Reverse Sabbatical Leave

I had planned to work full-time another 3-5 years when Antioch University (AU) reconfigured June 2016 (a month from my 65th birthday). Reconfigured to deeply centralize and eliminate its five campus presidents (me among them) and the local Boards of Trustees. I immediately sought yet another permanent presidency. I thank God, I did not succeed. By June 2016, I did, in fact, need a change. I needed a break from leading a university, especially one tacking in a direction in which I felt uncomfortable sailing. I did succeed in redirecting my actions and interests to writing, consulting, and retirement, and preparing to do so full time and long term. My signing contract with AU relieved me of financial concerns through June 2017. Operating from my retirement home office, I wrote and published Nature Based Leadership and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading, and created Great Blue Heron, LLC. I completed a major environmental education project in west-central Tennessee. I wrote a near-final version of Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Power, which I set aside, unconvinced that a third in the series furthered the tenets and principles already elucidated.

Like these thunderstorms sagging east at sunset, my Reverse Sabbatical brings peace and fulfillment.

No doubt, I made the most of my new-found freedom – in effect, an imposed “sabbatical leave,” which Merriam-Webster online defines as “a leave often with pay granted usually every seventh year (as to a college professor) for rest, travel, or research.” Renewing and refreshing as it was, I was feeling a sort of professional emptiness – a void – when my email delivered notice of the Fairmont State University Interim Presidency and a query regarding my interest. My professional blade felt a bit dull – perhaps now I could sharpen the edge. Although I enjoyed the relative leisure of few pressing commitments, I did miss the action, intensity, and urgency. No, I did not long for another permanent presidency (3-5 years), yet with the prospect of a six-month interim, blood coursed through my veins. And the location near my birth home called to me. I threw my hat in the ring, with nothing to lose. I did not need the job as a means to an end, having retired once, assured that we could live long-term at a level to our liking.

A Reverse Sabbatical

Could this six-month immersion in any sense of the term be cast as a period of “rest, travel, or research”? No, the specific words are wrong, yet the result is surely one of renewal and recharge. I believe I can view it as a reverse sabbatical leave. Returning to deep task immersion as a means for regaining an edge. Like a solar panel reactivating with the sun’s rise.

I view diving back into the deep end as a reverse sabbatical – a return to the game, intensely engaged, and as a time-duration-certain re-entry to leading another university. Now entering the second half of my term as Interim President, I may be operating at a level more intense than at any point in my career. A normal presidency is a marathon. I am a former marathoner, a tested distance runner. Once I had run my first 26-miler, I knew how to pace myself. I maintained a much faster rate per mile for 5-Ks. Six-months is a five-K! My best marathon: 7:12 per mile; my best 5-K: 5:38. A little over five-and-half minutes per mile for me was flying; I am flying here at FSU! I found marathons exhausting; 5K’s exhilarating. Both exacted a toll. Only the marathon, however, left me nearly debilitated for days.

Knowing that this interim presidency is a five-K, I can push, surge, and pound — the finish line is ahead, within reach. Now more than three months into it, I recognize the surge of professional renewal… the rush of vocational adrenaline. I’m back in the race… competing and adding value. The gun fired July 1, and I am off and running! Once again, I have a team, colleagues, a shared cause, and a noble purpose to attend. I am energized in ways more immediate, palpable, and real than drafting essays and establishing consulting relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I will return to writing and consulting when FSU’s new president accepts the mantel of leadership in early 2018. I will do so with relish and joy, yet perhaps with a tinge of regret about letting go so soon after embedding deeply and with full passion for this wonderful regional state university. I see my imminent departure the same way Judy and I view out-of-town guests – we prefer they leave when we wish they could stay longer!

And, I will return to the computer keyboard with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, with the knowledge that I can still do it – that is, lead a university. I will return with stories, tales, memories, and lessons from a brief, yet very deep immersion in yet another university, community, and region. I will draw upon that package of experiences in both my writing and consulting. All of that sure sounds like professional renewal and recharge!

Relevant Lessons from Nature or Inspired by Nature

Granted, I came to Fairmont the end of June, finding it still a bit spring-like compared to the deep summer of late June in Alabama. I admired and appreciated the vibrant greens, lush growth, and special rhythms during an unusually wet July. We had warm days, some hot, yet not at sweltering and unbearable levels. Metaphorically and professionally, I remain in deep spring. Just as I would feel renewal, recharge, and recovery with spring’s arrival after a long winter, those three ‘Rs’ are flowing within me now. This interim presidency is a professional spring elixir.

Over my career, a fourth ‘R,’ rest, has never been too important. During my distance running decades, rest translated to a shortened three-to-five-mile morning jog. Rest is what we knew we would do when life slowed and we desired a slower pace. I am not resting now as Interim President. Anything but. I set my alarm for 3:59 AM – no, don’t ask why such an odd number. May take a psychologist to decipher that one. With Judy spending 70 percent of this period at our Alabama residence, I am pushing hard, demanding much of myself, giving this everything I have. Yet I feel absolute renewal, recovery, and recharge. Hence, this interim opportunity is doing for me what I suppose sabbatical leaves are intended to do for those who take them mid-career.

Nothing about this post-retirement burst, reentering the game, seems unnatural. I feel as though the afterburner ignited. Some might say that writing two books and starting a company did not constitute retirement, yet I felt some lessening. As I reexamine that year, I see a revelation that escaped me until this very moment.

I see this interim presidency as a welcome change of pace, another challenge, and a source of renewal unmatched in professional richness and life reward. I am astounded by the wealth of fulfillment. There is no way that a permanent presidency would be hitting the same buttons, unleashing parallel sentiments and such powerful vocational endorphins. I believe a good deal of what makes this immersion so powerful is that I can feel my writing and consulting batteries recharging, and my reservoir of ideas, stories, and lessons deepening. Not many people can re-enter the springtime of their life. I am blessed to have another shot at a professional vernal recharge. I can hear the vocational equivalent of spring peepers! Spring ephemerals are dressing my symbolic forest floor in carpets of color and vitality?

Actual seasonal changes progress around me. During these three short months, my three immediate neighbors (four-legged) have flourished. The two little ones have developed from intensely-spotted tykes to now long-legged and teen-like, their spots fading.

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, our biologists in the Institute of Arctic Biology studied the Arctic Ground Squirrel, a little gopher-like high latitude mammal whose body temperature falls below freezing during the long Arctic winter. And picture them fully vibrant come spring and summer – amazing, high-energy, and in constant motion. Renewal and recharge are natural. I did not invent this pattern that I have adopted. I discovered that this is my own rhythm, not forced upon me by social constructs or the dictates of an employer, but one that fits me at some visceral, engrained, and perhaps evolutionary level. Fortuitously, I have awakened to what may be hard-wired in me.

If I am certain of anything, it is that we humans do not stand above nature. We are one with nature. I am blessed to have found where I fit, and I am grateful that, like the Arctic Ground Squirrel, I can live the pattern that is most natural for me. However, none will find their pattern unless able and willing to Look, See, Feel, and Act. Are you engaged in the natural world that envelops all of us? I am convinced that any of us can find the spring in our life. Any of us can discipline ourselves to look; train ourselves to see. Are you looking and seeing? Here’s what I saw on an early August evening from my front yard on campus!

So, as odd as it may seem, I consider this interim presidency a sabbatical… renewing, refreshing, recharging, and in some extraordinary way, even restful! What is natural for you? For your vocation? Your life? I urge you to explore your feelings, ambitions, and fulfillment.

These six months will allow me to serve a higher purpose. Four thousand young people at any one time here at Fairmont who will lead us into the distant tomorrows that I will not see. Who will carry the torch and meet the issues, problems, and opportunities decades beyond. I intend to learn much over these coming months – much about how I can modify my writing and consulting to more effectively reach them and future citizens. They will make the Earth stewardship decisions that will shape humanity seven generations hence… and beyond. My sabbatical may lead me to the key that I need to help unlock the future.

Warm wishes for the many springs of your life. They await your discovery and exploration!


Featured Image: Like these thunderstorms sagging east at sunset, my Reverse Sabbatical brings peace and fulfillment.