Leadership in the Age of Ambiguity

Maine Maritime Academy, College of the Atlantic, Island Institute presidents talk elements of leadership


They represent three very different organizations, but in many ways, College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) in Castine, and the Island Institute, based in Rockland, each have an oar in the water and are pulling together in making coastal Maine and the islands places where communities and the economy function and thrive.

Each organization’s president—Darron Collins of COA, Bill Brennan of MMA, and the Island Institute’s Rob Snyder—gathered on the MMA campus earlier this year and engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about the region’s future.

IJ: Leadership is a theme we’re exploring in this year’s Island Journal, and it can be examined from very different perspectives, some of which are represented by the three organizations here.

Snyder: There’s this big question: Where’s the future of leadership going to come from? And what’s the future of civic leadership look like? And that’s why I was really interested in talking with you guys, because when you think about civic leadership, you’re thinking about one set of values—how we build more cohesive, collaborative communities that can deal with change. And on the other hand, how do we think competitively enough to build the next economy that’s going to add to—if we’re lucky—the lobster industry’s success. What does the next ocean economy look like?

What I’m really struggling with is, how do we work together to move young people into [fulfilling] these needs we have as the older generation ages out? And how do we, as organizations, feed the creation of that next generation?

Brennan: The points that you’re raising are issues that I saw 30 years ago when I was Marine Resources commissioner. I spent all my time traveling up and down the coast, and I was counting on the civic leadership that existed in those communities, because it was important to what I was trying to do.

I was advocating for a devolution of our management authority, to get it away from this state-centric model. And I used examples that I’d grown up with here in Castine, going to town meetings and seeing local people. Why is the government, as represented by Augusta, the only place decisions can be made? Every one of these communities has people who come together at town meeting time, and they make decisions on how they’re going to spend their money.

One of the issues we have here is trying to convince a kid in, say, Deer Isle—who’s getting ready to get out of high school and trying to make a decision about whether to go to college, and he knows he can make a lot of money continuing to fish, and yet, I know how hard that life is—to pursue further educational opportunities.

One of my former marine patrol officers, who was from a fishing community, when I got here as president, his kid was a junior, and he graduated and went to sea and made a lot of money. He just joined us on the training cruise as a licensed officer. But he’s back fishing. He developed the opportunity to do what he was raised doing, what he knew in his own community, but we provided him with an opportunity to enhance his options. And he certainly brings to bear, in his community, the leadership skills that he developed here.

IJ: Let’s talk about these young people. The class that starts college in September, at both your institutions, will have been born at the start of the 21st century. What’s different about this generation? What values will they need to lead in their fields? 

Collins: I went to COA. I started in ’88 and graduated in ’92, which was right after the college had survived a devastating fire. The generation that came before me were the real pioneers. They came when we weren’t accredited, and they were transferring from the Ivys and the elite liberal arts institutions. There was a real demand for an alternative approach to education, especially on the coast of Maine.

I think the incoming class has to be able to deal with ambiguity, which I think is an interesting leadership characteristic. The world is a really complex place. There are very few black-and-white answers. Helping our own students become comfortable in this ambiguity is really important.

Leadership is a pretty broad term and can mean a lot of different things. What we do with our students is present them with a great balance between developing individuals as individuals, and developing individuals [who will be] able to take on some of the most pernicious challenges that the world faces.

We have just 350 students, and about 17 percent come from the state of Maine. We have students coming from about 40 states and about 40 countries. But a third of them stay in Maine. So I really like the idea of COA providing a framework and a platform for helping the state of Maine as it grapples with its complex future.

IJ: There’s not a lot of ambiguity when you’re at the wheel of a ship—or is there?

Brennan: I do agree with the notion of ambiguity that they’ll have to confront. And what concerns me is that, because of the collective mentality we see in the Millennial generation, because they get reinforcement in real time through Facebook and all the rest, there’s kind of a herd mentality for arriving at answers.

And that presents some difficulties, in my estimation, for taking responsibility for actions. A lot of the stuff we do here has to translate to personal responsibility for actions. If you’re on the wheel of a ship or you’re commanding the direction that the wheel [should] be turned . . . I point out at the orientation when we have parents here that the odds are that within weeks or months after their son or daughter graduates, they’re going to be giving a life-or-death command to someone their grandfather’s age. That’s not the place to learn about personal responsibility and about leadership and about all of the elements associated with making decisions and being confident in the decisions you make.

I am concerned about how this generation arrives at collective decisions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After Captain Hazelwood drove the Exxon Valdez ship up on the rocks, we have completely changed the way management occurs on a ship. Bridge management now is collaborative decision-making, so that’s a good thing. We do find that many of these kids come here and they do work well in teams. That’s really what the industry is doing.

But there still needs to be a sense of personal responsibility. And we start driving that home right at the beginning—your responsibility to your classmates, your shipmates, the town that you live within—it’s extremely important.

I hope when they leave we’ve prepared them well to engage in society with that sense, that they’re not just following the head in front of them, that they’re making informed decisions, whether on the bridge of a ship or when they’re going into the ballot booth.

Snyder: One of the things I see communities struggle with actively is how to engage 45 or 1,200 or maybe a few thousand in a collective decision. Getting up and managing a town is an incredibly brutal act of kindness in the sense that you never get thanked for it. And yet you have to have in you the sense that it’s your turn, it’s your time. It’s your opportunity to step up and play the role that the community needs played.

What’s interesting is that people who haven’t had the opportunity of a place like MMA often don’t get recognized by the current generation of leaders as somebody who should think about stepping up. A lot of times, the way this leadership transition stuff happens, is somebody says, “You know, Bill, I think you’ve got what it takes to run for this position. Why don’t you think about running for the school board, or stepping up and being the head of the fishing co-op?”

Increasingly, people are afraid of stepping into those roles because of the ambiguity—because social media can create the herd mentality that will squash a public vote, regardless of the rationale of it.

Collins: I didn’t mean to suggest becoming comfortable in ambiguity means you can just kick back and let it swirl. Behind the wheel of a ship or running an institution, you have to make a decision. And frankly, I am quite envious of MMA in so many ways because I’ve had my own experience on boats. There are very complex decisions that need to be made very quickly.

Similarly, the way we’ve run our educational institution—the students, faculty, and administration management, the institution as a whole, which is a challenge in and of itself—[examples are] very few and far between where I, as president, can say, “This is the way it’s going to be.”

IJ: What result does that produce in a young person?

Collins: It’s a tremendous boon. It is that confidence that Rob was talking about, like, “Hey, you should be the all-college meeting moderator. Step up and do that.” That is based on the town meeting and how our governance system was originally set up.

Some might say we’re worlds apart, between MMA and COA. We may get there in different ways, but there are actually a lot more similarities [than differences]. We do not produce sheep at either of our institutions.

Snyder: What advice would you give parents who live along the coast who are helping their kids think about the opportunities ahead of them? These kids can go make a ton of money fishing, and yet it’s clear that when they have exposure to these educational opportunities, they would do far better not only fishing, but in life, for having had the experience of these educations.

Brennan: Back to the question of ambiguity. When I began with the fisheries service, I began in a research program on ships from the Soviet Union. I already had worked in the US Merchant Marine, and I knew how it worked, and I’m thinking, “Now how does it work on a ship in an egalitarian society? Do they take turns being the captain [laughter]?”

I got on board and found out that there’s a captain and there’s a wiper, and there’s a lot of positions in between. It has to work that way.

That’s what we’re doing here. We’re a lot more rigorous in a lot of ways, because we’re trying to instill in people the sense that in the Merchant Marine world, there are people who have to have certain responsibilities, and they have to discharge those responsibilities or else everybody’s life is at risk.

But you don’t just learn that by showing up on the ship. You learn that through a program of leadership.

That helps these kids when they get back into these communities because they’re not afraid of taking responsibility. At the beginning, they don’t know what that means, but over time, that’s what our program is. In fact, our students develop and administer our code of conduct. I’d like to say that they participate as fully equal partners in all the decision-making, but they don’t; the board of trustees is still in charge.

But they do participate in making fundamental decisions throughout the institution. It’s by design—probably for completely different reasons than at COA, but hopefully with the same outcome. We’re preparing people to understand what it is to be a member of a society, whatever that society is.

Maybe it’s being a member of the local fire department. This fire department, which I’ve been a member of since I was a kid, is hugely dependent upon our kids, as is the ambulance corps and all the rest.

I hope they’re going to be good engineers, too, but I also hope they’re going to be good members of society.

IJ: Let’s move from the philosophical to coastal and island economies. Rob, the coast is doing a lot better than the rest of the state, but if the natural resource–based jobs decline in a big way, which we know is possible, if not likely, what are the knowledge, skills, and values that young people will need to make a transition?

Snyder: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I certainly am excited about what I’m seeing in people creating businesses that align with a sense of civic duty or a sense of environmental responsibility, with a profit motive. I think some of the stuff we’re seeing in terms of aquaculture, and shellfish and kelp, plays that role.

I think these things really do position us well as a coast. Obviously, the potential for wind energy offshore here is phenomenal, but it’s going to be a while before that gets moving.

The people who are going to be successful, in my mind, they are as much the technicians—they understand the programming and building of this stuff—as they are the people who can actually help communities to understand the costs and benefits of these opportunities, and help to facilitate the movement of these economic opportunities into our region.

We’ve been so fortunate to have such a robust fisheries economy for so long that in fact, we haven’t had to think very hard about alternative ocean uses. I say this while recognizing that we’ve always been battling it out for ocean space.

But we’re now in a period in which we’re going to have to start reimagining what that ocean economy’s going to produce. And that means thinking of it both in terms of the profit margin and the ethical commitments that we want to create, along with profit—whether it’s a commitment to only doing things that add to the ocean, as we decide how to build out our harbors, as we decide whether or not to dredge, or whether we build energy infrastructure and where we put it. These discussions aren’t going anywhere.

We need the answer to the technology and the industry as much as we need the people who can move the discussion forward here. That’s where the skill sets we’re talking about, regarding leadership, really become incredibly important. Because the greatest invention on Earth is going to die on the vine unless we can figure out how to facilitate the social acceptance of it.

IJ: What’s your best argument to a student, to a grad, for staying in Maine?

Brennan: I don’t really have to argue. It’s value, it’s history, it’s family connections, and frankly, it’s been a change in the industry that recognizes that to have happy employees, you have to have happy families. By and large, the kids that leave here now, they’re working in industries that bring them back home every couple of weeks.

Collins: I’ve got kids who came this year from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and this is the first time they’ve seen snow, and it’s such an incredible cultural change to be here. Yet, 30 percent stay, which is significant, not anything like MMA, and it’s the opposite of what you see in a lot of the other institutions in Maine, the private ones, especially.

Snyder: We bring people in through our Island Fellows program and other consulting gigs, and what I think happens, for people who are not from here, is that if they can have one of their first formative work experiences here—to the extent that they have one of those major life experiences in this place, and the time here to have it, some sort of success—they’ll just want to keep coming back to it. Even if they have to go away for 15 years to go into the workforce so they can afford to come back to it.

A lot of summer kids come back and stay; it’s because they had some indelible experience here. And this place offers infinite amounts of indelible experiences. Because of the environmental beauty and the authenticity of people you can meet, and because it’s somewhere special, it’s not just anywhere.