Leading from the Middle - Caleb Chan

Caleb Chan
Caleb Chan

Another installment by Caleb Chan, Dean, Gainey School of Business at SAU: We don’t have to become a great leader before we begin to lead – start today."

Leading from the Middle – Lessons I Learned at Spring Arbor University

When my wife and I moved our young family here to Spring Arbor, Michigan more than 20 years ago, we thought it was going to be a 2-year kind of a deal; meaning that we would likely check out of Spring Arbor University when we found the greener pasture.

Soon after we got settled in at Spring Arbor, a small town of 8,000 (compared to the 2 million in Atlanta, Georgia where I received my Ph.D. degree and the over 6 million in Hong Kong where my wife and I originally came from), we began to see the beauty of this small rural area that has so much heritage as a faith-based community and institution with over 100 years of history. Despite that appreciation, I (more so than my wife and our newborn son) was looking to my left, right, front and back of us for the greener pasture, but to no avail.

One day, I realized that there was one place that I hadn’t looked – down. I was stepping right on it and from that point on, I had no desire of leaving this place. After the first few years of my career here at Spring Arbor University, I was given more responsibilities outside my teaching assignments.

I was appointed Director of Graduate Studies for a few years, and then assumed the administrative responsibilities of the undergraduate campus programs, overseeing every program from Accounting to Marketing, and all of the programs in between. It has been rewarding to providing leadership in these programs. Although I wasn’t intentional in applying any key leadership principles, several of them such as ‘leading by example’ or ‘servant leadership’ seem to resonate with me the most all these years.

Almost ten years ago now, at the recommendation of my then 13-year old son, when we were browsing at a bookstore in the Lansing Mall over the Christmas holiday, I picked up a John Maxwell leadership book which talks about leading from the middle of an organization and it changed how I looked at leadership entirely. Prior to reading that book, I thought that leadership was tied to titles and positions. If I don’t have the title, I simply don’t lead, but this is so not true.

As it turns out, I began to lead those who are close to me. Little by little, I came to the conclusion that John Maxwell so effectively conveyed in his book. Four years ago, I was asked to lead the Business School at Spring Arbor University. Had I not led from the middle – or for that matter, from the bottom when I was a young professor – I don’t think it would be fitting for me to lead from the top.

In a lot of ways, I am still leading from the middle, at least in my institution where I am reporting to the Provost and others who have more important leadership roles than me. If someone told me 23 years ago when I was first hired that my main job would be to lead, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought but politely say “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I am so grateful for the opportunities that were given to me to learn and grow into the leader I am today. I hope that my personal story is helpful to you as you seek to become a leader. We don’t have to become a great leader before we begin to lead – start today.

Caleb Chan, Ph.D. Dean, Gainey School of Business Spring Arbor University - Equipping Leaders to Serve