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Are There Any Good Leaders in Academia?

Throughout the business world, we know the names of leaders that impacted the world and the economy, think Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, and Bill Gates. In the world of politics, many names come to mind as being great leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. But, if I asked a large group of people to name great leaders in higher education, they would likely struggle to come up with a list! Why is that? Are there not any great leaders in academia? Well, my simple answer is - academic leadership is different.


In higher education, leaders walk a very different path than those in business, politics or any other industry. I describe being a dean on a university campus as being the ultimate middle manager. You are sandwiched right between a group of faculty and the administration of the University. The faculty assume the dean has the power to control the college and the University assumes the dean needs to get everything approved through them. A wise, old administrator once told me that, "Faculty last much longer than Administrators." He was right. Tenure, continuing contracts, and self-governance of faculty really limit the flexibility a leader has with managing the goals of a college. If the faculty don't agree with you, they can just vote it down through a faculty senate or other like body. The other really important point to remember is that faculty members feel undervalued. When this happens small things take on high levels of importance - think parking spaces, office size, and titles. I once had an assistant that asked me early on in her academic career, "Why is everyone so sensitive here?" Her background was in business where profits were the only concern. But, she recognized right away that in higher education, profits are not the first concern. In fact, they are probably low on any faculty list. People who work in academia seek consensus, freedom, self-control, and collegiality well before money.


One of my favorite books on academic leadership is entitled, Reframing Academic Leadership by Lee Bolman & Joan Gallos. They recommend that every academic leader consider decisions from four different frames of reference. The first is like a factory. What is the best structure and function to produce clarity and results? The second frame is like a jungle. Who controls the power in this environment? Will there be a struggle and who will survive? The third frame of reference is like family. How can you take care of those that work for you? How can you be a servant leader and build long-lasting relationships? The fourth and final frame is a theater or temple. How do we continue to provide hope for a better future? What rituals and values are important to my college? Any, how is my performance being observed/judged by my followers?


So, to get back to the original question, are their any good leaders in academia? Yes! There are some great ones! Any leader in education that is able to navigate the complexities of this environment and still have success is a great leader. Anyone that creates opportunities for growth for their faculty and students is a great leader. Anyone that recognizes the unique challenges of this field and still endeavors to take it on...is likely a great leader. I took on academic leadership because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help students achieve their dreams and I wanted to inspire others to have hope for the future. I always said that I attempted to create a "culture of appreciation" and to lead with honesty and openness. Any now that I have come to the semi-conclusion of my career, I look back and realize that the greatest quality that a leader can provide is hope for the future! Students are the future and they still give me hope!

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