Monday, November 19, 2012

 

Transformational Leadership?


I get uneasy when I read calls for ‘transformative leaders.’  They strike me as taking far too much for granted.

Yes, it’s important that leaders listen well, control their own emotional responses, pay attention to all manner of complexity, and stand behind difficult decisions when they make them.  But I can’t help but think that any system that relies on someone to be extraordinary on a daily basis is fragile at best.

Superstars come and go.  Frequently, people build reputations as superstars by making a big splash in a short time, and then either catching a wave or getting out of town before the full consequences come to the surface.  On the rare occasions when a superstar is genuine, the main issue is succession: what happens when the superstar moves on?

I’m much more a fan of sustainable systems.  To my mind, the major challenge facing the next generation of community college leaders isn’t about developing a cohort of superstars, as enticing as that is; it’s developing a sustainable -- which means adaptable -- system in which ordinary mortals can do good work.

That’s both easier and harder than recruiting the next charismatic leader.

In my preferred world, the leadership of the college defines its task as setting the background conditions against which the faculty and staff as a whole can do their best work, given the constraints that actually exist.  That’s hard to do on a good day, given that people have very different (and competing) ideas of what they need, what constitutes good work, and which constraints are to be taken seriously.  Resources are finite and some people will have to be told “no,” which always engenders some drama.  But that’s the job.

In the best of all possible worlds, college leadership would go a step beyond that and raise the level of discussion on campus, as well as off, about where to go next.  Given that college faculty and staff tend to be intelligent, independent-minded people, it would be a waste of a valuable resource to leave all that talent untapped and to attend only to the ideas in the head of the Great Leader.  

That, too, is a challenge.  

Getting that kind of discussion going requires a shared base of knowledge, a willingness to go beyond interest-group politics, and an expectation of civility.  In a fiscal climate in which the first instinct is to circle the wagons, that’s a tall order.  Add the inevitable personality conflicts, problematic histories, and basic misunderstandings, and it becomes daunting.

But I’d rather risk that than risk finding the one Great Leader whose vision will redeem us all.  We’re all flawed; better to let a collection of flaws cancel each other out than to let one person’s blind spots doom the whole.

Comments:
Superstars come and go. Frequently, people build reputations as superstars by making a big splash in a short time, and then either catching a wave or getting out of town before the full consequences come to the surface

There's also a problem with what James Fallows called "the New Jesus problem." The new guy is supposed to solve lots of entrenched problems that are a result of fundamental difficulties, and if or when he or she fails, then the search is on for the next New Jesus.

Some people who are dubious "superstars" might simply be good at avoiding dysfunctional situations or orgnaizations.

 
"In my preferred world, the leadership of the college defines its task as setting the background conditions against which the faculty and staff as a whole can do their best work, given the constraints that actually exist."

Amen, Dad. Best years of my life. And our job is to create a similar environment for our students.

"... college leadership would go a step beyond that and raise the level of discussion on campus, as well as off, about where to go next."

That is the same challenge one has in the classroom, particularly the liberal arts classroom, which might be why many faculty decry the appearance of the DCM (Doctor of College Management) who cannot run a classroom of bright faculty except by being the Sage on the Stage or, worse, a "Dear Leader".

There is a fine line between a "Great Leader" and a "Dear Leader".
 
I think we need to redefine what "transformational" means in the context of higher education. It doesn't have to mean being a rockstar. A transformation leader can be the person who finally gets that long overdue curriculum overhaul off the ground and with full faculty support. Or the person who create a "staff senate" with the same power as a faculty one. They don't have to walk on water, just be willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work.

We just finished a series at my church on being a transformational church and the keys to that were; being open and flexible to new ideas when the old ones stopped working, meeting people where they were and looking for their needs, and going forward in unity. Among other things. I don't see why those same ideas can't be applied on a campus.
 
As one of my favourite writers phrases it (Mcmaster Bujold): The gods don't thirst for flawless souls, but for glorious ones. Hence, a flexible framework where one can fail and learn is a necessity.
 
This post reminds me of Khurana's book Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs.
 
This is one of the best things I have ever read about leadership and completely captures my feelings (which I was never able to articulate clearly enough) about "transofrmational leadership." Brilliant.
 
See, but pining for a superstar leader changes it from my problem to other people's problem. We don't have to fix the system and make hard choices; you just keep bringing in poor candidates! And in the end, isn't it knowing who to blame that's most important? Of course it is.

Structural changes are haaaaaaaaard and I don't wanna make 'em. Fixing a broken system rather than blaming the person set up to fail, why, that's un-American, sir.
 
But pining for a superstar leader changes it from my problem to other people's problem! We don't have to fix the system and make hard choices, you just keep bringing in poor candidates! And in the end, isn't it knowing who to blame that's most important?

Of course it is.

Besides, structural changes are haaaaaaaaard and I don't wanna make 'em. Fixing a broken system rather than blaming the person set up to fail, why, that's un-American, sir, and I will not have it.
 
Anonymous@5:20AM wrote:
meeting people where they were

I like that. We often talk about "meeting students where they are" as a teaching principle, so why not meeting faculty where they are?
 
Brother of Dean Dad is spot on.

A good system allows an average person do a good job. That should be our focus.
 
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