UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Lessons in leadership from ‘committed sardine’

When one tiny fish turns on a dime, a school of thousands may follow, says Karla Mongeon-Stewart, VP for Finance and Operations

UND Vice President for Finance and Operations Karla Mongeon-Stewart outlines her approach to leadership as part of UND’s 18:83 Speaker Series. Photo by Joe Banish/UND Today.

At first glance, sardines and leadership might not seem a natural pairing.

But look again, because the minnow-like fish can, in fact, serve as a metaphor for the importance of authenticity and challenging the status quo.

And those traits are indispensable to leadership, said Karla Mongeon-Stewart, UND’s vice president for Finance and Operations, who shared her approach to the practice last Wednesday in the latest 18:83 Speaker Series address.

Each week, the series invites a campus or community leader to deliver an address at the foot of the Memorial Union’s Social Stairs. The speakers time their talks to last about 18 minutes and 83 seconds – a number that coincides with UND’s founding year.

Mongeon-Stewart emphasized that a combination of hard work, perseverance and staying true to one’s self can lead to previously unimagined career paths.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago ‘Karla, where will you be in your career?’ I would have never in a million years have said, ‘I’m going to be the vice president of finance at UND,’” she said. “I never thought I had it in me, I didn’t think I was that type of person.”

She also attributes part of her success as a leader to being a “committed sardine,” a metaphor coined by New Zealand born author and education consultant Ian Jukes. In developing the metaphor, Jukes contrasts the movement of a blue whale – the largest mammal on earth – to a school of sardines of similar mass.

While a blue whale can take up to five minutes to turn 180 degrees, a school of sardines can change direction almost instantly, according to Jukes.

That’s because in contrast to a blue whale – a large rigid mass capable of weighing more than a fully-loaded Boeing 737 – each sardine in a school moves individually. Jukes posits that it takes only a small number of sardines swimming against the flow to create friction for the rest of the school and change its direction.

Mongeon-Stewart said Jukes’ metaphor is particularly apt when discussing higher education, an area with a traditionally slow change of pace.

“Higher education can feel an awful lot like a blue whale – we take a long time to change and turn around,” she said. “But we’re now at a point where we don’t have time to think through things the way we used to, and we need a few good sardines to help make the changes that are necessary.”

Of course, being a sardine is not for everyone, Mongeon-Stewart said; otherwise, “we would never get anything done.” But the candor and self-starting spirit of “sardines” are vital to helping an organization move forward.

“If you know a sardine, support them if you believe in the change they are trying to make,” she said. “It only takes a few to get what you want done.”

Other tips on effective leadership from Mongeon-Stewart:

  • Be honest, even when it’s hard: Specifically, don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer to something.
  • Don’t make decisions for selfish reasons: Think about how your decision impacts everyone within your organization, not just its bottom line.
  • Don’t spend time working on things you’re not good at: If you cultivate your talents rather than dwell on your weaknesses, you’ll be able to share those talents with the world.
  • Say you’re sorry: If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize. Mongeon-Stewart says she has “never been in a position where apologizing went bad.”
  • Have fun at work: Enjoy the people around you – get to know your co-workers.
  • Laugh at yourself: No leader is perfect, which means no one should take themselves too seriously.

Mongeon-Stewart concluded by reiterating the importance of being your authentic self, as doing so allows everyone to develop and share their unique talents.

“One of my favorite sayings in the world that I use all the time with my kids is, ‘Be yourself – everyone else is taken,’” she said. “All of you have something amazing to contribute to your world, family and community. Don’t be afraid to share that.”

The 18:83 Speaker Series will conclude on Wednesday, May 1, with UND Head Football Coach Bubba Schweigert.

Attendees gather at the Memorial Union’s Social Stairs for an insight into effective leadership from Karla Mongeon-Stewart, vice president for finance and operations at UND. Photo by Joe Banish/UND Today.