Sunday, June 01, 2014


Thoughts on “Positive Academic Leadership”

Most management books are completely useless in the context of higher education.  They’re written from a corporate perspective, so they assume things like the presence of carrots and sticks, the possibility of directed turnover, and considerable decision-making autonomy.  Within a parsimoniously-funded, tenure-based, unionized, public sector institution, things simply do not work like that.  

Positive Academic Leadership, by Jeffrey Buller, starts with a much more familiar context, and offers some useful ideas on how to get the best results from within the world in which I actually work.  (Hat-tip to Lee Skallerup Bessette for calling attention to it.)  I can’t say it’s groundbreaking, but it’s clarifying, and that counts for something.

Buller’s book is more of a portrayal than an argument.  That’s not necessarily a flaw; sometimes an indirect approach gets around the knee-jerk defenses that a direct attack would provoke.  The core of the book is a portrait of The Positive Academic Leader, with some pretty strongly implied contrasts to what is usually seen on the ground.  

In Buller’s telling, a positive academic leader is one who is open to the possibility of good things happening. That means treating failures and setbacks as learning opportunities; rejecting witch-hunt and “pin the blame on the loser” rituals when things go wrong; and being relatively circumspect about trying to control either people (through micromanagement) or events (through the fetish of strategic planning).  Instead, the positive leader spends time and energy on trying to create a workplace climate in which people are engaged in constructive experiments.  Buller even draws on Csikszentaihalyi’s notion of “flow” as a deliberate goal: when things are going really well, people are so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they actually lose track of time.

I found myself nodding along repeatedly.  “Negativity is never overcome by more negativity” (p. 97). Yup.  “The very insistence on always being right is itself a weakness.”  (p. 156).  Yes, yes, yes.  “Negative leaders cause people to give up and stop trying.” (p. 27).  Been there.  And my personal favorite, “uncertainty means possibility” (p. 198)  I know educated adults who haven’t figured that out.

To his credit, Buller admits that a positive style is a conscious choice that has to be ratified over and over again.  It’s a deliberate decision to play the long game, and to sacrifice the big splash in the short term for a hard-to-define, but real, payoff over time.  To that end, he notes that one of the key skills of positive leaders is _not_ always going with gut reactions.  As Annie Dillard once put it, the inner life is frequently stupid. One of the keys to maintaining a perspective that’s open to the emergence of positive change is deliberately slowing down in the face of provocation, and taking the time to reflect on it.  Okay, Professor Doe is screaming at me over what seems like nothing.  Instead of either screaming back, or writing him off as disturbed, it would be more productive to try to figure out why he’s doing it.  Where is it coming from?  Why would a sane, intelligent person fly off the handle over nothing?  What is this really about?  Can I do something about what it’s really about?  Reading the personal attack as a solvable problem, rather than as a threat to be squashed, is a conscious choice that takes real emotional strength.

Buller correctly notes that to people with a more command-and-control orientation, a positive style can look like weakness.  It’s actually a difficult, rare, and admirable combination of self-control, resolve, and conscientiousness, but from the outside it can be subtle.  If you measure passion only by the volume at which someone shouts, the positive leader may look disengaged or passive.  But if you measure passion by the discipline over time that leads steadily to better results, positive leaders come out looking good. And the people who report to them thrive.

Buller mentions that there are times when the positive style has to give way to something more directive, such as in catastrophic circumstances.  But he leaves out the more common case, which is the need to follow progressive discipline on sustained poor performers.  Maintaining a positive climate while ratcheting up progressive discipline is the management equivalent of landing a triple axel while holding a baby.  I don’t blame Buller for leaving it out, but I wish he hadn’t.  Quick bursts of emergency command are one thing; gradual raising of pressure is another.  Maybe the next book.

In a sense, the people who most need to read Buller’s book aren’t the ones who already mostly practice it.  They’re the ones who wonder how it is that the relatively soft-spoken person who rarely barks commands somehow keeps getting good results.  To those folks, I recommend Buller’s book highly.  Read it, reflect on it, and reflect on it some more.  It may explain a few things.

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