I’ve been at the NACCE (National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship) conference in Charlotte, North Carolina for the last couple of days. It has been a remarkable and remarkably packed set of discussions, but I’ve been particularly struck by what I see as two different ideas of what “leadership” means in the context of making community colleges more entrepreneurial.
To be fair, both “leadership” and “entrepreneurial” are subject to different definitions. For now, I’ll just define the latter as “taking initiative” and call it good. That could mean revenue-generating enterprises, or it could mean improving the quality of things that colleges already do. It could refer to discrete programs in “how to start a business,” or it could be a broader curricular focus on helping students envision moving from the classroom to the application. As my panel colleague and new friend Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out separately, we should also recognize that college entrepreneurship programs could serve a valuable role in certain communities of color in which there’s already a good bit of unofficial market activity going on, like people cutting hair or fixing cars under the table. In those cases, the issue isn’t moving from theory to practice; it’s helping practitioners navigate the worlds of taxes, licenses, regulations, and employment law. Bringing under-the-table businesses into the open could allow them to grow, and therefore to hire. We don’t usually use the word “entrepreneurship” for that, but we should. In taking “theory to practice” as the norm, we’re implicitly taking a certain group of students as the norm, and we should think twice about that. The point struck me as both brilliant and retrospectively obvious, in the way that brilliant points are.
But it became obvious quickly that two very different definitions of leadership are floating around, the first largely oblivious to the second.
The first, which was delivered quite energetically by several college presidents, was that cultural change for a college had to come from the president. (Some of them mentioned Boards of Trustees, but most didn’t.) By this argument, a president sets the tone and the agenda, and everyone else takes their cues accordingly. By implication, the college follows the tone and agenda set by the president. If the president ignores, downplays, or rejects an entrepreneurial approach, then it will not catch on. In this view, the first order of business is to “sell” entrepreneurship to presidents.
The second, which I found myself slipping into in my own panel, assumes that initiative can come from lots of different places, and that the job of the president and the administration more broadly is to set the climate in which that kind of initiative can thrive. In this view, the task of the administration isn’t necessarily to set the agenda, or at least not in the same amount of detail. It’s more about moving deliberately towards a climate in which experimentation is valued, failure (in certain cases) is taken as a learning experience, and everyone agrees on a certain indeterminacy as to what an end product will actually look like.
The second brings obvious challenges of its own. Budgetary and regulatory constraints are real, and some of the first dreamers to step up to the plate will have trouble with that. Sometimes, worthy goals will conflict with each other. Some decisions are dictated by circumstances and/or external forces; from a distance, that can look like administrative fiat. And it can be a fine line between broad goals or parameters and specific recommendations.
But even allowing for all of those, I see real value in the second view. Colleges are, by definition, collections of very smart people. That’s an amazing resource for crowdsourcing. Instead of treating the faculty and staff as underlings to be directed, I’m guessing a college would get much better results by treating them as creative people who have something to contribute. That doesn’t mean running the college for the benefit of the employees -- eyes on the ball, people -- but it certainly means not reducing the college’s vision to that of any one person, no matter how wise or well intended.
In discussions of “entrepreneurship,” it’s easy to slide into a sort of Great Man of History story in which the Heroic Leader sees what others don’t and moves heaven and earth to make a better future. Of course, just breaking eggs doesn’t guarantee an omelette; sometimes you just wind up with a bunch of broken eggs on our faces. If we want sustainable change -- change that outlasts any one leader -- then it needs to have deeper roots. Tending to those roots is a crucial task of leadership. Enabling initiative may not be as immediately exciting as announcing it from the mountaintop, but I see it working a lot better.