ATG's first blog post! Interview with Peg AtKisson

Peg and Jet recently sat down for a brief chat about games, ecosystems, and leadership.

Jet: If you had a magic wand, what is the first thing you would you change about Academia?

Peg: If I had a magic wand, the first thing I’d change about academia is the way that it’s an “ego system.” You know, we’re rewarded almost entirely for individual and individualized work, and sometimes, inadvertently, that means rewarding very bad behavior – putting your name on your students’ work, or trashing somebody else’s work. And while that may serve a short term tactic of advancing oneself, it’s not the long game of advancing the field.

I’m a big fan of the book Finite and Infinite Games, and I really feel like life is so much more enjoyable if you treat it as an infinite game, right? A finite game is one that you play to win. It has an endpoint, it’s gotta have people watch you win…It’s like “I am Dean! I have won!” But then, an infinite game is one you play to keep playing. So it’s more ecosystem oriented. It’s not “I and my ego have won this little battle,” it’s more like, what do we do to keep the game going? If I could get that more into academic culture that would be positive, because when you’re not worried about your own individual ego, then you’re less inclined to steal a student’s work, less inclined to trash somebody else, just to make yourself feel better.

Jet: Do you want to say a little more about the difference between “ego systems” and “eco systems” since you mentioned that?

Peg: That comes out of Theory U – Otto Scharmer, and a number of people who have been working in this space. One of the goals of this is the move from very ego-system, closed, have to be right where it’s all about me and what serves me, to eco-systems, which is “what future do we want to create?” An ego system keeps doing the same thing that nobody wants, because it doesn’t know how to break free of it, it’s not curious, it’s not open. But in an eco-system, you sort of look at how the system is behaving, and why do we keep doing the things that get a result that nobody wants? How do we get open and curious?

Another book that I really like is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. It’s that “above the line, below the line” formulation that they have – conscious leaders are above the line. They’re curious, they are open, and if they are below the line, they are closed, they have to be right, they’re super invested in having to be right. So, both Theory U and The 15 Commitments dovetail together a lot, in my view.

As a culture - and academic culture isn’t any different from other culture – we’re bound to this “have to be right, have to be ‘seen as’ right," when as academics, what we should have is – and this is a great phrase from Team Science literature – “epistemological humility.” How do we know what we know? And realizing that other fields have different ways of generating new knowledge. So why not be open? Like, “I am a physicist. If I can’t measure it, it’s not real.” Or, “All you people over there doing area studies – that’s all soft stuff.” Whereas the people in area studies in my experience are incredibly rigorous, because they can’t just rely on equations or A/B testing.

Jet: This may be an aside, but there’s a tension between quantitative and qualitative research. Is the way it is presented sometimes the problem?

Peg: That’s a good question. I think it’s more the assumptions that quantitative researchers make about qualitative researchers that’s more the problem.

Jet: That could go back to the ego-system.

Peg: It could go back to the ego-system, yeah.

Jet: I’ve gotten a little off track here. But we have time for two more questions. I really like this question, Peg. What is your flavor of leadership, in your mind, and how does it show up in how you work with our clients?

Peg: One of the definitions of leadership – there are so many definitions – but one of them is about preparing the ground. Part of why a leader is a leader is that they create the space for people to do the work. You know, they may be setting the goals and the visions, but you can have people that set the goals and visions and yet create environments where people can’t succeed, or can only succeed in vary narrow definitions thereof. I think my flavor, and I don’t by any means think I’m perfect, is to try to be above the line. To be curious, to be open, to try to make it about the eco-system and not about me. And to try to create space where other people can create things that they think are awesome – not just “do this mechanical thing” but “what is a new thing we can bring into the world that serves our mission?” with all of us having the shared mission of academia, and having faculty succeed at a higher rate, whether it's in their research per se, or their funding – any of that. So, I’d like to think that my flavor of leadership is to speak last, so that I stay open and curious, so that I don’t anchor people by speaking first. I think my flavor of leadership is to focus on the “why,” so instead of saying “this is what we’re going to do, “ saying “this is the why of what we do.” How do we do what we do, and always serve the “why.”

Jet: Here’s an intriguing and broad question – what is the future asking of academia?

Peg: That’s a really big question! (pause) I think the future is asking academia to open up. Because even though we’re supposedly researchers, there are a great many things about which academics are not curious. I think that we need to be more curious about how the world engages with the knowledge that academia produces. I think we need to be more curious about how our own experiences and backgrounds affect how we even ask the questions we ask in academia. Why do we get interested in certain things? What brings us to that? So, I think it’s asking academia to be a little more curious about itself, and to think about how better it can serve. I’m a big fan of knowledge for knowledge’s sake – absolutely. So I’m not saying everything has to be translatable into economic growth. But how do we serve learners? How do we serve society to increase curiosity ? To increase openness?

Jet: It almost sounds like you’re asking for more play.

Peg: That’s why I like the notion of Finite and Infinite Games!

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