Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with Rev. Ralph Siefert, S.M., President, Chaminade College Preparatory
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?
A: I got here by being in the right place at the right time. I had an appointed position inside the Society of Mary, and my service there that convinced me I really didn’t want to do internal ministry within the religious order. It just happened that they needed a President at Chaminade. I was free and had what seemed to be the proper qualifications, although I had never headed a school. We went through a process with the Board and I wound up as President. I have completed 22 years as President of Chaminade.
Q: How did the vision you have for Chaminade evolve over 22 years?
A: People seem to say that a leader sets the vision, and to some extent that is true. But, I think really effective, transformative visions come from getting a number of people who are engaged in the situation to shape the vision; that is more important than just one personality. You need somebody who can articulate the vision and represent the vision, but ultimately for it to be effective, a lot of people have to have a hand at shaping the vision that takes an institution forward. The leadership role comes in by focusing and calling out some priorities and goals. It is a dance between the leader and the people you are working with. You have to give some sense of direction to the whole thing and then you get more people to flesh out that direction. It is back and forth.
Q: How has your style changed over the 22 years?
A: They tell me I have mellowed quite a bit. I used to be much more directive and confontative. There was a crisis when I got here, so some things had to be addressed firmly and directly, and I was willing to do that. So I guess I did bump heads a little bit more and be more directive and confrontative. That is not what is needed at the present time.
Q: Have there been any critical experiences that shaped your view of leadership?
A: There was a significant financial problem when I got here had to be addressed for anything else to happen. A lot of times the problems an institution faces determines the path that you take. You have to get the right people on the bus and everybody in the right seat. One of the keys to leadership is getting the right people. The leader can’t do it all, so you have to get the right people who can collaborate with you.
Q: Have you had any mentors over the years who influenced you?
A: I was the assistant rector of the seminary and I worked with a priest named John Bolin. He had a profound influence on me. He was called to many leadership roles in the order, and he was just a really fine person. He was insightful and articulate. But, he was also pastoral, which is important in a situation in which I work. He had the ability to listen well to people, but to also challenge them. He said what needed to be said when it needed to be said. I learned a lot from him.
Q: How do you cultivate leadership among the faculty?
A: One is you encourage their participation. You try to create a collaborative environment and get them to use their gifts. We have a whole system of different councils or teams in place. There is a president’s council, a principal’s council, an academic council, and an admissions council. All of those different groups bring out the talent in the people that are part of them. We have what we call a house system, which is one of the ways we cultivate leadership among the kids but we also added another level of administration by having the deans of those houses. They have a council and work together. The key is having a number of places where people are challenged to make the contribution that they can make. I think that promotes leadership.
Q: What brought about the interest in the house system? How does it build leaders in the school?
A: We had an exchange program with a school in Australia and we were sending kids and administrators over there to be a part of this whole thing. They had this house system in place, and everybody who came back from there said this is a great system and it fits the culture of our school. We got serious investigating it. We sent people over there and brought some of their people over to us to talk about the whole thing. Then, we eventually shaped a plan to implement it. Again, there were a number of people involved in making it all happen. We saw it as a way of providing more support for our kids and also of challenging them to develop their leadership skills. It is important to take care of the kids. They need to know that people care about them, are interested in them, and can help them. The system that we devised places several significant adults in the kids’ lives over a significant period of time so that relationships can develop. Then, eventually, it calls for a lot of leadership from the kids because there are activities that have to be overseen. We have been encouraging the kids the last couple of years to create things that really respond to where they are rather than having adults design programs for them.
Q: Have you seen a difference in the culture of the school after having lived with the house system for a while?
A: What I see is connection across age divisions. The younger kids know and look up to the seniors. Before there wouldn’t have been that much interaction between them. Now, there is regular interaction between them. The younger kids really love and respect their senior leaders, which is a whole new dimension.
Q: Do you have any other thoughts on leadership?
A: As I said before, sometimes I read things and people say there is a way to be a leader, a way to do things. There are some things that are better than other things, but I think leadership is really contextual. I have been in the same place for a long time, but at different times I have been a different kind of leader. I think that is the way it has to be because one style does not fit all and doesn’t fit every situation. It is like what the Marianists call adaptation and change. You have got to be ready to go with the flow. Otherwise, you are going to be in trouble.