Saturday, December 4, 2010

Imagine there's no...leader

What if there were no Department Chairs.  Or Deans. Or, for that matter, Presidenst, Provosts, or any of the cabinet-level VPs that are part of today's higher education leadership.  Is it possible for a college or university to succeed without titular leaders?

In asking, I am not complaining about any of the leaders at Westminster.  Our campus is fortunate to have a leadership slate that is both hard-working and unusually committed to the institution. But it is the case that at one time or another most faculty and staff have wondered about the usefulness of the leadership corps, both here and on every campus.  And many have speculated that it is leaders, not faculty and staff, who stand in the way of real innovation and real quality in higher education.  So it is worth asking what conditions would be necessary for campuses to imagine there's no leadership.

The business school at Westminster is called the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  It is named after Bill and Vieve Gore, alumni of the college and later the founders of W. L. Gore and Associates.  Gore is renowned both for its products (Gore-Tex being the most famous) but also for its organization and culture, both of which are designed for innovation.  One of the features of the organization is a lack of hierarchy almost unheard-of in corporate America. There are a few "leaders" but most associates play significant leadership roles in proposing, designing, and building products.  So there is certainly no hierarchy. (For a great book on organizations like Gore and their strengths, take a look at my friend Jeff Nielsen's The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations or my colleague Melissa Koerner's blog, "High Performance Organizations." )

 When recruiting new MBA students we often run them through a case on Gore, both as an introduction to our pedagogy and to draw a connection between Gore and Associates and the Gore School of Business.  A couple of evenings ago I led the case discussion at the recruiting event.  Doing so evoked some of my own interests in self-organization and the ways that social movements can emerge without formal leaders.  (Take a look at Steven Johnson's Emergence or Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or, if you can find them, my obscure book chapters on educational change, "Neighborhoods and Networks"  and "Making Moral Systems of Education.")

That same day, the management faculty and I began to talk about how to select a new chair of their department--the existing chair is taking another assignment at the college.  Doing so is no easy thing, since all of the faculty are busy, some have other administrative loads, and few are interested in the combination of tasks that a department chair carries.  It is the overlap of these things--talking about Gore and looking for a department chair--that raised the question about whether higher ed institutions could flourish without leaders.

So how do you come at the question of whether colleges and universities need leaders?  Two ways come to mind--first by asking what those leaders do that would not happen in their absence, and second by wondering whether colleges and universities have the sorts of cultures that support leaderless-ness.

So what do higher ed leaders do?  They may be involved in providing vision or setting strategic direction, though in higher ed those things are usually set through a long collaborative process where "leaders" often take a behind-the-scenes role.  More frequently they resolve disputes, make decisions based on policy, build friends for the institution, serve as a sounding board for faculty and staff, watch over budgets, attend to academic and co-curricular programs, and most importantly, share information that advances the institution.  Without a long exposition on each of these roles, I will simply point our that nearly all of these tasks could be done without formal leadership, if the organization and systems and culture were right.

But are they?  Almost certainly not.  And here is one of the real ironies of higher education.  The cultures of colleges and universities are laissez-faire, especially on the academic side of the house.  Faculty have wide latitude to teach, grade, select courses, and make plans.  (In fact a big part of leadership in HE is to find ways to merge the individual interests of faculty into a more-or-less coherent education for students.)

We often think of this arrangement as an example of leaderless-ness, or at least flat organizations.  But it is exactly this culture that makes "academic leaders" necessary, for the laissez-faire culture of higher ed means that little of the work of academic leaders gets done unless someone is assigned to do it.  Information doesn't get shared, connections do not get made, programs get overlooked, etc. So the culture of higher education tends to be flat, individualistic, and disconnected; the culture of HE leadership exists to overcome that disconnection.

Now it is worth asking whether the current model of academic leadership enables disconnection or responds to it.  Likely both.  But given the external requirements on leaders--from donors, parents, students, accreditors, and others; it is unlikely that the changes in campus culture will be able to come from them.  So if faculty and staff are interested in reducing the leadership layer, perhaps the first step is for them to find more ways to work together, taking on more of the tasks of leaders so that the need for leaders falls away.

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