Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflections on interim leadership and willingness

Since the beginning of June I have served as the Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  Doing so has given me plenty of opportunities to think about (and experience) interim leadership.

Interim leadership raises all sorts of questions--about knowledge (how much do you have to know about something to provide leadership there?), change (is an interim period of leadership a good time to bring about change or a bad time?), and the value of an outside perspective (when is an outside perspective good?  what is it good at?). 

But for me the most interesting question, and one that I understand only in limited ways, is "where does the authority of an interim leader come from"?  This is a real question in politics, where a "lame duck" President or Congress is considered weak and ineffective at best, and prone to self-dealing at worst.  And it is a real question in business and higher ed as well, where the tenure of most leaders is brief enough that they can be considered "interim" whether or not their title includes it.

Non-interim leaders seem to get authority in several ways.  Their position gives them authority because of their location in the organization and the official power that comes from it.  Their permanence gives them power because their colleagues all know that in most instances they will have to deal with the leader again in the future.  And their experience brings them power, as they amass knowledge, connections, and stories that allow experience to buttress their institutional influence.

An interim leader has none of these options--their position is by definition brief and limited ("interim" means "meanwhile" or "in-between" in Latin, a perfect description of the location of the interim leader), they have neither permanence nor experience.  Instead, it seems that an interim leader's authority depends overwhelmingly on the willingness of other members of the organization to create it.

I fell this everyday in my role, where my colleagues, for many reasons, are willing (in the active sense of the word "willing") to have me in the interim dean position.  I am deeply grateful to them for this willingness, both because it makes my work much better, and because I think it is a key component of healthy organizations.  Flourishing organizations rely on the impetus of their members to move.  When those members willfully work with an interim leader they are granting their energy to the organization, trusting that their efforts will extend beyond the interim leader's term of service.  Not a bad thing at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Great question! I think leaders in both interim and long-term leadership jobs are more successful when they emphasize socialized power(influence that advances the common good) and avoid personalized power (influence intended to advance one's self-interest). Most followers are pretty good at figuring out which type of power is favored by a particular leader, in my experience.

Leaders in both temporary and long term leadership roles also need credibility; they need to be perceived as honest, competent, forward-thinking, and inspirational.

My take on your question--Where does authority come from in interim leadership jobs?--is that the same qualities and skills that make one successful in a temporary leadership position also make one successful in a long-term job, because "legitimate" authority is significantly overrated. When leaders have too much power, they tend to abuse it, which reduces their effectiveness in the long run. In other words, I think a good leader is a good leader--permanent or not. In fact, maybe if all leaders led as if they were in an interim job--using mainly socialized power and their personal credibility to get things done--the world would be a better place.