Five Questions for Brian Shimamoto

Training and development specialist, Housing & Dining Services, CU-Boulder

Shimamoto mug 06-16-2010
Could you count on one hand the number of great bosses you’ve had? Would it take a calculator to record the not-so-great ones?

Brian Shimamoto believes leadership can be learned. In his job as the training and development specialist for Housing & Dining Services at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he works to ensure that employees become great bosses and colleagues by developing leadership skills and understanding diversity and equity issues.

Currently he’s developing the HDS Leadership Institute, a three-year program that is mandatory for all HDS managers and supervisors (about 120 of them). The program may eventually become available as management training to all employees.

Shimamoto earned his master’s degree from CU-Boulder in 1998 and worked for four years in Residence Life at CU. In 2001, he moved to Tucson where he was a diversity and social justice trainer at the University of Arizona. In 2007, he returned to CU and was the area coordinator for Residence Life before moving into his current position.

Since December 2008, he’s also served as the chair of the HDS Social Justice Advisory Board.
His leadership sessions are not the kind where eye-rolling, seat-slumping and daydreaming are common. He tells humorous anecdotes (mostly poking fun at himself) and encourages self-assessment without negativity.

"I love it when a light bulb goes off in someone's head. When I am teaching or training and somehow I find the opportunity to say the right words so someone sees the situation in a slightly different way, it's the best feeling in the world."

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. Most people have worked for bosses who would not be considered "good leaders." Do businesses and institutions recognize the importance of strong leadership?

Both business and institutions of higher education recognize the importance of strong leadership. In fact, I believe that good leadership would be identified as vital to the success of any organization. One need only do a quick Internet search of "leadership in business" to receive over 85 million results in less than a second to see the relevance. The issue begins with defining "good leadership." Historically, leadership has been viewed as a set of traits that a person either has or doesn't have -- you're either born a natural leader or you're not a leader at all. The problem with this approach is that it assumes there are a finite number of good leaders out there and if you're not one of them, then you're out of luck. Others believe that leadership can be developed and is made up of a set of skills. The problem with this approach is that no one can come to a consensus as to what the list of skills contains. And even if you don't worry about a universal set of skills, but rather identify the skills your organization believes to be important, leadership is still viewed as being composed of "soft skills" (much in the same way that psychology may be viewed by some as a "soft" science as opposed to a "hard" science such as physics or chemistry). As a result, a strong accountant is often promoted to lead the accounting department. The problem with that scenario is that managing accounts is very different from managing accountants. To do this effectively, you need people skills as well as math skills.


2. Can leadership be learned? What are some of the characteristics of good leaders?

Yes, I believe leadership skills can be developed. In HDS we use John Adair's Action Centered Leadership model which emphasizes the importance of balancing three things: achieving the task, building and maintaining the team, and developing the individual. When an organization focuses solely on the task (the "bottom line"), the team and individuals suffer. Likewise, when a leader puts too much emphasis on the individual, the team and the task suffer. Finally, if the team always comes first (such as when every decision must be made by consensus), the task and individuals suffer. The trick is to balance all three and there are certain skills that one can use to achieve this.

3. How has the definition of "good leadership" changed over the years?

That depends on how you measure "good leadership." For instance, if you are driven by the bottom line, then good leadership is probably measured by doing whatever it takes to get the job done — even if that means running over your people to do it. However, if you use Adair's model of task, team and individual, a "good leader" is probably measured by how well he or she meets the needs of all three. It also depends on if you view leadership as a process. If so, then you recognize the importance of followers in the equation. In my opinion, the Gallup Organization continues to conduct some of the most compelling research on Western leadership in recent history. Their book, "Strengths Based Leadership," suggests that followers need specific things from those that lead: hope, compassion, stability and trust. A "good leader" provides these as he or she guides the group toward their goal.

4. You once were part of Up With People. What was your role with the organization? What did you learn from your time with the group?

Would you believe I was a vocal instructor and a show manager? I taught the cast to sing the show and worked with the dance captains and band leader to decide who was performing each night.

That being said, I learned a lot traveling for five years. I learned that my way of doing something wasn't the only way to do it and rarely the best way. I learned to appreciate diplomacy and recognize the power of the words you use. (Try explaining to someone that they cannot perform a dance or sing a song, not because they don't know the steps or can't hit the notes, but because they don't fit in the costume). And when it was all over, I learned that the things that seemed so important yesterday - like an ill-fitting costume - mean very little today. (Would the show have been ruined if she had been able to sing that song in her home town?) Wisdom comes a little late unfortunately. But I guess that's what makes it wisdom. We need to make the mistakes and learn from them before we truly understand.

5. What hobbies or activities do you participate in outside of work? What’s your No. 1 guilty pleasure?

My work makes me think a lot: What does that mean? How do I explain that? What's the best activity to use to illustrate this concept? I like to go home and relax. Often this means watching TV or a movie or reading a book that has nothing to do with leadership or diversity. Or maybe spending some quality time with my partner or dogs. I force myself to exercise (not relaxing) by joining a running group and I’ve just completed the Bolder Boulder in my shortest time ever … s-l-o-w-l-y … but an improvement none the less. Next, I'm planning to beat my record by completing the Denver Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in October.

And I like sleeping in.