On noticing and acting: An introduction to "Crossing the Square"

Author: Monica Caro

The Hesburgh Library Reflecting Pool 2006 Esotheos

In the reflecting pool in front of Hesburgh Library there are four small angled metal pieces at the edge of the water, one on each side. I must have walked by them without noticing them hundreds of times as I entered the library as a student and then as a staff member. But then one day I saw them, I noticed these peculiar shapes. After a moment of reflection, I realized with a smile that Notre Dame had provided tiny ramps for birds or animals to exit the pool in case they were trapped in the water. What a detail! I marveled at the thought of a person who noticed the need and then designed and crafted these miniature access points in copper that are now weathered with time. In my imagination, there must be a story of their creation: someone noticed a problem—perhaps a struggling squirrel or chipmunk—and provided a temporary solution with a branch for an exit. But the individual did not stop there; a permanent solution was designed, budgeted, crafted, and installed. Noticing becomes the first step in a chain so that change can actually happen.

I see in that small detail an image of leadership that the Nanovic Institute’s leadership program strives to cultivate: the ability to notice a need and follow-through to provide a solution.

The Group Outside Hesburgh Library By The Statue
The cohort of scholars visits the Hesburgh Library. Photo by the author.

Annually, the cohort of Nanovic Institute leadership program participants--drawn primarily from administrators at the Institute’s Catholic Universities Partnership—stop on a tour to take a group photograph by the reflecting pool, flanked by the sculptures of iconic Notre Dame leaders Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., and Rev. Edmund Joyce, C.S.C. There is so much to explain about campus during the tour that I don’t think I have ever mentioned the little ramps, but I see in that small detail an image of leadership that the Nanovic Institute’s leadership program strives to cultivate: the ability to notice a need and follow-through to provide a solution.

Our distracted lives full of screens, alerts, noise, and deadlines complicate and challenge our ability to notice. Noticing requires really looking (up from the screen, pausing the racing thoughts), which is too rare. (See, for example, Horowitz, Alexandra, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation (2014), a book that Nanovic Institute director Clemens Sedmak sometimes includes in his syllabi for students.) For travelers, noticing is often discovering a small, memorable detail and not just checking off selfies with famous landmarks. For leaders, there can be a temptation to both focus on too many details and lose sight of the big picture (ineffective micromanaging), or to be so focused on the big picture that one loses sight of details or the individuals behind the tasks (being so fixated on a goal that you miss the casualties or risks created in the process). A leader—or an artisan of a new humanity as the Nanovic Institute’s vision articulates—needs to cultivate this balance and skill of attentiveness to the individual and the particular detail as well as a proper sense of the larger picture.

Metal Tab In The Reflecting Pool Hesburgh Library Web
One of the small angled pieces of metal in the water. Photo by the author.

But noticing is not the end in itself. Noticing invites action. Work can become more intentional when observation leads to action. The skill of noticing is a trait that is repeatedly highlighted by presenters in the leadership program each summer in a variety of ways. Presenters encourage participants to notice specific opportunities to express gratitude (thank you, housekeeping, for the constant vigilance in cleaning the sinks in the restroom today, which helps to keep us safe!), to seek out commonalities with colleagues to build relationships (wow, she shares my same struggles, maybe I can confide in her. . . ), to observe behaviors objectively and ask questions before judging (so that distraction at the meeting wasn’t because of my presentation being boring, he was up all night with a sick child . . .), and to manage situations so as to avoid humiliating individuals (next week I will ask him about that missing report in our private meeting, but not in this group). In cultivating this attention to individuals in particular moments and actions, we can help to build our teams, our institutions, and our own lives. Ultimately, much of our work is humble, helping one student, one visitor, one colleague, but we work with the dignity of each individual in mind and the hope that it is known and noticed in the end of all things.

This is often hidden work. And this hiddenness requires maturity: a maturity to not need to be noticed oneself, to not seek credit, and to do the right thing even when it is unseen. And this hiddenness can often seem solitary as well as invisible: one of the first participants in the leadership program remarked that “leadership is lonely,” and indeed when a decision must be made the leader is often accountable alone. 

We hope to provide a space for the leader to cross the square, across institutions and into a built community.

But one of the hopes of the leadership program and of this Crossing the Square forum is to create a community that can support each other through difficult situations and challenges. We hope to provide a space for the leader to cross the square, across institutions and into a built community. In the image of the square we hope to evoke a shared space with history, a place of encountering friends, and of solidarity. We hope this blog is an opportunity to offer and to find a community of support: a community that shares a commitment to Catholic mission, to education, and to service. 

It is with the image of a crossing—a tiny bridge by the reflecting pool in front of Touchdown Jesus—that we welcome you to this virtual forum. We hope this will be a place to share what the authors have noticed and want to share. We envision this space as an opportunity to share reflections on leadership and management as witnessed in the Catholic Universities Partnership and in and through the leadership programs it offers. We hope it is a place of encounter, of encouragement, and of resources—and maybe even a bit of inspiration.

Monica Caro, associate director, Nanovic Institute

Monica Caro is senior associate director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

This blog is part of Crossing the Square, a forum for collaborative research and the voices of scholars and leaders from within our Catholic Universities Partnership.

Originally published by Monica Caro at crossingthesquare.nd.edu on August 19, 2021.