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Leadership Skills for the New Academic Reality

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Program cuts, reduction in grant support, elimination of academic departments, reduction of organizational layers, centralization of administrative functions, constant changes in technology, and changes in pedagogy are just a few challenges that university and college leaders face today.

In this climate administrators and faculty members must make hard decisions on a daily basis, be aware of opportunities and risk, and be pragmatic in traversing the ever-changing terrain of higher education.

What makes it difficult to lead in higher education is not simply the obvious issues of fewer resources and additional external pressures, but the very nature of the institution itself.  The intransigent culture, turf protection, and multiple missions.  Universities, at times, appear to be fiefdoms, loosely held together by unstated good intentions and assumed commonality of purpose.

This veil of harmony has been sustained by the banal belief that things will, more or less, work out.  Now, as the rubber has hit the road, the pressure is on and leaders are forced not only to make promises and give commencement speeches, but also push agendas.  This calls for a new set of practical skills. At all levels of the university, leaders must be taught how to move agendas ahead in a world of differing mindsets, turf, and limited resources.

Today, at every university and college, new strategic plans are routinely put in place.  There are endless discussions and meetings about where to go. There is perpetual dialogue about aspiration and intention.  All this vision will amount to very little if our academic leaders do not learn the basic skills of moving agendas ahead. We can talk about where to go as long as we want, but we must make sure that at all levels of universities and colleges that leaders and potential leaders have the skills necessary to get there. Nothing will happen if academic leaders do not master the fundamental skills of political and managerial competence.

Political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control, know when to take action, anticipate who is going to resist your agenda, and determine whom you need on your side to push your agenda forward.  Political competence is about knowing how map the political terrain, get others on your side, and lead coalitions.  More often than not, political competence is not understood as a critical core competence needed by all leaders at all levels of the organization. Political competence is often unstated.

Politically competent leaders develop a compelling agenda.  Few people are going to rally around you or your idea because they like you or feel that you are a good person.  The roots of long-term leadership success are in having an idea that serves a real need in the organization, makes sense, and generates excitement among a solid base of supporters.  The best agendas not only raise awareness of key challenges but also lay out a sound approach to achieving the desired results.

Managerial competence is about your ability to sustain the initiative and move toward a goal, and define who is going to do what, who is going to be accountable to whom, how people are going to be evaluated, how you’re going to keep the group together, and how you’re going to deal with obstacles and challenges.  Managerial competence is about your ability to implement and sustain momentum.

Managerial competence implies your capacity to stay focused on the goal while adjusting resources and activities to deal with constantly emerging contingencies.  Leaders who are managerially competent have both close and distant vision—they can deal with minutia while looking ahead and being aware of what adjustments have to be made.

Political competence means developing the ability to rally your team around your agenda. Managerial competence is your ability to support that team and sustain their momentum for results. The challenge is to create those programs that will give university and college leaders the specific skills necessary to move change in these complex settings.

Entrepreneurship and collaboration are essential to the modern university, and both require the skills of political and managerial competence.  Leadership in academic organizations, as in all organizations, requires the capacity to rally people around great ideas and see them through—whether in pursuing grants, centralizing IT, conducting research, decentralizing HR, establishing an off-campus distance learning program, conducting research, or creating a new professional programs.  The successful entrepreneurial leader—academic or administrative—is able to initiate, implement and execute an agenda.

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Obstacles to Change in the Academic Setting

professor-in-reposeUniversities and colleges are faced with unprecedented challenges.  Institutions of higher education cannot be managed by wishful thinking or the belief that everything will “work out.” For years, this traditional mindset allowed academic institutions to perch on an isolated peak in the midst of an oasis. This idyllic state can no longer be sustained.

The reality is simple.  Resources are limited. Expansion is restricted. Technology is changing the core pedagogy. Students and their parents are no longer complacent consumers. In this context universities and colleges must change while adhering to their core mission of excellence in research, teaching, and outreach. They must become agile, entrepreneurial, and creative.

However, the very processes and structures that have allowed universities and colleges to expand in earlier times and under different circumstances are now sources of deep inertia and resistance to change.  It may be the case that it is harder to drive change in institutions of higher learning than in private-sector organizations. What are the underlying factors that cause universities and colleges to resist change?

Intransigent culture

Institutions of higher education have long taken pride in their culture.  From the biggest Ivy League school to the smallest private institution, individual traditions have drawn students, engaged faculty and staff, and sustained the interest and support of alumni.  However, culture and traditions that have been useful in building a sense of community may be a source of resistance to change.

Turf protection

Universities and colleges are riddled with artificial divisions.  Questions of turf arise in schools, departments, and fields. Collaboration and cooperation are the first casualties of turf battles.  Lasting change cannot be put into place when people are overly worried about losing ground, personally or professionally.

Administrative and faculty divide

Administrators have a distinctly different role in than faculty do, and these roles sometimes clash.  Administrators are usually more concerned with the bottom-line and maximizing income and faculty are first committed to excellence in teaching and research, and not as obsessed with how the bills are paid.  It is important to recognize the potential conflict that can be caused by differing administrative and faculty mindsets.

Power pendulum

The power pendulum swings with regularity in the university setting.  Sometimes higher ed gets on a “centralization” kick, where core support functions (IT, HR, Finance) are done by a single office.  Other times higher ed goes in the opposite direction, and gives schools and departments more latitude in how they operate, and allows more decisions to be made on a local level.  Both centralization and decentralization pose different obstacles to change.

Duplication of structures

What is the mission of a university? Ask a dozen people and there will be a dozen answers.  Multiple missions within the university can lead to a duplication of administrative structures—and therefore, a greater acreage of turf that needs to be protected.

It is clear that the 21st century will usher in great change for universities and colleges, and no one is certain what this “change” will look like.  There are built-in obstacles that make change difficult (some may say impossible), but by first recognizing what stands in the way of change, administrators and faculty can begin to deal with the factors that stand in the way of change, and clear the way for the next generation of students.

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Leadership in an Academic Setting

The challenges of 21st century higher education are unprecedented.  In the wake of the recent economic crisis, universities have had to cut programs, eliminate entire academic departments, trim organizational layers, centralize administrative functions, and  move seriously toward distance learning as a core pedagogical technology. In this arena where hard decisions are being made on a daily basis, senior administrators and faculty members need to develop the necessary skills to get things done.

In this context, the core model of what the university is about is sometimes challenged. While it’s easy to maintain that the core values are identifiable and consensual and easy to make a gesture toward excellence in teaching, research, and outreach, the specific priorities that underline each of these are constantly debated.

Now that we’ve moved into a zero-sum age and that hard decisions have to be made, hidden agendas come to the surface. Turf becomes a battleground and a bit of justified paranoia spills into the air. As higher education redefines itself, units within academic settings, universities, colleges, etc. find themselves taking defensive positions.

As we struggle toward cost-reduction, elimination of overlap, and survival in the competitive environment—tensions between the two key components, i.e. administration and faculty, have become more intense than ever before. As leaders put together strategic plans focusing on the future, they face new and complex challenges in implementing those plans. While the writing is on the wall and change is inevitable, the leadership challenge is to know how to move ahead without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

In this context, at all levels of higher education, leadership must show two competencies. First academic leaders need the political competence to make sure they’ve mobilized support for their agenda. Next, they need the managerial competence to make sure that they can go the distance. These competencies are comprised of specific skills that are essential to moving higher education forward.

Leadership training in higher education, as it has been for a long time in the private sector, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

This past year my colleagues and I at Bacharach Leadership Group were given an opportunity by Mary Opperman, Cornell University’s head of Human Resources, to develop Cornell’s high-potentials.

The challenge was clear. How do you take a group of individuals who know their system well and are familiar with the business of higher education and train them in leadership by incorporating their experiences and giving them a systemic appreciation of strategic, tactical, and operational skills to move agendas ahead.

Over a seven-month period, we met nine times as and we focused on a integrated set of skills including the skills for mobilization, the skills for negotiations, the skills for sustaining momentum, and the skills for coaching. The class also took a battery of online courses provided eCornell. The training aimed at assisting Cornell’s high-potentials to become truly entrepreneurial leaders within the university.

In many ways, the higher education setting is more complex than the private sector. In an academic setting, the contingencies are numerous, the constituents varied, the agendas open and hidden, the politics complex, and the management and structure is often unclear, making it a difficult maze for both administrative and academic leaders.

The program we developed for Cornell wasn’t a typical leadership program. It wasn’t based on charisma. It wasn’t based on broad notions of transformational and transactional leadership. It was based on the reality that it’s difficult to get something done in loose organizations like academic institutions. And indeed, if something is to get done, we need leaders that are both capable of getting people on their side and keeping them on their side.

Leadership On the Edge

10 Great Proactive Leadership Links: October 5-9

HowtoSucceed1. Great interview with Henry Mintzberg, author of The Nature of Managerial Work. He talks about his new book and the difference between leadership and management.

2. Detailed and informative read on innovation, its conception, its growth, and its rate of success. The article discusses the concept of creativity as being a small step into the long process of innovation.

3. In-depth look at 4 leadership theories. Great stuff from Academic Leadership.

4. I love finding great examples of leadership in interesting stories. It makes the lesson that much more memorable. So, here’s one from Mom.

5. What can we learn from a bad leader? A lot. Follow this Twitter feed and learn what NOT to do….

BLG Leadership Insights

Academic Leadership Dos & Don’ts From the Field: Interview with Edward Lawler

edlawlerNever before has academic leadership been so challenging. Today, universities more then ever need proactive leaders. Individuals who understand academia, understand the context of universities, and can create change. Academic leadership does however make unique demands. In the next month we will be returning to the theme of academic leadership and the challenges of creating a proactive academic community….