In the Spring of 2024, W&M English Professor Rich Lowry stepped down as Chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. In this interview with STLI Student Partner Vivian Hoang, Lowry offers insights on what he learned during his time chairing a department outside his own discipline.

Cultivating a Leadership Mindset: Leading from the outside in

In the Spring of 2024, W&M English Professor Rich Lowry stepped down as Chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. In this interview with STLI Student Partner Vivian Hoang, Lowry offers insights on what he learned during his time chairing a department outside his own discipline.

 February 2, 2024 • Vivian Hoang

Leading an organization as an outsider rather than someone deeply involved in the intricacies of that organization can pose a wealth of challenges—yet also present unique benefits to learn from. For most faculty members in leadership roles, those positions rest comfortably in the fields they hold expertise in, but for some, like Dr. Richard Lowry, unorthodox leadership roles outside of their specialized department were thrust upon them in times of need. 

Watch our 3-minute video highlights of our conversation with Dr. Lowry or continue reading below for the full story.

Here are some key concepts he learned while leading from the outside in:

1. Identify and overcome obstacles to success

Lowry discussed his experiences taking on what he calls the “extraordinary challenge” of becoming the acting chair of William & Mary’s Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance despite being unfamiliar with these disciplines. 

To add more layers of difficulty to an already daunting challenge, Lowry says he came into the department at the peak of its “real tough times.” He had to quickly address a multitude of issues that the department faced, such as severe understaffing, a devastating decline in student interest, low morale, and a lack of suitable facilities for both course instruction and art performance. 

Of course, succeeding in this position was no easy feat for Lowry to pull off. Lowry had primarily worked in the departments of English, American Studies, what was then called Black Studies, and Film & Media Studies. However, despite being far outside of his comfort zone with Theatre, Speech, and Dance, Lowry recognized the need to build strong infrastructural support by hiring more staff and lifting morale as his first steps. 

“I realized that the best thing I could do to lead them was to help them do their work…to find people to do work for them and with them, find people to teach, and to make sure that those people that we hired were ready to jump into this sort of situation,” Lowry said.  

2. Equitable distribution of work matters 

When rebuilding and restructuring the workflow of the department, Lowry focused on maintaining an equitable distribution of work:

“One of the first lessons I learned is that the kind of labor you do in a group really matters,” Lowry said. “Understanding what is asked of everyone and then making sure that the labor is distributed equitably is really important to just getting things working.” 

It was important to him that faculty enjoyed their work environment so that they would be willing to advocate on behalf of the department.

3. Leading as an outsider has its advantages: Don’t be afraid to use them

Additionally, Lowry reflects that being an outsider when leading a department also had unlikely advantages along with its challenges. He explained that his lack of expertise led him to constantly ask members of the department questions, which in turn pushed them to take a step back, describe the department’s values and inner workings in simpler terms, and thus re-evaluate their practices and understand themselves better. 

“It soon helped them think through what they did—what kind of labor they did—because they had to explain it to me, and this also allowed me to talk to other [campus entities] about what happened here and what kind of work goes on,” Lowry said.

4. Don’t get clouded by emotion

Coming in as an outsider to the department also allowed Lowry to resolve and manage conflict without being clouded by emotional biases or personal investments. 

“The other thing is that none of this was personal for me. I wasn’t personally invested,” Lowry said. “…I didn’t feel any need to defend the importance of artistic labor. First of all, I took it, I just accepted it. And second of all, it wasn’t personal…it helped that I hadn’t been part of the very real things that had led to low morale. I wasn’t part of any of that, and most of the time I didn’t want to know, I just said, ‘Let’s just start here. Let’s start here and now and move forward.’” 

5. Practice empathy and seek common ground

Lowry sought to practice empathy and understand the perspectives of his faculty, which he says is what ultimately earned him acceptance into the department. 

I always tried to think, if I were that faculty and the chair said, ‘I need to have this discussion with you,’ how I would want it to end and what I would want from it. And I think that’s what let them accept me as being an outsider, but being in there on their side,” Lowry said. 

6. Appreciate your team and provide positive affirmation and support

Though Lowry never tried to insert himself into the department as “one of them,” he says he always made sure to both verbally express and show with his actions that he was “all in” on the department, its faculty, and its success. 

“I genuinely admire everything [the faculty] do, and I made sure they knew that all the time,” Lowry said. “In other words, it’s one thing to really admire someone, but you have to say it over and over. And I brought food. I did, I would go to Panera. Like three or four times, I brought a huge bundle of Panera breakfast stuff. And that helps, you know, it just does.” 

Lowry stressed that a leader’s individual efforts and displays of care do add up. Whether it’s buying Panera for a team breakfast or simply “showing up” at department events in support of the faculty leading the event—team members notice it and appreciate it, Lowry says. To other faculty who may find themselves in leadership roles outside of their comfort zones, he recommends providing constant positive affirmation. 

Find a way to admire the people you’re put in with,” Lowry said. “Find what it is admirable about them, what they do well, individually and as a group. Find out how they do things and see if there are little low level things you can do to help them do [those tasks] better or easier and find ways to reward them for that.”

7. Don’t go it alone

Another key to leadership, Lowry says, is “finding a partner in leading.” 

“Find a support network, a partner if you can or two partners that you can talk with, and safe spaces where you can see you can curse, and it’s okay,” Lowry said. 

For Lowry, it was Vice Dean Silvia Tandeciarz who played that crucial role of his leadership partner. She provided him the support he needed during the particularly difficult moments where even he, as a leader, needed external guidance. 

“I would sometimes show up and say, ‘Look at this, you can’t believe this, this just happened—how do we take care of this?’ And [Tandeciarz and I] would work it out,” Lowry said. “You develop a back and forth that is so vital. It was really important to have that kind of support because we shared a concern for this department. We shared a larger vision of what an arts and sciences department needs to do, which is bigger than what a theater and dance department is, bigger than an English department. In other words, she allowed me to embrace that larger vision as well and to communicate it here.”

Final thoughts

But at the end of the day, Lowry says, you are the only one who can create meaning in your own work. 

“Find what it is that is rewarding to you and hold tight to that. You know, find those rewards, the things that make you feel better,” Lowry said. “I think people that lead in academics, at least, find this extraordinary satisfaction in the accomplishment of others, oddly enough. That’s what’s so exciting.”

And, finally, Lowry reminds us: don’t be afraid to fail.  

“I don’t think leaders ever stop growing—at least the good ones,” Lowry concluded.