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"The organizational adaptability required to meet a relentless succession of challenges is beyond anyone's current expertise. No one in a position of authority -- none of us, in fact -- has been here before.”
-- Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School

The challenges facing higher education over the next decade will be saturated with ambiguity and complexity, and they are coming at us fast. We will need the very best leaders we can get to meet these challenges effectively. The COVID-19 pandemic, an unanticipated “black swan” event, has impacted all sectors of our society, especially higher education.

Having just a high-performing president’s senior team or cabinet simply will not be enough to meet the demands of the day. That is not a criticism of the senior leaders we already have, most of whom are smart, dedicated and hardworking. But they just don’t have the capacity or bandwidth to deal with the pace of change, complexity and uncertainty we will experience in the near future.

We will need highly effective and distributed leadership throughout our campuses, not just at the top. That means we’ll have to identify and develop many new leaders, especially emerging ones. And that will require the commitment of resources -- money, leadership involvement and attention, board support, great teachers and facilitators, researchers, and leadership consultants.

In fact, leadership development is the single most important human investment our campuses will need to make if we in higher education are to meet and manage the complex challenges facing us. If we fail to build a broad, diverse and deep leadership bench, many of our campuses will be in big trouble.

This is not hyperbole or crying wolf, as we only have to look back over the last decade to reflect on the extraordinary changes taking place in higher education. They include, for example:

  • The growing skepticism about the value of a college degree;
  • The relentless defunding of public higher education;
  • Dramatically changing demographics;
  • A trillion and a half dollars of student debt;
  • The closing and mergers of many smaller campuses;
  • Aging facilities and deferred maintenance costs in the hundreds of billions; and
  • The emerging and powerful impact of artificial intelligence on the operational side of institutions.

I could easily list a score of other problems that are coming toward us quickly. They all will be difficult, and to pretend that top leaders alone will be able to deal with all is folly.

I suspect that during the current pandemic crisis, many senior teams hunkered down and tried to “solve” the impacts of this terrible crisis by themselves. But moving forward, we in higher education will need to open up our discussions more widely and seek the advice and perspectives of multiple constituencies.

An Emerging Role for Boards

We will also need to make huge investments in training, teaching, action research, effective supervision, mentoring and coaching of huge numbers of leaders dispersed throughout our institutions. And perhaps most important, college and university trustees must engage senior leaders in a conversation about making leadership development of campus administrators an institutional priority, even a strategic goal, that lives explicitly in the institution’s strategic plan.

Board members must hold presidents and cabinets collegially accountable for consciously and explicitly developing new leaders. They should pay attention to how administrative leaders are developed and provide advice and perspective to those who are designing and implementing leadership development programs and practices at their institution. The outcome of such important and strategic conversations would be the development of robust, research-based, coherent and visible leadership development processes.

One of the myths that often lives large at the senior level is the notion that “we are already leaders and therefore don’t need to be developed.” That is rarely true, because good leadership is a process of continuous learning and growth. Any senior leader who thinks that they don’t need improvement is arrogant, and arrogance is a deadly leadership disease. Another myth is that attending national conferences is leadership development. Conferences might be helpful at times to stay current on issues and trends in higher education, or help you develop a network, but you don’t actually learn how to lead by attending them.

I hope that that the following recommendations encourage a thoughtful and strategic dialogue between trustees and senior campus leaders about identifying and developing upcoming administrative leaders. That’s not to suggest that board members get involved in day-to-day campus operations -- they should stay let the president and cabinet run the institution. But trustees need to elevate the conversation around developing leadership throughout the college or university they help govern.

The board should conduct a leadership development accountability conversation at least once each year. This is where the board and the president’s cabinet would meet for an extensive and collegial conversation about how distributed leadership throughout the campus is being actively developed. Some of the questions for consideration could be:

  • As a senior team, how are you developing your own leadership skills? That might be taking a course, attending a leadership program, using an executive coach, undertaking a 360-degree feedback process or talking with other senior teams.
  • How are you assessing the quality of your managers’ supervisory practices? Are you soliciting feedback about management effectiveness? When do you discuss management best practices? Is there an opportunity or vehicle to assess campus climate or engagement? Do you get managers together to discuss institutionwide issues?
  • How are you developing your direct reports? Examples might include thoughtful stretch assignments, participation in leadership development programs, assigning mentors and coaches; facilitating a 360-degree process, and so on.

The board must invest in the campus leadership development process. That will require allocating financial resources to design and deliver quality programs; instituting tuition remission policies for courses, programs and conferences; and hiring quality faculty and external consultants to teach creative problem solving, cultural competence, change management, emotional intelligence, resilience, courageous decision making and a host of other important topics.

It will take time and research to design and deliver carefully crafted, coherent and value-based leadership programs. You want to avoid off-the-shelf programs that simply don’t connect with the distinct context and culture of higher education or your particular institution.

The good news is that many board members lead companies and organizations that invest heavily in their own leadership development processes. They innately understand that effective leadership is a competitive differentiator for their organizations.

Board members should help mentor the emerging leaders on their respective campuses. Many trustees have held or currently hold top positions in the business, government and nonprofit sectors. They can provide wisdom, insight, strategy and perspective for the selected emerging leaders on a campus.

Those of us who have been mentored well understand how much an interested and effective mentor can contribute to a person’s personal and professional growth. Having board members mentor new leaders models the way for leadership development and communicates to campus stakeholders that leadership is an institutional priority.

Trustees can also host periodic virtual dinner conversation with emerging leaders as well as each meet virtually with a small group of mentees to discuss leadership issues and share concerns and challenges. Most emerging leaders are desperate to discuss the tough stuff about leadership and not just hear platitudes and war stories.

The following are some suggested questions that I have seen used in leadership programs that have helped create deep and authentic conversations.

  • What was a leadership failure you experienced, and how did you deal with your emotions about it?
  • Who are some of the leaders you admire? Why do you admire them? What are the qualities they exhibit that inspire you?
  • How did growing up in your family influence your leadership style today?
  • What are some of your nonnegotiables as a leader? What values or principles do you hold sacred?
  • Have you faced an ethical dilemma, and if so, how did you deal with it?
  • Does faith play a role in your leadership?
  • What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve ever faced, and how did you respond to it?
  • To whom do you go for support and help when things get difficult?
  • Where do you find the courage to make the tough decisions? Can you share an example of a hard decision you had to make? What did you learn from the experience?

If trustees can be authentic in these conversations, younger leaders will learn invaluable lessons. If the president’s cabinet can participate in these mentoring conversations, that would be an added benefit.

I should also add that anyone beginning a leadership program should be aware of the term "stylistic invisibles." The concept comes from leadership expert Linda Hill from Harvard University. Hill tells us that we are surrounded by smart, dedicated and hardworking people who often are passed over for leadership opportunities because they don’t fit our model of what leaders look like. Too often we see potential leaders as charismatic, quick on their feet, assertive, extroverted and, if we are being honest, white and male.

What's important to recognize is that many of these quieter professionals have huge leadership potential and already contribute mightily to our organizations, but they are essentially invisible to us because they don’t fit our picture of what a leader looks like. Our embedded leadership models prevent us from seeing their rich potential.

Another dynamic that lives large in the identification and selection of potential leadership candidates is the notion of “comfortable cloning.” This is where we select certain people to be developed who are just like us. We easily relate to their gender, race, background and ethnicity, and they feel comfortable to us, so we select them to mentor, coach and develop. We need an expanded view about who deserves our investment.

Trustees can request a yearly leadership scorecard. The president and senior team, working with the human resources department, should not only demonstrate how they are building the leadership capacity of their staff but also show real outcomes from the investments being made.

One can go down a rabbit hole regarding assessment, and I am not an assessment scholar to say the least, but the board should be able to read about how participants have experienced the institution’s investments in, for instance, coaching, mentoring and other leadership development programs and courses.

It would be interesting to develop simple assessment processes that show how participants have improved their performance on the job. For example, have they used what they have learned to improve their effectiveness? This is where faculty members can make great contributions by designing and delivering authentic appraisal processes that could measure what matters. Peers and managers can also be interviewed to see what positive changes they have seen with their colleagues after participating in leadership development processes.

Trustees can help the campus community engage in a conversation about institutional values. About three years ago, I received a call from an experienced university president who was transitioning into his second presidency. He was concerned about his institution’s public value statement, which highlighted 12 different values. “I have no idea where these came from or what they mean,” he told me. Upon investigation, we found that the statement had been crafted by a brand consultant hired by the previous president.

The new president wanted our support to organize a campuswide discussion about the lived, distinctive and enduring values of the institution. We worked closely with the HR department and the senior team and created a meeting process that could be facilitated by insiders. As a result, a group of administrative and faculty leaders led a series of conversations across the campus for a semester. They engaged several hundred stakeholders, including students and alumni, and identified five core values for the institution that truly resonated with people.

An institution’s leadership development processes and programs should be informed, if not infused, with its stated values. Just think if hundreds of colleges designed an effective, meaningful process to identify their own distinctive values. It would be a game changer, because then they could implement leadership processes that were fully informed by their values.

For example, if teamwork is a stated institutional value, then campus leaders would receive training in how to be the very best team members possible. Great team members don’t happen by luck or accident or because they are nice people. Becoming a high-performing team is arduous and difficult work. You have to experience being on a team: working together to accomplish something meaningful and difficult, providing honest feedback to each other, owning your mistakes, communicating effectively, listening carefully, showing support, dealing effectively with conflict, and exhibiting emotional intelligence.

For more information on campus values, I recommend an article in the Harvard Business Review by Patrick Lencioni, “Make Your Values Mean Something.” People throughout the campus, including board members, should read this short paper together and discuss its implications for their campus.

To conclude, this list of recommendations is obviously not exhaustive, but I hope it starts a conversation about one of the most important issues facing higher education. Our trustees can, and should, play a key role in raising the issue of distributed leadership development, resourcing it wisely and helping us grow higher education’s future leaders.

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