50thAnniversary
Thu, May 22, 2014

Faculty Highlight: Dr. Rick Chaffee

Dr. Rick Chaffee, Union Institute & University

Dr. Rick Chaffee’s understanding of leadership and mentoring practices is informed by a diverse background in professional ski racing, a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Denver and a Ph.D. in Applied Social Sciences from Union Institute & University. Dr. Chaffee’s has experience teaching both at the high school and collegiate level. He also has worked extensively in leadership training for the Marathon Oil Company, as well as working as a manager for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo. More recently Dr. Chaffee has been recruiting and mentoring members of the National Guard and employees of various corporations to focus on their degree completion through Union Institute & University.

Your first career was as an Olympic skier. What started you on that path of professional skiing?

I was born in Rutland, VT and my mom and dad both ski raced. My mom was an alternate on the 1940 Olympic Team but that year the games were cancelled because of the war.

There was a ground swell of interest in skiing around Pico Peak near Rutland as a local woman, Andrea Mead Lawrence, became the first American to win Olympic gold medals in skiing in 1952.
This ground swell of interests gave rise to organized efforts to support ski racing in the region. I ski raced from the age of five or so. My sister, Suzy Chaffee participated with me in the ’68 Olympics in France and I competed again in Japan in 1972. Our University of Denver ski team won the NCAA Championships during each of my four years there.

After you transitioned out of skiing professionally, you went on to teach and to help establish the Green Mountain Valley School. What was your vision for that school?

After teaching for six years with Johnson State College, I was asked to help a local academy, The Green Mt. Valley School, become an elite ski racing academy. I taught, coached and was director of community life with the school.

Our vision was to create a high school in which students could excel both academically and athletically. The goal was for faculty, staff and students to create a supportive learning community in which students could pursue their dreams. The school has since developed into one of America’s leading ski racing academies and college preparatory schools.

You teach in Union’s Leadership program and are invested in both educational and corporate leadership training.  What are the aspects of leadership that you see as essential today both in the academic world and in the corporate world? What aspects of leadership do you feel are essential for your students to grasp?

Leadership is influence in service of a common purpose. The participants in our leadership classes become excited when they discover that many of the theories validate an intuition that they have had for some time. The courses I teach with Union Institute & University and those I taught in corporate training, focused on helping both leaders and followers organize what they already know so that it becomes more useful to them. Teaching is especially fun when that happens.

Most Union Institute & University students are adults with years of experience in organizations. My role then is to bring together a field of knowledge such as leadership and the lived experience of our participant. When that happens, the learning takes place very fast because the participants already know experientially these concepts and theories.What I find most satisfying about teaching leadership is helping our leadership students remember what is most important to them, which is keeping their integrity.

It seems that we are so challenged by the environments in which we work, so caught up in surviving, that we often lose touch with what is most important to us. Such things as:

  • Doing our best and being of good will;
  • Avoiding the tendency to create in-groups and out-groups in our organizations. Because our mind operates by categorizing, there is a natural tendency for leaders to classify their followers and thereby create in-groups and out-groups. Building high quality one-on-one relationships with each team member, despite the differences in intelligence, motivation, career aspirations, and skill level, will take us a long way toward developing a sound organizational climate.
Here is an example of what I enjoy most in teaching leadership. I ask students to respond to this handout as we approach the end of the leadership course. This piece resonates strongly with our leadership participants:

“You are nearly finished with the course. Whatever you have learned here, the insights from the instruments, from the theories, from your application of theory to the cases, and all the insights you have had from your whole life, these will not be lost. What is important now is this: When you find yourself in a situation, whether you are the leader, follower or a peer, do not try to remember these theories or past insights. Instead, be present to the situation, to the people, to the issues…listen. Be open to whatever is happening…to your own thoughts and feeling and the responses and feelings of the other parties. Then draw on your intelligence, your concern for the well being of people and your sense of beauty and fairness.If you do that, if you do your best to be present to this unique situation and these unique people at this unique moment, with deep concern for both people and the task at hand, what you need to know will be made available to you.It is impossible to determine what to do ahead of time, for every moment is new and fresh and calls for its own unique response.It is in the humility of being open and present, trusting that the right words and responses will come to us, that we find our ‘voice’ and truly serve.”

Who are the leaders and examples that you look to or aspire to be like? Why?

In my classes I use Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Joshua Chamberlain’s speech to the mutineers of the 20th Maine at the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. I am also a great admirer of Nelson Mandela and the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz.These are leaders who were fearless in their support of freedom, equality and community. I admire all who try, as best they can, to live the qualities of intelligence, beauty and love.Ultimately, however, leadership is a matter of the heart.

What are your current projects that you’re most excited about?

Our B.S. Business Management and Leadership faculty have been working together to develop ‘sound guidelines’ for our collaboration forums, ways to strengthen the quality of our on-line courses in CampusWeb.Another project of special interest is an application of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ to our peer review process. The Faculty Affaires and Development Committee, FAD, has been creating a peer review process that focuses on two things: developing faculty and celebrating the good things happening in the university as we share our interests and our successes with our peers.Appreciative Inquiry is a process for developing organizations by identifying and celebrating its strengths. Or, as Peter Drucker stated so well in one of our training videos for this process [...] “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths that make our weaknesses irrelevant.”

What does “social responsibility” means to you, and how you live out that value in your life?

My interest in social responsibility at the moment is focused on the leader-follower relationship in organizations whether public, private or corporate. The leader-follower relationship has profound ethical implications. Organizations and their leadership have a social responsibility to see that the leader-follower relationship is ethical.There are many methods that leaders can employ to get things done. There is coercion, manipulation, mutually agreed upon transactions, and inspiration. Only two of these are ethical.

Freedom to follow without threat or coercion is part of social responsibility in our organizations. Our essential equality as persons, despite differences in roles, is another requirement of social responsibility in the leader-follower relationship. The leader-follower relationship has not been a focus of social responsibility until recently. It is, however, a major focus in our Ethics and Leadership class.

Within our own organization, Union Institute and University, it is important that we help each other keep our personal and institutional integrity. That’s how we live social responsibility in our own house.

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