Let small things remain small…

It was one of those mornings. Nothing was going right. The house alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was a false alarm, of course, but enough to disrupt my sleep. After tossing and turning for some time, I decided to get up and start my yoga instead.

I was locked in a shoulder stand – a routine pose – when I felt the sudden snap. Oh no, I had pulled a muscle! I tried to nurse it, but could feel the tension rising in the upper back, so I popped two Advils in my mouth and started to get ready for office.

Sitting in my car, I tilted my mug to take the first sip and … too late! The lid was loose and the boiling hot tea came pouring down my suit without mercy. I had no choice but to go back in the house and change the suit (which, as other women can understand, meant changing the jewelry and shoes as well).

I arrived late in office only to learn that $20 million of our University’s funding had disappeared in the proposed state budget. “This can’t be true?” I asked in despair.

Within hours came more bad news – the campus had experienced two separate cases of robbery. Thank goodness no one was seriously injured, and the losses were limited to a couple of cell phones, a lap top and a book bag.  Although police later arrested suspects, initial news of the robberies spread alarm across campus.

It was only 11:30 a.m., and I had just about had it. The day was turning out to be bad. Since this was Monday, the rest of the week was not looking promising either.  I was found myself deep in the feeling of “Oh, poor me!”

Little did I know that the most crucial hour of the day was yet to unfold.

The next event on my schedule was a luncheon in honor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which gives out more than 200 scholarships to our qualified students each year. The lunch was our way of thanking the Rodeo Board for their generosity and giving them an opportunity to meet with these Rodeo scholars.

After I gave my greetings (the usual stuff) and guests finished their meal, Veronica, a scholarship recipient, took the stage to express her gratitude on behalf of all the recipients. She began her story…

“My name is Veronica, and I am honored to share my story today. I had a mother who didn’t care and a father who cared but had his own problems. When I was in the 3rd grade, my father was sent to prison for two years. When I was in the 4th grade, my mother left me and my siblings. The two older children were sent to their own father, my youngest sister went to live with our godparents, my younger brother was left with our mother, and my little sister and me were sent to Houston to live with my dad’s brother and his wife.

“My aunt and uncle would take us to see our father, and each time the tears fell. Every letter we read, tears poured down and every letter we wrote, we cried a river. Over the next year, my life changed many times.

“I was back living with my father. We lived in an abandoned trailer full of holes. We had to watch our feet because nails were everywhere, and the roof leaked all the time. But it did not matter to me because I believed my dad would never leave us like mom did.

“We all knew our dad wasn’t in the best of health – he was overweight, had high blood pressure, and one main concern: epilepsy. We never had enough money to buy medications, but we were lucky that his seizures seem to happen while he was already laying down in bed. But everything changed on June 10, 2008.

“Dad was taking me and my two sisters to our very first dentist appointment. Everything was normal until I woke up in a hospital not knowing why the nurse was stitching my arm and putting a bandage on it, why I had staples in the back of my head or how my back was paralyzed from shock.

“You see, when we were going home from our dentist appointment, our dad had a seizure less than a mile from our home, which took his life immediately. Even today I do not remember what happened. 

“After the car accident I couldn’t bear riding in a car. I would grip on to the handle at only 30 mph.”

Veronica was still speaking, but the room had fallen silent. No one was moving, and no eyes were dry. As incredible as the story was, what was more incredible was to watch Veronica tell her story … no quivering of lips, no tearing of eyes, and no breaking of voice! She was calm and confident. Years of turmoil and emotional havoc had made her mature beyond her age.

We learned that the care of Veronica was permanently handed over to her father’s brother who lived in Houston when she was in the 10th grade. Two years later, she graduated in the top three percent of her class. Her achievements won her a Rodeo scholarship, and that is how she landed at the University of Houston, majoring in accounting.

Veronica concluded her story…

“Today I wanted to share my story about all the possibilities in this world.  I know some people may have it harder than me, but I believe that bad times are temporary. My advice is – don’t drown in your emotions. You are supposed to kick your feet and keep swimming toward the horizon. Reach for the stars and build a constellation. Many times I wanted to give up, but with a little hope, I chose to be happy with my life and my choices.”

As everyone clapped, I did too … but my head hung low.

Bad day?  What bad day? What Poor Me?

Veronica had a choice. I have a choice. We all have a choice…The choice to kick our feet…to swim toward the horizon…to reach for the stars.

But we can do that only if we let small things in life remain small.

Dreaming on the Coast of Caspian Sea…

The Caspian Sea is an enigma. Technically, it should be called a lake because it is an inland body of water, but then it is not really a lake because the water is saline, and the size is much too large for a lake.

As a political scientist, I am fascinated by the Caspian Sea because of its geopolitical importance. Inhabitants of its shores – Russians, Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Kazakhstanis and Turkmenistanis—make it an intriguing yet complex region to grasp.

Meeting in Baku

Meeting in Baku

When I received an invitation from the Baku Higher Oil School, a subsidiary of SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic), to establish a partnership in petroleum training, I accepted it. My university colleagues and I arrived in Baku in the middle of the night (1:40 a.m. to be precise), we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a welcoming committee led by the Vice Rector of the University. I knew immediately that this trip was going to be anything but ordinary. Sure enough, for the next four days we were escorted, educated and entertained by the University Rector himself, who took great pride in his institution and even greater pride in his country.

Our busy days began at 8 a.m. (we were supposed to have already had breakfast by then) and lasted until midnight. We visited five universities, hundreds of students, dozens of faculty, countless administrators and quite a few civic and political leaders. In between our scheduled visits, we found time to visit four museums, an ancient temple, a mosque, Hayder Aliyev Hall, Martyrs Lane, old town and a modern day marvel, the Flame Towers. Of course, we did not have to make any effort to see oil rigs; they were everywhere.

A view from street in Baku

A view from street in Baku

As interesting and enlightening as all that was, it was enough to tell only half of the Azerbaijani story.  I put together the other half by wandering aimlessly around town and having casual conversations with natives, even if mostly by hand gestures (I realized that my Urdu vocabulary gave me at least 100 words of local language).

My eyes constantly searched for the real Baku, the real Azerbaijan. And in this search, I noticed many things.

I noticed elderly couples holding hands and walking in the tranquility of a very cold night, their faces showing traces of life lived but also anticipation for the life yet to be lived.  I noticed young couples completely oblivious of the world around them walking in piazzas when the clock signaled midnight. I noticed groups of women laughing openly and telling tales under the moonlit sky in public parks. And I noticed young men humming American pop tunes walking out of an Italian restaurant.

Life was just what it is supposed to be – jubilant, progressive and upbeat. Baku could have been any city in Europe.

Our hosts took great pains in telling us how free and strong Azeri women were, and I listened politely. But, I had to see it myself. And I saw women—young and not-so-young—flashing latest Western fashions in clothes, shoes and hair styles. To see traditional Azeri dresses, I was advised to head to a museum. I also noticed male colleagues giving due respect to their female counterparts, not only in universities but also in private companies. In the largest and oldest university, Baku State University, more than 60 percent of the students are women. The young woman who asked the first question after my remarks at Baku Higher Oil School left me speechless.  She said, “Obviously you are not stopping where you are, so what is next in your life?” Her question was more telling of her own horizons than of mine.

Knowing that 93 percent of the people in Azerbaijan are Muslims, I purposefully searched for mosque towers. However, there were more temples of knowledge—colleges and universities – than mosques. While people talked openly about the oppressions of the Soviet era, I was also proudly shown the new campus of Moscow State University, which had only recently opened (2008!). One of my colleagues asked an administrator, “You decry the Soviet domination, and yet you have a new university that could be a reminder of that history. Why?” The response from her came without pause:  “Moscow State University has been a home to world’s greatest scholars…that is what we see in this name, not the memories of oppression.”

Cougars in Baku

Cougars in Baku

Baku became a sister city of Houston in 1976. I am convinced that it was not a coincident. The two share the same spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism. At night, Baku felt like another Dubai in the making – glitzy, vibrant and bold! During the day, it was obsessed with turning its black gold (oil) into human gold while it can. Baku understands that oil won’t last forever, but people’s spirit will.

Anyone keeping up with the news in the Caspian region knows that there are serious challenges there and uneasy issues in Azerbaijan.  But that is a subject for a different debate, a different discussion.

For now, let us acknowledge that beyond all political conflicts, economic systems, social preferences and religious doctrines, Azerbaijanis are dreaming their future and, just like the enigmatic Caspian Sea, they are not allowing their aspirations to be minimized by the categories and definitions imposed on them by others.

So, I offer a toast to the people of Azerbaijan and to their dreams in the making!

[PS: We signed two bilateral agreements and one trilateral agreement with universities in Baku, Azerbaijan.)

MOU Signing

MOU Signing

In humility lies the real strength…

I was traveling back from Austin on Southwest Airlines.  Since I had to change my flight at the last minute, it was clear I would have to settle for a seat in the middle.  So, as soon as I saw one empty in the front row, I claimed it.

I was still searching for my seat belt when the passenger to my left (let’s call him Mr. Left) complained, “Don’t you just hate traveling like this? I always travel Business Class.”

“At least, it is a short flight,” I said, trying to dismiss his negativity.

“I am CEO of my company.  How am I supposed to explain this to my staff?”  He was fidgeting in his seat. I looked out the window. Now I noticed the passenger to my right (Let’s call him Mr. Right) who was happily settled in his seat reading a newspaper.

In a few minutes, Mr. Left started again. “Do you live in Houston?  I live in Santa Barbara. I would rather be there.”

“Yes, I live in Houston – and I love it.” I had to defend my city.

“What else can you say if you have to live here?”  He mocked me.  Helplessly, I glanced to my right.  Mr. Right smiled politely, bent toward me and said very softly, “Do you want to switch seats?”

“Thank you, but I am OK.” I was surprised Mr. Right was willing to trade his window seat with me.

Three minutes passed and Mr. Left started again. “What do you do? Do you work?”

“I work at the University of Houston.”  I was irritated that he didn’t notice my bold UH pin.

“Don’t know much about it… I was admitted to Stanford.” I wanted to punch him, but kept my hands in my lap.

“What did you study at Stanford?” I was curious because I know they don’t offer a degree in stupidity.

“Well, I went to a community college, but Stanford really wanted me. I make so much money now anyway—who cares about Stanford?”  I sighed and thought to myself, “Oh, this is going to be a long flight!”

“Do you know how much money I made last year?  I can buy a Ferrari if I want to.” He was trying to impress a total stranger.

At this time, Mr. Right got up from his seat and said to me, “I insist you take this window seat.  You can use some rest.”

The force in his voice made me get up and do as told.  The rest of the journey was uneventful, at least for me.  While leaving the plane, I thanked Mr. Right. It was then that he handed me his business card and said, “It was the least I could do, Dr. Khator. Thank you for all that you do for our state.”

Do I know him?  I read the card, blinked my eyes and read it again carefully.  Then I realized I was sitting next to a real success story! I wanted to say something, but he was already 10 steps ahead of me.  Obviously, he did not need any affirmation of his success from anyone.

“What a difference!” I thought to myself.  Are these two individuals different because how successful (or unsuccessful) they are or because of who they are as individuals? One was clearly in desperate need of recognition from others, and the other was solid as a rock, full of inner strength. One so arrogant, the other so humble!

Humility is, I believe, a reflection of an inner strength that is neither an art nor an acquired skill.  It is a deposit, built up layer by layer over time. Only genuinely successful people can afford to develop this deposit because they don’t have to spend their time and energy pretending to be who they are not and protecting the thing they don’t have.

Humility is a precious thing, and I see it in action every day on my campus: faculty members engaging a class of 500 students with as much ease as talking with a friend over lunch; vice presidents serving pancakes at 11 p.m. to students during Finals week;  managers picking up dirty plates to ensure seats are available for students waiting in line;  staff members standing under the blazing sun offering water bottles to students on the first day of classes; and students with perfect GPAs helping their peers who have panicked just before the major exam.

On the drive from airport, I was reminded of a verse from an Urdu poem, one of my all-time favorites.

“Khuda humko aisi khudai na de

Ki khud ke bina kuchh dikhai na de.”

Simply put, that means: “God, give me success, but never let success make me forget the existence of others around me.”

As you begin the New Year, may you be blessed with the gift of humility!

Dreams have power…hang on to them!

During the first week of Fall Semester, I visited 17 classes in the hope of reaching out to freshmen in a more personal way, welcoming them and letting them know the university is vested in their success. I gave them the reasons why students drop out and why it is important to adopt good learning habits now.

Since all the visits took place over a two-day period, naturally I was exhausted.

But then I started to receive emails from students, some pledging to persevere and complete college and others simply saying how inspired they felt. With each one, I felt less and less tired. And then I received an email from LeeAnne Beckham Carlson (produced verbatim below), which dissolved all my exhaustion.

A dream in the making

“Yesterday you spoke for a few minutes to the students in PHAR 2362, Principles of Drug Action. I was in the audience and I would like to share my story with you.

You spoke about the factors that contribute to academic success. Thirty years ago to the very day that you spoke to my class, I was starting at UH as a freshman straight out of high school. I did not have much in the way of family support, and I was largely unfocused and without direction as well as not yet having been diagnosed as having ADHD. I did become involved on campus, joining the Cougar Guard and taking care of Shasta V. I met my husband in the Cougar Guard, and we married at the end of my freshman year.

I was also under academic suspension at the end of my freshman year.

I did plan to return, but as you noted yesterday, one semester turns into two, which turns into years.

My husband finished his degree at UH. We had children – twelve of them. We have homeschooled all of them. I had a career as a midwife, delivering hundreds of babies. We built a successful family business. I have, by no means, lived a life of failure.

One thing, however, was unfinished – my degree. In April of this year, a family decision was made that I would return to school. Although we now live closer to Texas A&M and Sam Houston State University, there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to finish where I began – at the University of Houston.

Going through the process to be readmitted took several months. I have met with my academic advisor as well as with the CLASS Dean’s Office. I was given a series of required steps, including meeting with a counselor at Learning Support Services as well as with a career counselor, which I have completed. I have several more required workshops and counseling meetings to attend as well as meeting with the Dean’s Office again in October. Technically, thanks to the three courses that I took over the summer at the local community college (getting an A in each one of them), I will no longer be on Academic Probation by the end of this semester. I will continue to utilize the support services available to me as a student. I firmly believe that had these services been available to me thirty years ago, I might not have failed in my first attempt as a college student.

This time, I will succeed. My sights are set on graduate school, also at UH, in Creative Writing. My children (ages 4 to 26) are watching. My husband is my biggest supporter. This family support combined with the support systems now available at the University leave me with no doubt that this time I will finish what I began thirty years ago. A thirty-three year graduation plan may be unorthodox, but it is my plan and I am proud to be making the plan as a Cougar.”

LeeAnne, we are proud of you. I know you will succeed and because of you, the University of Houston will succeed.

Dreams have power. They can make us do things we don’t think possible. Hang on to them!

What keeps me up at night?

Almost every time I speak at any workshop on higher education leadership, I am asked, “What keeps you awake at night?”

While the question is anticipated, I always pause before answering. I could easily say that finding a way to prepare the underserved population for tomorrow’s social and economic needs worries me the most. We have yet to close the achievement gaps of our Hispanic and African American students and, without their full participation in the workforce, we have no hope of keeping America competitive.

Or I could point to the financial model of higher education, which, to say the least, is unsustainable. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 400 small private colleges and regional public colleges failed to meet their financial bottom line last year as their enrollment dropped or tuition collection declined.

I could call attention to the various disruptive technologies, like MOOCS, that are knocking loudly on our universities’ doors and demanding serious consideration. While no single force has offered a viable alternative to the traditional university model, their collective impact is surely about to change the higher education landscape forever. Preparing my institution for the turbulent waters ahead is certainly something worth losing a night’s sleep over.

Or, finally, I could cite the increasing burden of federal regulations or court rulings that, as well intentioned as they may be, are reshaping the scope of our mission.

In reality, each one of these issues is more than sufficient to keep any university president up at night. But there is one that worries me the most – and it concerns losing our ability to assemble the world’s best talent.

Generally speaking, there are two types of universities. One has as its primary purpose providing access to higher education at an affordable cost. These institutions are fundamental to our survival. But then there are also those universities that are the repositories of the world’s best talent – people who are obsessed with breaking boundaries, expanding horizons and seeking knowledge. No, I am not talking about sponsored research or writing books. I am talking about those academic Olympians for whom research and discovery are as natural as breathing. They are motivated by their passion and rewarded by their own work. They live for the “Eureka!” moment.

Today, America is the breeding ground for these passionate innovators from all around the world. They come here because American universities provide them the best environment in which to practice their discipline and satisfy their craving for inquiry and examination. To these people, the most important thing is the supportive system, one which provides the tools of exploration and the teams of similar-minded people. They will travel far and live where little is familiar to them just as long as they get the opportunity to pursue their passion.

When Asian universities were at their pinnacle several centuries ago, it was because they had succeeded in creating that magical environment and assembling that talent. Indian Vedic scriptures written thousands of years ago include the mention of such scholars and disciples travelling from all around the world to gather in scholarly communities. Similarly, European universities reached their zenith because they were able to attract the best talent from every continent.

For decades now, America has enjoyed that coveted position in the world. People leave the comfort of their language and food and family to cast their lot with American universities, first as graduate students and then as professors. The fire of intellectual curiosity burns in their bellies. They have given America the edge that at one point in time Asia and Europe previously enjoyed.

Are we at risk of losing that preeminence? What would it take for these Olympian academics from other countries to pack their bags and move on in search of another place that provides that enabling environment? What might turn the tide?

Facilities? No, because many countries today have far better laboratories than any university in America can provide.

Money? No, because many countries can provide far more discretionary funding than we can.

In reality, it is primarily the guarantee of having similar-minded, similarly-dedicated people that keeps these exceptional scholars and researchers here in America. If any other nation becomes able to attract enough of these gifted and driven people – to provide a similar guarantee, as it were – the trend could reverse. These dedicated discoverers of knowledge will move on to wherever they find the best tools and teams to quench their thirst.

All research is not same. All researchers are not same. All discoveries are not same. So, you ask, what keeps me up at night? Thinking about how we can continue to nurture those who are so productively consumed by intellectual curiosity. As long as we have the best talent here, I am convinced we can find solutions to everything else. Holding on to that talent is crucial … and we better not doze off.

Anything worth winning is won with passion

Last week, I was waiting for the elevator when I heard someone running toward me, literally screaming, “Oh My Gosh! I can’t believe it is you! Can I please take a selfie with you?”

“Of course, you can. Where is your phone?” I said. She fumbled for it in the backpack, too excited to concentrate. Finally, the student found the phone and took a selfie, still chanting, “Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh!”
She was vivacious, happy, full of life and full of spirit. We started talking and within few minutes I realized that Tina was no ordinary person.

During high school, Tina became the sole survivor of a fatal car accident that claimed her mother and sister. She delayed her entrance to college by one year. During her sophomore year, Tina was diagnosed with cancer with not-so-good odds of survival. She took a year off from college, fought the battle successfully and returned. During that time, she managed to complete one online course.

In her senior year, Tina’s father lost the functionality of his legs in a random shooting. Once again, she had to stay home to care for her father and provide support to two younger brothers. But Tina enrolled in several online courses and completed them with good grades. “I love being on campus, but you don’t get everything you want,” she said in an accepting voice, without a note of complaint.

“You will be proud of me, President Khator, but I am graduating within six years. I did not want to let you down.” She had the smile of a winner as she said it.

I hugged Tina and held her a little longer than usual. I did not want her to see tears filling up my eyes.

What kept Tina going against all odds? Life pushed her back again and again and yet she came out victorious every single time. “I am so proud of you,” I said admiringly. “I am so glad you chose to continue your studies.”

“I had no choice,” she replied. “I never thought that way.” Tina waved good-bye and ran in the other direction. She was gone, but her words kept buzzing in my ears throughout the day … and the next and the next.

I never thought that way! That way…

What way?

Did Thomas Edison feel the same way when he failed 999 times before inventing what led to the modern light bulb!
Did Henry Ford feel the same way when he declared five bankruptcies before becoming hugely successful?
Did R.H. Macy feel the same way when he closed down seven stores before finding success in New York?
Did Walt Disney feel the same way when told by his newspaper editor that he lacked imagination?
Did Dr. Seuss feel the same way when rejected by publishers, not once, not twice but 27 times?

What is “that way of thinking” that seemed to give them no other choice? Did passion make them blind to reality and deaf to the voices of reason?

Tina, like these famous people, had passion for her goal, and that passion pushed her forward. In theory, she may have had choices, but she could not see them and that made her succeed despite many setbacks. When people face setbacks, they react in one of two ways: They think from their brain and analyze everything minutely to decide whether it is wise to quit. And then there are those who respond from their heart and look for a different way or a different time or a different setting to reach their goal.

Winners fall in the second category because their eyes are on the goal, not on many ways to reach the goal. They keep trying different tools, because their goals are not negotiable.

I salute Tina for making me see her way, that way… the way of winners!

[To protect her identity, this student’s name and circumstances have been altered.]

To lead, focus on core mission!

Today is the first day of classes. Thousands of students are here with dream in their eyes and hope in their hearts. Walking around campus reminded me of the debate I had with a friend from Florida last year. The issue was, of course, higher education and this friend did not work in the academia.

My friend asked me to imagine a restaurant that offers beautiful decor, glasses of cold sparkling water, and live music, but does not serve food!  He asked me to further imagine a movie theater that offers free popcorn, stadium-style seating, and a video game lounge, but does not show movies!  Then he asked me to imagine a plane that has extra legroom, free meals, and allows us to board early, but never takes off!

My immediate words were, “It is ridiculous! What kind of a restaurant does not serve food?”  My reaction was obvious, because every organization has a core mission which must be fulfilled first, ahead of anything else.  “You see”, he said before I could say anything more, “that is why we have a problem with universities. They do everything but help students succeed!”

“Excuse me!  We are graduating 8,000 students every year from the University of Houston alone.” I protested.

“And letting more than that many go without graduating?” He provoked me further.

“Well, I admit that some do not graduate, but are you putting all the blame on us? Your analogies are irrational.”

Before I could say any more, he yielded and said, “Okay, I am sorry.  I was too harsh.  Let’s assume that our imaginary restaurant serves great meals also, but half the people get up and leave before finishing their meal.  The movie theater shows movies, but only half the people stay to see the end.  And our plane gets to fly, but takes the passengers only halfway where they want to go.  Is everything okay now?”

By now, I knew that I had lost the argument.  I could extend his logic and imagine a university that offered its students everything they desired (yes, including parking!), but allowed half of them to leave without a degree. Of course, I could raise my defensive shield and give many reasons, and they would all be true. Yes, the government is not funding us to the same level as before. Yes, students are not coming to us as well prepared as before. Yes, federal and state regulations have added to the cost of our operations. And yes, students are more easily distracted today than a few years back.

But, will that make everything right? Would the restaurant that lost half of its guests still be in business a week later?  How about the movie theater that lost half of its viewers or the airline that flew its passengers to only half the distance?

Our core mission is to teach students and to prepare them to build a better future for themselves and for our communities.  If they cannot get the needed education, we are failing in our core mission, and thus jeopardizing our own existence and viability as a university, irrespective of whose fault it is.

So, here is my plea to you, my team members.

As you begin the new academic year, please focus and refocus on our core mission — the success of our students!  They just don’t happen to be here. They are here because we consciously recruited them, invited them in, and admitted them to our university.  And now that they are here, we have the obligation to help them succeed. And we need to do that while keeping our expectations high and rigor tough.

I know that there are many things that are outside of our control to fix, but I also know that there are at least as many that we can fix. One of the most important success factors cited by alumni is their feeling that someone on campus cared. No matter where your desk is and no matter what your work is, your interaction with students is guaranteed. Please remember that you can make a difference in their lives.

Today is the day to rededicate ourselves to core mission. 

Fifty Shades of Red

Is red really red, or is it a collection of shades that look like red?

Come and walk the grounds of the University of Houston on any given Friday and chances are that you will be overwhelmed by a sea of red. Nearly 70 percent of the students, staff and faculty will be wearing that distinctive school color. The sight is so compelling that I have had many visitors comment, “Wow…your campus is all red.”

A Friday at UH

A Red Friday at UH

But if you look closely, what people describe as “red” turns out to be more like 50 shades of red, anywhere from almost-orange to maroon-look-alike to pinkish red. Yes, there is an official “Cougar Red” red, but many people still wear all shades of red because they don’t want to repeat the same outfit. I mean, just how many truly red outfits can you really have? (Disclaimer: two-thirds of my own closet is now red.)

Yet, to a visitor, it looks as if everyone is just wearing “red.”

I often wonder how and when shades can lose their individual differences and become a single chromatic phenomenon? Last month, I was wearing a maroon-pink suit to a meeting. The first comment I heard as I walked in the door was, “There is the lady in red!” I was surprised. First of all, it was not Friday. Second, the suit was not red by any stretch of the imagination. And finally, I was not even in Houston. Yet, because I wear red so often, my suit was immediately perceived as “red” before it looked maroon or pink to these people.

To me, the different shades of a color are natural and, in their way, important. They expand our limits and add value in reminding us that we have a common ground. The varying shades also remind us that commonality is not automatic; it has to be built and nurtured.
Every organization is shaped by two opposite forces: those that unify its members and those that divide them. A successful, high-functioning organization strives to strike the right balance because neither is good in its extreme. Too much uniformity may lead to complacency. Too much divisiveness may lead to conflict.

My organization–the University of Houston–continues to flourish with the healthy interplay of forces that simultaneously unite and divide us. We all are the same in many ways – our mission, core values, commitment, logo, color, team and the list can go on and on. But we are also very different– the disciplines that we teach in, or the departments that we work in, or the ideologies that we believe in, or the approaches that we take to fulfill that common mission. And, of course, we are also divided by gender, color, race, socio-economic status, neighborhoods and many more such factors.

The secret of our success is remaining divided and yet united. Our strength comes from recognizing our differences but still relating to one another so naturally that we appear as one. The significance lies in the strength of our unity, and not in the elimination of the differences.
An orange-red looks red if it is surrounded by other reds, but it will be perceived as orange if standing alone. A strong organization is not the one that ignores its divisions but one that builds a compelling sense of unity that transcends its differences.

So, I am proud of our own red and even prouder of the 50 shades that also contribute to our greater sense of “red.” I salute those who unify our cause and mission, and I applaud those who challenge us to be different.

(But, hold on, Cougars. Let me be very clear. I still love it when you wear your Cougar Red on Fridays!)

Making ordinary travel extraordinary

Everyone travels with a purpose in mind—business, relaxation, getting-away-from-it-all, education, sightseeing, culinary curiosity…well, the list goes on. Why do I travel? Maybe all the above, but there’s always needs to be a little more for me and it is that “little more” that makes things extraordinary.

This month, my husband and I took one week to experience the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. I had read about its blue waters, dramatic cliffs, charming towns, and everything else that has made Croatia an international tourist destination.

But, we added two “little” conditions to our journey.

One was that we would backpack–-no suitcase, no hassle. My European experience never feels complete unless I put a pack on my back and wander around looking for a place to eat or sleep. A sense of liberation and youthfulness starts to wash over me the minute I roll my shirts and layer them in my backpack.

The second condition was that we will find a unique bar on every island to enjoy our traditional evening drink. (No, I am not promoting drinking …natural juices are also served in all Croatian bars.)

Our journey started in Dubrovnik. After soaking in the history, walking on the old city wall, experimenting with Croatian dishes, we headed for the

A cliff hanger

A cliff hanger

region’s most talked-about beach. We’re used to the beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, with white sand covering an area the size of four football fields. What we encountered was the size of a basketball court— and full of pebbles and stones. After the initial shock, we came to realize that the simple, elemental landscape created by the combination of rocks and sea was just as remarkable as any Florida beach. it was gorgeous!

Searching for our special place to have a drink, we found the Buza Bar, a small place that seemed to be hanging off a cliff. While it was relatively expensive, we knew that we were paying for that extraordinary view, not the drinks.

The next day, we took a ferry to Korcula island. As we expected, the ferry was filled with students from all around the world, mostly backpacking. We may have seemed out of place, but never felt so. We talked with young travelers and learned the island’s best bar sits atop one of the fort towers. “But you have to climb through a small hole in the ceiling using a temporary ladder,” they advised us. Getting to Massimo proved to be quite an adventure, but once on top of the tower, we loved sipping our mojitos as the beat of loud music surrounded us and an invigorating wind blew through our hair.

The next stay was in Hvar, Croatia’s most popular island. We rented a scooter, and we decided to disappear into the mountains. It was hot and humid as we left, but the skies darkened. Soon, there was thunder, lightning and cold, with absolutely no shelter in sight. By the time we found a village (if you can call five houses a village), we were soaking wet. It was fun, nonetheless.

The recommended bar for this area was Carpe Diem, located not on the shore but a nearby private island. The operating hours, we were informed, ran from midnight to 6 a.m. Really? Six in the morning? What a concept!

After Hvar and Stari Grad, we boarded a catamaran to get to Split, with its dazzling Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd century. The huge palace (once the retirement home for the emperor) has now been converted into a vibrant urban space with shops, restaurant and rental apartments. We stayed there with our room window opening to the largest square within the palace. That night, I kept my window open and, despite the sounds coming from below, I slept better than usual. I realized why. My childhood was filled with urban noises – rickshaw-pullers arguing, vendors selling vegetables, trains whistling by, and street dogs barking at passing cars. You can change as much as you want, but you can never take the childhood out of your system. How comforting!

Our bar of choice in Split was situated on the steps of palatial ruins. Luxor sets up cushions and wooden boards and serves you drinks as you watch curious visitors raise their eyes to look at the bell tower, the cathedral or the treasury.

We took the local bus back to Dubrovnik so we could admire the coast from the landside. We could have rented a car, but that would spoil the backpacking mood. The trip took us through Bosnia, with its tight border security. Bosnia has a slim, 24-kilometer wedge of coastline that bisects Croatia. It was interesting to see the incredible density of hotels and restaurants squeezed along that Bosnian coastline. I suppose when you have such limited space, you use every inch of it.

Ice chamber

Ice chamber

On our last day in Dubrovnik, we were looking for another unique experience when we noticed a sign for Ice Bar. Yes, it sounded kind of touristy, but we were tourists after all, weren’t we? Upon entering, we were given parkas and led to an ice chamber where everything—table, chair, bar stool, glasses and decorations–was carved from ice. Frosty blue light danced and soft music played. We sipped our drinks and chatted with the bartender, just like in any other bar. After 30 bone-chilling minutes—that’s all we could take—we left. Brrrr!

After exploring every type of pebble beach, experimenting with all kinds of Adriatic and Mediterranean dishes and visiting with happy Croatians, we said good-bye. As an educator, I believe my strongest memory from this very memorable journey was how excited the young people became every time we told them that we taught at the University of Houston. In their eyes, a university professor was revered and college education was an important goal to pursue in their lives. Hearing that was as thrilling as any of the adventures we experienced during this wonderful trip.

What can aspiring leaders learn from Baseball?

Having been brought up in India, I followed cricket with all my passion. Baseball was confusing to me–too similar to remind me of cricket and yet too different to comprehend.

However, everything changed this year when our University team, the mighty Houston Cougars, started to show their red color and win some tough games on the road. I started to take an interest and follow the team. As the season progressed, this interest began to turn into an obsession. I started to juggle my calendar to get to Cougar Field for their games.

The only problem was that the game involved too much specialized terminology for me.  To solve that, I found a “Baseball Glossary” online and attached the webpage to my IPhone home screen so I could refer to it any time as I listened to the unusual words and phrases.

Then one day, things changed.

I invited a friend to join me for one of the games without knowing that he had played baseball in college. He realized quickly that my knowledge of the game was elementary at best, so he asked if I would like for him to give me some pointers. I happily consented and that is when baseball became really interesting.

By the time, the season ended, our team, the Houston Cougars, had won an outstanding 48 games along with the conference championship and the NCAA Regionals. They played their hearts out and had the best season ever.

For me, the team not only won the season, but also taught me that baseball is much more than “America’s Past Time.” It provides an important lesson in leadership!

Why?

First and foremost, baseball is a game of teamwork!  The winning team does not win because individual hitters hit home runs; it wins because hitters and runners sacrifice their own time on the field in order to let the team score. In baseball, individual effort means a lot, but team effort means everything. Successful leaders have to do the same—get people to do their best, but also make them believe that the collective outcome of their actions is better than the sum of their individual bests.

Second, baseball requires multidimensionality in thinking and in execution…so many things to consider…so many players …so many moving parts! There are limited resources (pitchers and hitters) and the strategy revolves around knowing which one to deploy when and where to make the most of the ever-changing circumstances. Similarly, leadership is much more than garnering resources; it is about using what you have in the most impactful manner. It is about moving the needle!

Third, baseball is not about beating the clock; it is about finishing the task. One strike at a time…one pitch at a time without ever looking at the time!  Similarly, successful leaders don’t count their success in terms of years served or papers published. Instead, they focus on goals achieved!

Finally, baseball is about cashing in on rare opportunities. I noticed that the bases don’t always get loaded. But when they do, the team has to take a chance and go all the way…there is no reward for simply loading the bases or going half way.  Every person and every organization get rare opportunities. Some are not able to see them, others are not prepared for them, and still others are just too scared to act on them. Successful leaders take chances, they act and, consequently, they win.

To my Cougar baseball team—thank you for giving us all a thrilling season and for me, personally, these insights about leadership.  We’re so eager for the next season to start. As we baseball fans like to say, “Wait till next year!”