Teach Your Leaders Well

August 30, 2010

As the academic year launches, many faculty members will find new leaders in their institutions, whether presidents, provosts, deans or chairs. Most of these leaders will come in slightly anxious, filled with ambitions for a new start, eager to make their enterprise the best it can be and honored by the opportunity to lead. Some of these administrators will finish the year energized by accomplishments, nurturing dreams for the next term; but some will drag themselves out of their offices dispirited, emotionally exhausted, and disengaged — whether they continue in leadership or not. For the sake of all of us, it's far better to help those leaders succeed. To twist Graham Nash’s famous lyrics slightly, teach your leaders well.

The success of our leaders is particularly important in the current budgetary environment. Institutions have less to spend on recruiting and hiring leaders (the cost of an executive search is staggering in both time and money). Many leaders will begin their jobs with instructions to cut budgets, which is bound to alienate faculty. Yet we need people who are willing to take on these important roles.

There are a number of specific things faculty members can do to lead their leaders productively. Of course, we can simply let them sink or swim with what they bring to the institution, but it does not serve us well to be led by drowning administrators.

Discard the presumption of malice. Perhaps the best way you can lead your leaders is to discard the presumption of malice that so often clouds the work of administration. The presumption of malice is a predisposition to believe there is some tainted motivation behind all that a leader does. We see this in comments such as, "Oh, so now you’re a suit," "you’ve gone over to the dark side" or "that's why you get the big bucks." Leaders may take such jibes with good humor, but it becomes clear in time that many people are not just joking. More than a few faculty members appear to think that somehow the switch from faculty to faculty-on-administrative-assignment changes the core of one’s being in some alchemy of character corruption. Leaders become defensive when they must constantly battle this presumption.

Share vision -- yours and the leader's. Leaders come into their work either advocating a vision or realizing quickly the central importance of developing one. A second way to teach and support your new leader is to deliberately share the vision, and at two levels.

First, it is important for you to listen and understand what your leader hopes to accomplish. Really listen. The new leader may have some ideas that are a bit threatening to the way things have always been done around here, but that could be the lifeblood of healthy change for a stuck organization. Too often we sound our barbaric "no!" before a vision has properly germinated. Of course, guarding against the automatic "no" does not mean blindly offering a "yes." Leaders need engaged faculty who will thoughtfully and fairly explore ideas in a shared responsibility for the good of the work.

Just as important, though, look for ways to share your vision with the new leader. I’m not calling for individuals to overwhelm a new leader with 117 separate hour-long sessions of personal visioning. Instead, consider how your vision can become a part of the important conversations in your enterprise. For example, those conversations in faculty meetings that begin to explore the qualities of your student body and your graduates should be informed by the vision you have. It is a matter of moving beyond the important, but banal, matters of faculty life to the rich terrain of vision. To return to Nash’s lyrics again, "feed them on your dreams."

Disagree with grace. At some point in your experience with this new leader, you will have disagreements. You think the decision should have gone one way; it went another. What do we do about legitimate disagreements with the decisions of a leader?

First, defer this statement: "You never listen to us! We have no voice!" It may be that your leader is not listening, but it may be that you are not in a position to hear all the voices that address him or her. If your organization is of any size whatsoever, almost any topic is likely to generate feedback along a full range of perspectives. What you view as the worst idea in decades is likely to be seen by someone else as the innovative hope for the future. That’s just the way it works.

Second, remember that some issues that influence decision-making simply can’t be shared by the leader. You may be operating with partial information, but all the information your leader can reveal at this time. Respect that limitation placed on leaders. Indeed, it is this same discretion and protection that we appreciate when the private information concerns us. Remember also that critics of our leaders often don’t hesitate to argue with a selection of the facts, hoping either to discredit the leader or to force her into a position of compromise with protected information.

Disagree as you would hope to be disagreed with. Provide reasons and arguments, keeping the focus on issues rather than personalities. Remember that when the leader does agree with you, it’s likely someone else is fuming over a misguided decision.

See mistakes as teachable moments. At some point in your leader’s work, he or she will make a mistake. I’m not referring to just a mere difference in judgment; I’m talking a mistake. This is your test. In a way, it’s also a test for the leader, who should own up to a mistake and make things right, whether through an apology or some other action. But the important thing for faculty to consider is that this mistake calls on you once again to teach your leader well. If we extend forgiveness and empathy to our leaders at these moments, they learn that it is safe to act and be responsible for the outcomes. If our response is the relentless and merciless hounding of the self-righteousness, we teach our leaders to hide their mistakes and keep information from the masses.

Of course, a pattern of mistakes is another issue altogether and requires a different response. Lying in wait for that first screw-up, however, is another manifestation of the presumption of malice.

Nurture optimism. There is a fairly strong consensus that optimism is a core requirement for effective leadership. Faculty members must nurture optimism in their leaders by not wallowing in the negatives. One important way to do this is to take personal responsibility for the tone of your work world. It is not enough just to avoid the behaviors listed above. Faculty members must also exercise some positive peer pressure to minimize the negative harping of the few. In the end, even though a leader may be surrounded by a silent majority of supportive faculty members who say nothing, the unchallenged assaults from those whom we cavalierly label as “just that way” will erode the optimism we need in our leaders.

We like to blame the final psychic health and organizational effectiveness of our leaders on their actions, their decisions — in short, on them alone. They are, after all, in charge. But it is time to reconsider how we might lead our leaders to succeed. We all stand to benefit.

Bio

Daniel L. Kain is a professor of teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University, currently serving as vice provost for academic personnel.

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