• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Transformational Leadership?

I get uneasy when I read calls for ‘transformative leaders.’  They strike me as taking far too much for granted.

November 20, 2012

I get uneasy when I read calls for ‘transformative leaders.’  They strike me as taking far too much for granted.

Yes, it’s important that leaders listen well, control their own emotional responses, pay attention to all manner of complexity, and stand behind difficult decisions when they make them.  But I can’t help but think that any system that relies on someone to be extraordinary on a daily basis is fragile at best.

Superstars come and go.  Frequently, people build reputations as superstars by making a big splash in a short time, and then either catching a wave or getting out of town before the full consequences come to the surface.  On the rare occasions when a superstar is genuine, the main issue is succession: what happens when the superstar moves on?

I’m much more a fan of sustainable systems.  To my mind, the major challenge facing the next generation of community college leaders isn’t about developing a cohort of superstars, as enticing as that is; it’s developing a sustainable -- which means adaptable -- system in which ordinary mortals can do good work.

That’s both easier and harder than recruiting the next charismatic leader.

In my preferred world, the leadership of the college defines its task as setting the background conditions against which the faculty and staff as a whole can do their best work, given the constraints that actually exist.  That’s hard to do on a good day, given that people have very different (and competing) ideas of what they need, what constitutes good work, and which constraints are to be taken seriously.  Resources are finite and some people will have to be told “no,” which always engenders some drama.  But that’s the job.

In the best of all possible worlds, college leadership would go a step beyond that and raise the level of discussion on campus, as well as off, about where to go next.  Given that college faculty and staff tend to be intelligent, independent-minded people, it would be a waste of a valuable resource to leave all that talent untapped and to attend only to the ideas in the head of the Great Leader.  

That, too, is a challenge.  

Getting that kind of discussion going requires a shared base of knowledge, a willingness to go beyond interest-group politics, and an expectation of civility.  In a fiscal climate in which the first instinct is to circle the wagons, that’s a tall order.  Add the inevitable personality conflicts, problematic histories, and basic misunderstandings, and it becomes daunting.

But I’d rather risk that than risk finding the one Great Leader whose vision will redeem us all.  We’re all flawed; better to let a collection of flaws cancel each other out than to let one person’s blind spots doom the whole.


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