“Our students will become the leaders our society needs. What I hope is that they apply the gift, science, and art of critical thinking and think about other perspectives and why that’s important. And I hope they do all of that with joy, enthusiasm, and a thirst that can’t be quenched.”
Mary Kay Chess, Ph.D., believes in the power of uniting people in the pursuit of knowledge.
“There is stupendous innovation and creativity in coming together,” Dr. Chess says. “Boxes are turned inside out and containers no longer exist when you get diverse voices talking.”
Dr. Chess is faculty in the Leadership and Management program at Saybrook. She began teaching at Saybrook eight years ago, implementing systems thinking and leadership into the Mind-Body Medicine program.
“You need to know yourself and your values—no leader can do it all,” Dr. Chess says. “I believe that we lead from every seat. You really need diverse perspectives and skills as well, because in life we’re dealing with many, many complex cases.”
She initially started her career in the healthcare sector and has held numerous leadership roles in higher education systems. These positions have given Dr. Chess relevant experience on what it takes to effectively manage others, and has instilled in her a passion to amplify diverse ideas and voices.
“The way I define diversity is that you open up a safe space for as many different beliefs to be in respectful dialogue at the table,” Dr. Chess says. “I tend to not go to categories—I go to perspectives. I go to beliefs. And those are the two things that I believe allow all other categories we attach to diversity to be acknowledged.”
This desire to connect different voices and to continue her work in the healthcare realm led to the creation of Coffee and Tea Chats in 2015. These chats, created for executives of similar services organizations, connect individuals from across the United States for an hour-long phone conversation.
She speaks of these conversations as innovation in action, since oftentimes these executives are competitors. The executives discuss developing and growing their leadership, as well as the issues they face in their practices, like how best to listen to constituents, work with diverse populations, and address short-term and long-term needs.
“It’s similar to what we do in academic situations—get folks together for peer coaching and conversation,” Dr. Chess says. “Because the real purpose is executives talking to executives—like-minded people sharing solutions and opportunities to gnarly problems. When you build an atmosphere of safety, people feel comfortable teeing up really complex and hard issues.”
At Saybrook, Dr. Chess is also working to call attention to the voices of those she believes should be heard. Wanting to give a fellow faculty member, Jimmy Jia, the opportunity to share his expertise on sustainable energy management, she created the first pilot of an Energy Leadership immersion course. As leadership is a universal need for organizations across the globe, Dr. Chess uses the study of it to connect to other fields.
A true leader in practice and in theory, Dr. Chess states that a quality leader listens deeply, thinks about long-term consequences of actions, and most importantly, knows their limits. She enjoys sharing her knowledge and incorporating the lessons she learned professionally into the classroom through real-world examples and case studies. Her belief in the power of connection and collaboration in creating solutions has influenced the way she uses her network as well.
“My professional and academic work helps connect people with big ideas,” Dr. Chess says.
In the Saybrook community, Dr. Chess celebrates the opportunity to continue to build the next generation of leaders in her students.
“When I went to teach my class on values at Saybrook’s Residential Conference, I was amazed at the stories that poured forth from students about how they’ve stood in their values in the past,” Dr. Chess recalls. “I was so proud of being in the presence of leaders who are going to make a difference in the world. All of us felt a sense of community. There was such clarity and commitment in the room you could almost touch it.”