. Typical woes of community college students. “We need more room for the babies. There just isn’t enough room for all of the cribs,” he said.

The VPI, his boss, asked about his strategy. She looked at him like he was the only person in the world. Listening. Intently. This is a woman who stops to smell the roses in life.

He said, “I just need to find a building, so I’ll draft a plan and send it to you on Monday. We can fix this.”

“Great!” she said. “Let’s make room for the babies! What a great challenge.”

I about dropped my fork and choked on my food. Wait? No mention of the budget? No mention of what he couldn’t do. No mention of things to consider. No mention of anything negative.

I’ve never witnessed such grace from a senior administrator. Such optimism. Such simple support for the people who report to her. Such faith that they will do the right thing.

Here I was, a vendor taking out a group of leaders for dinner listening to what could have been a mood-killing conversation about budget challenges or staffing issues. Instead the dean pitched an idea for a solution that he knew she would support. He knew he had her support to do his job, and he was going to do it well.

Nothing under the roses here. It’s all out in the open.

How refreshing. How lovely. There is beauty in the sub rosa collaboration. Truly.

But how nice to be open about the thorny issues.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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13 Responses to Sub Rosa Leadership

  1. CogDog says:

    You had me at garden metaphor.

    I would give up all the work and travel if I could just putter in my 1/3 acre every day. I’m overjoyed with a rocky landscape, where every shovel pushed in the ground hits a large rock (used for paths and walls), and not a blade of grass if I can help it. I love trimming, shaping, and finding little mysterious flowers, and baby pine trees. Can they make it of moved?

    The weeding, the watering, the pruning, the rock moving, it all pays off with effort, but there is never a guarantee. The fruit trees were a bust this year. I lost n aspen that I thought was in good shape. One shrub has taken off 14 feet high; the one adjacent, planted at the same time, is at best 4 feet high.

    Oh metaphors. Everywhere.

    When I started working at Maricopa I knew a lot of administrators like the woman you described, and not only deans, but Presidents, heck at the time, the Vice Chancellors were like that. A few times I would look up, and the Chancellor was standing at my office door, asking with interest what I was doing.

    There was a lot less of that style of leadership when I left 14 years later, and from what I hear, even more less now. But not gone. There are some crazy shrubs that won’t stop growing.

    So when is Lumen gonna send you to Arizona? Tons of cool CCs all over the state.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Your place looks pretty awesome from all of the Flickr photos, and I’m with you. I’d futz around the garden all if I could. Hopefully I can figure out how to get a little piece yard someday. Being a renter and moving around no longer flowers for me the way it used to (garden analogy alert). Fruit trees can be so fickle, and I think the seasons always make for interesting happenings in gardens. It’s just nice to see the actual blossoming of the work you’ve done, and in this line of work, as you know, it’s not always so concrete or easy to see. Maricopa seems to have produced some amazing folks, and it’s funny you should mention Arizona. I’m doing two days of workshops with Paul Golisch at Pima CC on Oct. 10 &11. Is that near you? If not, then I’ll let you know when I’m in that area next.


  2. francesbell says:

    Love this post.
    “Shaped into a design that I can’t change or control.”
    This month we spent the most money we have ever spent on a garden. We know that what will drive us out of our home is the garden. It’s not huge but it’s more than enough for our creaking bodies to manage. So we think a lot about how to make it beautiful and manageable.
    We spent our cash on a wildflower meadow in an area that had previously been “wild”. We cleared an area to put up a summerhouse and it’s lovely to sit there and look at the trees but we were scared by the thought of more weeding, more mowing. Our meadow came as “turf” on a lorry and we laid it in an afternoon with spring and summer bulbs tucked underneath it. The theory is we’ll enjoy the flowers and then mow it each September (composting the mowings).
    This is our design that we can’t change or control and do you know what? I won’t regret it even if it fails.


    • So nice to hear from you, Frances! From the looks of your photos, you have the special garden I hope to have someday. I love long stretches of grass, and in that last post I think I was over the weed wacking. I am awful at doing that trim work, and it makes my husband miserable. What you describe about your yard reminds me of this woman I knew in Montana. She let her entire front yard turn blue with forget-me-nots every year and she didn’t mow until the flowers went to seed. So lovely. Tourists would stop to take photos and her neighbors hated it. She’s one of the saucy feminists that inspires me:) Thank you for reading, and it is so lovely to hear from you, Frances. I think we never regret anything that fails–we tried and learned.


  3. xiousgeonz says:

    I’m trying desperately to figure out how to inspire sub rosa leadership. We have made a drastic and painful shift from the good kind — to deciding that since Illinois can’t make a budget, we’ll just cut state funds out of the budget entirely and pretend nothing’s changing… and have “open forums” to “listen” to our ideas and literally shout down people with questions.
    There are still some of us left… I’m paying my own way to teh Richmond OER gathering (I’ve got a brother there so accommodations will be cheap :)… but … how to organize the Underground Railroad to education?


    • Geeonnzeee (how I pronounce your handle), I don’t have an easy answer, but you’ll find lots of like-minded souls at OpenEd this year. Unfortunately I won’t be there, but your chances of meeting folks who share your experience is pretty good. I like your use of the Underground Railroad, and I think you’re onto something. That system worked because people trusted one another and they saw a future that was better. Person to person, ear to ear seems to be the way. Budget cuts kill a lot of momentum. Treat OpenEd as some therapy:) Thank you so much for reading!


      • xiousgeonz says:

        I love your posts and your love of poetry. I don’t get a lot of that in my ‘help me with math!’ world.
        The Underground Railroad idea isn’t mine but it is *so* valid… we’re leading students through a hostile environment…
        I know conferences charge me up. However, I took *half* a day off yesterday and today can see the effect that had on the students who depend on me — like an underground railroad station that’s left unwomanned…


      • I’m actually a terrible poet! Ack! I have, however, learned so much about math in the last year. My colleague, Alyson Day, has taught me so much about the power of OER and the potential of teacher collaboration. IMHO, the teachers who use text get bogged in nuance and authorship in a way that math teachers do not. It’s no surprise that MyOpenMath has been such a tour de force among the math radicals. The fact that math teachers enjoy solving problems is good place to start.

        Conferences have the potential to “charge me up” as well, so I’m sad to miss OpenEd. I’m presenting in CA, and it’s a wonderful opportunity. I’ll just miss the collective brilliance of OER champs gathering. Again. *weeps* I’ll stalk via hashtag and wish I was there every minute. Thanks for the dialogue Geeonzeee ❤


      • xiousgeonz says:

        LOL I didn’t say I loved your poetry 😛 I said I loved your *love of poetry 🙂 Math teachers don’t usually slide Emily Dickinson into the discussions…. I call that phenomenon a “geekasm.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Will work “geekasm” into my next haiku;)


  4. francesbell says:

    Interested to hear about MyOpenMath Alyson. I wondered if you had heard about a project in the UK called Citizen Maths I enrolled to check it out and there are at least Youtube videos available as CCL OERs I heard about via Seb Schmoller former Chief exec of ALT. If you contact him on @sebschmoller I am sure he could point you to more info about OERs from the project. In any case, it sounds like the projects should be in touch, if they are not already.


  5. xolotl says:

    My recent garden project has been to bury water lines so the plants can thrive from unseen fountains.

    It’s all wired in to something I can access via the interwebs and use to water the garden from a distance, often a great distance.

    That’s a metaphor for something.


    • My first thought is that your interwebs connected watering system is like the robot in the sky! It can tell how thirsty the plants are down to the nearest percentile. Wait. That may not work, but any time you mention “a metaphor for something” involving education, I see nothing but good things blossoming. Thanks for reading xolotl 🙂


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