¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “I really believe that the model of the single leader who carries everything themselves, who is heroic-seeming and so on, is super toxic, and outdated, and not working.”1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This clear articulation of an idea that I’d spent months fumbling my way toward was given to me by one of the folks who responded to my call for interviews about academic leadership. This respondent, who chose to remain anonymous, is by any estimation a leader within the higher education universe, but one who has spent a great deal of time and energy and influence trying to create an alternative to that model of the singular individual steering the ship. That respondent is far from alone, either in their assessment of the toxicity of what we understand leadership to be within colleges and universities today, or in their determination to find a better way. But we can all look around at our institutions — not to mention the broader culture in which they are embedded — and recognize how ingrained the individualist model of leadership is, and how hard it will be to change.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 My goal is to lay the groundwork for exactly that transformation: to inspire the conversations and the gatherings and the plans and the actions necessary to reinvent academic leadership as something generative instead of toxic, something functional and flexible instead of obstructive. It should go without saying that I can’t create that change in higher education on my own — but how we can create that change together is the focus of this book.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Leadership is a pretty odd subject for a professor of literature and digital media to find herself pondering. This certainly wasn’t on the list of projects I imagined lay in my future as my career began, but then neither did I imagine any of the strange turns that my career has taken: from writing conventional journal articles to exploring blogging as a scholarly form; from studying television and digital media to thinking about the ways networked communication might transform academic life; from being an unknown professor at an isolated small liberal arts college to being the first director of scholarly communication for the largest scholarly society in the humanities. I had no inkling that I’d find myself running a nonprofit scholarly network with more than 30,000 users around the world, nor that I’d have the opportunity to serve as president of the board of directors of a small nonprofit organization. But neither did I foresee the changes that would overtake institutions of higher education — or indeed the world — in that time: deeper and deeper cuts in public funding for colleges and universities; astronomical expansion in student and family educational debt; a growing disbelief in education as any kind of social good beyond the individual, market-oriented credential it can provide.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 Nor could I possibly have imagined that we would have found ourselves, in summer 2020, watching as the leaders of colleges and universities struggled to decide whether to reopen their campuses in the midst of a deadly pandemic, or again during another wave the following year, seeing their desperation to have a “normal” fall semester, as if hospitals nationwide weren’t struggling to cope with their COVID-19 caseload.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We are experiencing a crisis in higher education that is bound up in a failed model of campus leadership. And all of us who care about the future of our colleges and universities — and particularly those of us who work on campus — need to reconsider that model and our role in it. We need to find new ways of imagining what leadership on campus could look like, and new ways of cultivating and empowering new kinds of leaders, if we want the missions of our institutions — the projects of knowledge creation and dissemination, of research and education in service to a better world — to thrive.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This is the goal of Leading Generously: to help those folks who want to transform their institutional cultures figure out how to begin. There are a lot of us on our campuses who want to see our institutions align their actual ways of working in the day-to-day with the missions, visions, and values that we espouse. Folks willing to do the hands-on work of helping to build more generous institutions. While I’m expressly focused in the pages ahead on the context of colleges and universities in the United States, my hope is that the ideas in this book may also be useful to those who are thinking about transformation in institutions of higher education outside the US, as well as to those thinking about the need for change within a broader range of kinds of institutions and organizations: educational and cultural, public and private, commercial and not-for-profit. The only requirements for those institutions are that they understand themselves to be mission-driven, and that they are composed of people — whether their staff, their constituents, or their communities — who are willing to take the time, and make the effort, to reimagine and refashion their ways of working.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Those people are an institution’s leaders, even if they’re not the ones we conventionally think of that way. We often associate leadership with those select few executives at the top of an institutional hierarchy, those with the authority to steer the ship. Rather, as I’ll discuss further in the pages ahead, part of the reconception of leadership that we need in order to escape the toxic model that so dominates our institutions today is understanding that everyone in an institution not only has the potential to lead but plays a key part in shaping the nature of leadership itself. Anyone can begin the process of creating transformative change, change that can model better ways of being and that can help make the institution more supportive and sustainable.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This conviction is in part what has led me to write this book. Traditionally, “how to lead” type books are written by those who hold, or who have held, highly visible roles as positional leaders. They’re present or former university presidents or chancellors, or corporate CEOs, or otherwise have direct experience of the responsibilities and challenges involved in directing a complex organization, and the advice that they share is valuable for those who wish to follow in their footsteps, who wish to obtain and succeed in such a high-level position. I haven’t held such a positional leadership role on campus, at least not beyond that of department chair (for a very small and uncomplicated department) or center director (for a new research unit with a tiny budget), and as a result I don’t seem like an obvious choice for leadership advice. I have been privileged, however, to have worked directly with a number of mid-level managers whose ideas about institutional transformation I’ve been able to witness taking root. And through them, and through the work that they enabled me to do, I’ve experienced a very different side of leadership, one that I explore throughout this book.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Leading Generously is thus working to counter several pieces of conventional wisdom about leadership — not least that toxic model described by my respondent: the leader as singularly powerful individual, setting the institution’s course from atop the org chart. That model is damaging not just to the institution, which lies at the mercy of such an individual’s successful navigation of an increasingly complex economic, cultural, and political landscape, but also to the person in that role, who must convincingly appear omniscient and invulnerable, and who can only inevitably fail. What I hope that you come away from this book with is a way of understanding leadership as collective and collaborative rather than individual, and therefore potentially originating anywhere within the org chart where someone has ideas about how to make things better. If we can come to appreciate and authorize the collective potential that exists within our institutions, we can begin to create institutions that are not only more generous but also more resilient.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Another bit of conventional wisdom that this book is working against, however, has to do with the relative powerlessness of individuals in their encounters with the structures and systems of contemporary life. This sense of our powerlessness derives both from some highly problematic sources — those who benefit from existing structures and systems and would prefer everyone else just let them do their thing — and from some misunderstandings of recent critical theories regarding the ways that power operates in contemporary culture. Those theories — including arguments about race and racism; about sex, gender, and misogyny; about class and wealth — describe the issues they explore as systemicrather than individual. That is to say, they argue that real change requires social transformation. It requires building institutions, creating governments, enacting laws, reshaping economies in ways that work toward equity rather than supporting privilege. And all of that demands something much larger, and much harder, than personal transformation — but we misunderstand the import of those theories if we assume they mean that individual action doesn’t matter, that each of us is powerless. The individual matters, deeply: just perhaps not the way we think.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 When I argue that the complicated process of culture change can begin anywhere in the org chart, that any person (and not just the heroic leader) can be a change agent, I don’t mean to suggest that the problems we face originate with individual behavior, or that any given person’s change of heart can change the world. But if our goals include building institutions that are structurally capable of supporting and facilitating the work of creating better communities and a better world, individuals have to find ways to become empowered, because the institutions we have today aren’t going to transform themselves.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 It’s a matter of where we locate agency, of who has the ability to make significant change in the world. If we understand power as residing in the structures and systems that govern our lives, or as the unique privilege of those with rank and status within those structures and systems, there is little agency left to the rest of us.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 It’s certainly true that the problems we face are enormous, and that one person without structural authority can’t do much to change the world — but groups of people can.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 3 Building those groups starts with individuals who decide to do more, to put what agency they do have to work in solidarity with others. Those people are leaders, whatever their job title or position might suggest, and it’s their leadership this book seeks to support.
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¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 So what do I mean when I talk about leadership? I don’t associate leadership with rank or status or role; I don’t connect it to authority; I don’t think it has much to do with power, or at least not the kind of power that we associate with individuals. In fact, I don’t think leadership is something one possesses, but rather something one practices: a habit of mind, a way of being, an understanding of the relationship between the self, others, and the world. It’s a commitment, and a commitment that anyone can demonstrate, from any point in an organization’s hierarchy.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Of course, this is not how most of us experience leadership in our working lives. When we think of those who lead, many of us focus on the people at the top of the organization. Those folks up there — the presidents, the chancellors, the executive directors — are our institutions’ leadership: they’re highly publicly visible, and they have the clout and the authority to make a difference in the ways our organizations function.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Perhaps. But I tend to think, more often than not, that referring to the individuals at the top of an org chart as “leadership” is often a misleading euphemism. It’s true that many of those people got to where they are because they are perceived to be leaders. But you’ll notice that the cause and effect in the previous sentence is reversed from what you might expect: they got the jobs because they are, or appear to be, leaders; it’s not the jobs that make them leaders.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 In fact, most of what comes to us from above in our institutions and organizations is management rather than leadership. And lest this start to sound like the overly clever theorizing of a humanities professor with no sense of what the Real World of Business demands of leaders, let me assure you that my argument that leadership is profoundly misunderstood in contemporary culture is backed up by a lot of the literature produced by experts in business and management.2 For instance, John P. Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus at Harvard Business School, argued in the Harvard Business Review that management and leadership are distinct if complementary modes of organizational action. In his framework, management is focused on “coping with complexity,” on organizing and directing the people and resources necessary to conduct an organization’s work. Leadership, by contrast is about “coping with change,” the more ambiguous processes of setting new directions and helping move people toward them.3 The distinction is significant for Kotter, not least because of his conviction that most organizations today are “over-managed and underled.”4 In fact, we have arguably been organized and disciplined into an inability to cope with — or worse, an inability to create — change.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Similarly, Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, notes that “the very word ‘leader’ has come to refer largely to positional authority, a synonym for top management.”5 The danger in this, for Senge, runs deep, not least because, as he argues, “the prevailing system of management is, at its core, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work harder and harder to compensate for failing to tap the spirit and collective intelligence that characterizes working together at their best.” His goal, in guiding institutions to become what he calls “learning organizations” is the development of “an alternative system of management based on love rather than fear, curiosity rather than an insistence on ‘right’ answers, and learning rather than controlling.”6 This alternative system of management, and its emphasis on learning — so completely at odds with what most of us experience in our organizational lives — has a lot in common with the kinds of leadership that institutions of higher education need today.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Kotter and Senge, while visionary, are not wholly outliers in management culture. Edgar Schein and Peter Schein, co-authors of Humble Inquiry and co-founders of the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute, describe a similar conception in their preface:
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Our culture emphasizes that leaders set direction and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask. Yet it is such leaders who may need Humble Inquiry most because intricate interdependent tasks require building positive, open, and trusting relationships above, below, and around them, in order to facilitate safer and more effective task performance and innovation in the face of a perpetually changing context.7
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 As a culture, we have collectively placed an enormous emphasis on the singularity of leadership, on the leader as a strong individual who possesses something we call “vision.” In fact, “vision” has turned into such a leadership cliché that it’s become the determining focus of search processes for upper administrative positions, despite the fact that candidates usually know little at best about the institution they seek to lead. As the interviewee I quoted at the beginning of this chapter told me, “if someone comes in [during the search process] and tells you what their vision is, I don’t think you should hire them.”8 Similarly, Marjorie Hass, author of A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education, notes that she has known leaders “who announce a vision as soon as they land on campus. These are usually people who are more focused on the kind of leader they are than on the kind of institution they are leading.”9 No candidate or new hire, no matter how visionary, can possibly know your institution and its complexities well enough from the outside to tell you where you ought to go.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 Moreover, “vision” is in this structure always a top-down affair. As Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie argue, answers to the deepest challenges faced by institutions today don’t always emerge from the chief executive’s office, and yet everything about the hierarchy built around that office reinforces our belief that it is the seat of wisdom:
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In short, the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with that vision is bankrupt because it continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: The authority figure is supposed to divine where the company is going, and people are supposed to follow.10
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 This is, in Heifetz and Laurie’s view, both a failure to understand the complex nature of the challenges that institutions face today and a failure to understand the primary work of leadership as connective and interpersonal rather than authoritarian and managerial.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Even more, our understanding of leadership, as Rae André suggests in Lead for the Planet, stems from the individualistic and possessive biases of western culture. As she notes, the dominant strain in conversations about leadership, including in business schools, is determined by “competency theory — the study of individual traits and skills.”11 Within that theory, leadership is understood as a skill that an individual person either has or develops, and that competency in leadership is something that the individual then puts to work by themselves.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 2 Even more, as with all such competencies, leadership skills are not imagined to be equally distributed. There’s a decided skew toward whiteness and maleness and wealthiness and a certain elite educational background not just in our external assumptions about those we take to be leaders but often in our internal assessments of our own capacities for leadership. Too many of us look around at the chaos of our lives, and the relative lack of individual agency we experience in our jobs, and decide that we’re in no place to consider ourselves anything like leaders, much less to enact leadership.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 And that’s a problem. That may in fact be a contributing factor in many of the problems that higher education faces as a sector: that the vast majority of us feel closed out of leadership by our roles or by our identities or by our personalities or by the systems within which we work. The thing that makes it a problem has less to do with some sense that we’re not living up to some notion of our individual potential than with the reality that the institutions within which all of us work are deprived of the collective ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and conviction that could guide them.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 I want us to change that.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 My conception of leadership, as I noted above, focuses on habits of mind and ways of being, modes of engaging with the self and the world. To get more specific, leadership is a commitment to bringing people together to create change. In fact, the primary problem with our understanding of leadership today is that it’s imagined as an individual enterprise, when we need to be focused on the collective instead. Sayeed Choudhury noted in an interview with me that while “the person leading, or even the people leading” in any given organization are important, we need to think about “the culture, the systems, the processes in place, the policies,” all of which he collectively described as the “leadership infrastructure.” Like the other kinds of infrastructure we more commonly imagine — roads, electricity, communication systems — the leadership infrastructure in a given organization, often easy to overlook, bears within it the possibilities for making things happen. It also presents the “bounds and constraints” that limit that work. “You can’t push this organization beyond the boundaries of what its leadership infrastructure can handle,” he pointed out. The most important work of collective leadership must be focused on expanding those bounds and constraints, on “getting away from that hero leader model” and instead ensuring that “leadership has permeated throughout.”12
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Leadership of this sort, that is focused not on individual authority but rather on creating a more inclusive, more resilient infrastructure, asks us to model and to create the conditions for better ways of working, not just by or for ourselves but in community with those around us. Beyond creating that resilient infrastructure, however, leadership calls upon us to use the culture, the systems, the policies and processes at our disposal in order to bring out the best in others and help them become leaders too. Leadership focuses on developing the relationships necessary for collective action. It’s connective, and compassionate, and generative. And it can emerge anywhere in an institution, if cultivated.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 I choose the metaphor of cultivation pointedly, with deep thanks to Beronda Montgomery, whose brilliant book Learning from Plants explores the ways that an understanding of botanical life can help us develop more productive, more supportive, more collectively attuned ways of working in human communities. As Montgomery argues, such an understanding encourages us to focus on remediating the environments within which we work together rather than attributing the difficulties some individuals experience in taking root and growing in those environments to internal deficits. This approach also calls upon us to develop a new kind of leadership “vision,” one that can
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 adapt to changing circumstances, and … enable leaders to see the potential collaborations and benefits in diverse communities. This approach contrasts with the traditional gatekeeping approach, in which leaders determine who gains access via conceptualizations and assumptions about who can function and thrive in a particular context. Instead, this distinct form of leadership is sense driven and environmentally adaptive; it attends to individuals while at the same time tending the ecosystems in which these individuals exist. I call this form of leadership groundskeeping, in recognition of what we know about the conditions that plants need to successfully thrive.13
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Groundskeeping rather than gatekeeping. Cultivation rather than control. These organic metaphors allow us to think about leadership as something that is grown rather than something that is inhabited, something that requires an awareness that our institutions and organization are more akin to ecosystems than they are to the org charts we draw to represent them. Our leaders must work in concert with their ecosystems, rather than operating from the management perspective that used to be referred to as “command and control.”
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 But are our institutions as they are currently structured capable of fostering such an organic mode of leadership? Some are, but it’s very likely taken significant work to make them so. For most of our institutions, the truth is quite the opposite, I’m afraid. It’s not accidental that the respondent quoted at the beginning of this chapter referred to the most common model of leadership in higher education as “toxic”; it not only doesn’t work the way we’d like, but it also tends to poison the ground around it and prevent anything new from taking root.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Part of the problem, as that respondent noted, is the organizational structure predicated on the single-leader-at-the-top. That leader is given both too much responsibility and too much authority, a situation that’s counter-productive for them and detrimental to the institution. As Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge argue, our organizations ask and expect too much of the folks at the top of the org chart.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Top executives, the thinking goes, should have the intellectual capacity to make sense of unfathomably complex issues, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the future that generates everyone’s enthusiasm, the operational know-how to translate strategy into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster commitment to undertakings that could cost people’s jobs should they fail. Unfortunately, no single person can possibly live up to those standards…. the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be.14
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Ancona and her colleagues present instead the notion of the incomplete leader: as executives recognize that they can’t be everything to everyone, they might come to rely on others to help fill the gaps.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 “Well, of course,” I can hear every president and executive director the world over respond: “This is why I have a leadership team!” And yet the vast majority of those leadership teams function as reinforcement for the centrality of the chief executive; as the phrase has it, they serve at the pleasure of the president. The president’s vision and authority remain dominant, and the executive team remains more hierarchical than collaborative.15
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 3 It’s all but impossible for many of us to imagine alternatives to these structures, so thoroughly ingrained are they in our culture. So here’s a thought experiment: does your institution or organization really need a president? What if the vice presidents were collectively charged as a true leadership team, dependent upon and responsible to one another and to the rest of the institution for its success? How could they work collectively to make decisions? How could they become collectively accountable?
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 2 Again, I can hear the responses: “Have you met our vice presidents? Most of them despise each other, and at least a couple are only there because of their long-standing relationships with the president.” This is exactly the problem that needs solving. If there were no president, those long-standing relationships would not be a factor — and if there were no presidency to ascend to, the stakes in battles among members of leadership teams would diminish. Moreover, provided the right infrastructure, they would be required to cooperate in order to succeed. Ancona and colleagues describe such a model as employed in a large Dutch consulting firm:
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 A few years ago, it replaced the role of CEO with a team of four managing directors who share leadership responsibilities…. Clearly, for [this] senior team model to work, members must be skilled at engaging in dialogue together…. because each director can veto a decision, each must thoroughly explain his reasoning to convince the others that his perspective has merit.16
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 In such a shared leadership model, the team’s interdependence requires each member to develop not just their relationship with the boss, but their mutual relationships with one another, relationships that form the basis of the institution’s success.
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 And this is true at every level throughout our institutions: our collective success at the department level, the college level, the university level, all depends upon our becoming and acting as a collective, upon our developing and relying on the relationships that can enable us to establish and achieve the shared goals we hold most dear. And that process — determining what our shared goals are and should be, and how we should go about striving toward them — requires a kind of interrelation that is not merely personal but also, and of necessity, political.
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¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 I adopted a quotation from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed as an epigraph opening the last chapter of Generous Thinking, which focused on the need for rethinking the university in order to make it a more just institution: “This is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics.”17 That idea — that we cannot simply innovate ourselves out of the problems we face in higher education today, but instead that we must reckon with the underlying inequities and disparities that led us here, and keep us here18 — resonated with me immediately, but it’s taken me a long time to arrive at some of its deeper implications. This is in part due to my tendency to read the word “politics” superficially. It’s true after all that we need to appeal to the voting public and the representatives they elect in order to effect real transformation in the legal and economic frameworks within which higher education is today constrained.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 But the import of McMillan Cottom’s use of the term “politics” here cannot be sufficiently contained by thinking about the realm of the electoral or the governmental. Nor do the more casual ways it’s used to describe the often internecine machinations among groups within an organization — “office politics” — reveal what’s really at stake. The politics that can transform the university requires a deeper understanding of the relationships that drive our institutions, and so must encompass more than the structures and policies that govern them.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 In Justice and the Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young defines politics as “all aspects of institutional organization, public action, social practices and habits, and cultural meanings insofar as they are potentially subject to collective evaluation and decisionmaking.”19 The word “potentially” is doing a lot of work here; in most of our lives, those structures, actions, practices, and meanings are not subject to a kind of decision-making in which we’re encouraged to play a real role. However, Young later notes that “the concept of justice coincides with the concept of the political,” arguing that every effort must be made to enhance collective evaluation and decision-making if we are to create the possibility for just institutions.20 And just institutions must be our goal.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 1 In most colleges and universities, the potential for “collective evaluation and decisionmaking” is contained within the structures of shared governance on campus. Those bodies, including a wide range of working groups, committees, and senates, serve to gather faculty and (in some cases) staff opinions and perspectives on many questions concerning the operation of our institutions. On a few such questions — for instance, the curriculum — those bodies exercise a kind of ownership, and the decisions issuing from them have the mark of authority. On many campuses, however, and on many issues, faculty and staff governance is advisory at best: votes are taken, decisions are made and communicated, and that’s it. The institution’s administration has the freedom to take those resolutions up and act upon them, or to ignore them at will. In such circumstances, shared governance can devolve into busywork, or worse; as Evviva Weinraub Lajoie told me, the processes of shared governance performed without a commitment to sharing power can turn into “a toxic cudgel that doesn’t benefit anybody.”21
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 In many cases, the collective deliberation and decision-making bodies that form the core of shared governance have become less political, in Young’s sense, than they are bureaucratic, functioning in order to function rather than bearing the potential for change. Bureaucratic organizations, in Young’s understanding, are tasked with implementing and enforcing policies, but in most cases they do not have the power to set those policies, and they have little leeway in how they are applied. “Bureaucracies,” Young notes, “are distinguished from other forms of social organization in operating according to impersonal rules that apply in the same way to all cases.”22 The importance of these rules and the processes and functions through which they are applied should of course not be dismissed; as Young goes on to note, bureaucracy as we experience it at the level of the state developed in order to replace individual sovereignty and its less rational whims with the rule of law. Similarly, the principles and processes of shared governance serve to mitigate the unjust imposition of a top administrator’s opinions on faculty and staff functions. But an overreliance on and even subjugation to those principles and processes runs the risk of making the bureaucracies through which we operate seem politically neutral and eternal and unchangeable.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 As Young points out, “the values of bureaucratic organization” indicate that decisions should be made “according to merit.” And the reliance on merit in bureaucracy is, she notes, among “the important positive developments in the history of social organization.”23 What is missing, however, is a deep engagement with and debate concerning the meaning and determination of merit itself. Our institutions have devised metrics and measures and processes that allow us to believe that merit is a quantifiable thing we can assess outside the realm of the political. But merit as a category is always and inevitably ideological, in the sense that it provides a common-sense explanation that transforms highly contingent relations of domination into something natural or neutral. As Young argues:
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 The rules and policies of any institution serve particular ends, embody particular values and meanings, and have identifiable consequences for the actions and situation of the persons within or related to these institutions. All of these things are open to challenge, and politics is the process of struggle and deliberation about such rules and policies, the ends they serve, and the values they embody. The ideology of merit seeks to depoliticize the establishment of criteria and standards for allocating positions and awarding benefits.24
¶ 55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 That depoliticization sounds like a good thing — making the awarding of benefits as objective a process as possible — up until we remember that the individual people involved in defining and implementing these processes are not and can never be objective. We are all inescapably subjective, bringing our own experiences and perspectives to everything we judge. What depoliticization means in the bureaucratic, and particularly in the meritocratic, is a closing-off of the opportunities for debating the criteria, the processes, and the objectives through which we might keep notions like merit from becoming forms of oppression. As it becomes depoliticized, bureaucracy errs in treating the rules as the ends that it seeks, rather than a means to those ends. Even more: the bureaucratic reliance on notions like merit fails to consider either the degree to which pre-existing privilege paves a path toward (or is even mistaken for) meritoriousness or the self-reinforcing impact of merit being assessed precisely by those who have previously been determined to have merit.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 3 Take, for example, peer review. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the problems endemic to today’s conventional processes of peer review, and I won’t rehash all of that argumentation here.25 But one key point has to do with the role that anonymity plays in the process. As is frequently noted, the process of anonymizing the submissions that undergo peer review for publication in journals and by university presses was established in order to mitigate the influence of reviewer bias based on the gender, race, or institution of the author. Similarly, reviewer anonymity was designed to permit reviewers of lower career status to address the work of higher-status scholars without fear. These goals were admirable — placing the focus on the quality of the work and allowing that quality to be assessed without reserve — and their success was appreciable. Author anonymity permitted the work of minoritized scholars to gain purchase in the highest levels of academic discourse, and reviewer anonymity allowed new perspectives to counter established orthodoxies. What anonymity did not do, however, and cannot do, is eliminate bias, which will always find ways to creep back in around the edges. Critiques of subject matter, or methodology, or cited sources become proxies for status based on identity and serve as arguably neutral means of reinforcing hierarchies within fields. Again, my intent here is not to discount the importance of establishing and following the rules and procedures that have developed around scholarly work and its communication. Rather, I want to note that those rules and procedures can never provide for the fullness of justice, precisely because the rules and procedures are treated as if they are sources of objectivity, when they have inevitably been designed and are always implemented by individuals with specific subjectivities.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Moreover, trying to change the rules and procedures to make them more objective is laudable, but cannot help but introduce new areas in which objectivity is in question. Ultimately, as Young argues, the goal should be not to exclude subjectivity or “personal values” from decision-making, but rather to make that subjectivity and those personal values fully part of the decision-making process itself, as these values are “inevitably and properly part of what decisionmaking is about.”26 So rather than trying to make peer review more bias-free — a worthy but ultimately fruitless process of depoliticization — what if we were instead to accept its deeply political nature, to make it more transparent and participatory, and to ask authors and reviewers alike to surface and contend with their values as a part of the process?
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Similarly, we might think of the ways that tenure and promotion processes and policies are implemented. These bureaucratic formations have been designed to protect candidates from the personal whims or animus of administrators as cases move through the approval hierarchy. And yet that bureaucracy has the potential to interfere with justice in its requirement that all cases be treated identically rather than respecting their particularities and differences. As Young notes of the gap between bureaucracy and truly democratic collective action, “Decisions and actions will be evaluated less according to whether they are right or just than according to their legal validity, that is, whether they are consistent with the rules and follow the appropriate procedures.”27 This is encoded in the appeals process for promotion and tenure denials at many institutions, where the acceptable range of inquiry is restricted to whether the process was properly conducted, rather than whether the final determination was just, much less whether the process as constituted was capable of producing a just result.
¶ 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 1 Changing the ways that peer review is conducted in order to surface rather than avoid reviewer bias, one might reasonably argue, would make peer review political. And similarly changing the grounds for appeal of tenure decisions to include the justice of their outcomes — or even better, changing the criteria for promotion and tenure such that they surface and embrace their subjectivity, treating each case on its own terms rather than assuming an unearned neutrality — would likewise make those decisions political. And yet it’s clear to just about everyone who has ever been through such a process, especially from a non-dominant position within the academy, that those decisions and processes have always been political, and will always remain political. And that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. We should not want to remove politics from the ways that we engage with one another on campus, but rather to create an environment in which we can embrace politics, rendering all of us able to participate wholly, fully, with the most open and honest intent in the processes through which our lives are inevitably structured.
* * *
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 So what does this have to do with leadership? I raise the question of the political because all of the ideas and bits of advice that follow in this volume require politics.
¶ 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 1 Let’s return for a moment to the distinction I drew above between management and leadership. If management, as Kotter noted, is focused on “coping with complexity,” on ensuring the optimal functioning of entangled structures and organizations, we might begin to intuit a relationship between management and bureaucracy. Establishing rules and processes, ensuring that they’re followed, remediating them when they fail, all require careful management. In associating management with bureaucracy I do not at all mean to dismiss the importance of good management, as anyone who has ever worked with a poor manager can attest; as one leader I talked with reminded me, there’s a real value in keeping the trains running on time.28 But if management is about ensuring that things get done with maximum efficiency, it’s also about eliminating or at least minimizing everything that can interfere with that efficiency, including — and perhaps especially — dissent. Management is in this sense necessarily depoliticizing; it requires foreclosing debate and smoothing the way for prescribed action. This is one reason why the good management needed for making the status quo function often cannot contend with change: when an organization tries to manage change, it too often ends up with a manufactured consent that squelches the political and moves decision-making outside the realm of debate. This is true not just of institutions but of a wide range of projects and organizations that seek consensus. As Evviva Weinraub Lajoie framed it, “I struggle with the open-source ethos of ‘if you want to engage, just show up!’ It’s really not that easy” — not least because just showing up is hard when dissenting voices aren’t welcomed.29
¶ 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 If leadership, as Kotter contrasts it with management, focuses on “coping with change,” good leadership must of necessity be political at heart. Leadership does not just require accepting but in fact embracing and facilitating the kinds of open debate, dissent, and even struggle necessary for making the best possible decisions about what an organization should do and how it should do it. Leadership requires making room for the broadest possible participation in decision-making, and it requires developing the relationships and coalitions necessary to ensure that the resulting decisions are understood and embraced. Leadership is about creating the conditions necessary for the many people within an organization to contribute to and feel ownership of the organization’s future. And that work is utterly dependent on and congruent with politics.
¶ 64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 This is of course not to say that all leadership can be conducted by consensus, and in that, the need for an embrace of the political nature of leadership becomes even more acute. Positional leaders in particular are all too frequently called upon to make decisions that are bound to be unpopular with a significant portion of the people they affect. In these cases, it’s all the more important that the decision-making process be transparent — that those affected have real cause to believe that their input has been heard, and that they are given insight into the process by which and the reasons why the final choice was made. That knowledge won’t make everyone happy — a difficulty with which leaders must be ready to contend — but it creates the best possible chances for avoiding the breaches of trust that undermine relationships and make leadership impossible.
¶ 65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 1 Change is hard, and coping with it requires more than just positional authority; it requires deep relationship building, a willingness to listen, a commitment to transparency, and an ability to inspire and maintain trust. All of these aspects of leadership might remind us of the reasons why the most effective politics is often conducted at the grassroots level, through real engagement with people and their needs and fears in the day to day.
¶ 66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 2 The chapters that follow explore a set of keywords for thinking about a new model of leadership in higher education that centers collaboration and connection. Throughout, I draw on my own experiences as well as the wisdom of the higher education leaders I’ve had the privilege of speaking with over the couple of years.
¶ 67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 The result is a picture of what it could be to lead an institution toward transformative change that is less about project- and people-management and more about building shared solutions to shared challenges. Making such possibilities real depends on our collective commitment to thinking generously about what our institutions could become and thinking with solidarity toward those who work for and depend on them.
¶ 68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 As a result, though the preface to this book promises a focus on the how of institutional transformation, that how is more focused on relationships than it is on plans and processes and schedules and meetings. If you are genuinely connecting with the people around you, if you are listening to them and open to their ideas, if you have built a network based on trust and support, you can together determine the plans and processes and schedules and meeting structures that will best help support you toward your collective goals.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- ¶ 69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 1
- What do you consider your most formative experience of leadership? This could be an experience in which you were the leader, or in which you worked under someone else’s leadership. What were your goals, and how did this moment of leadership work toward them?
- What experiences do you have of problematic or even failed models of leadership? What kept them from working as they should?
- What lessons have you taken from these experiences of leadership? What advice would you give someone who was about to take on a leadership role?
- ¶ 70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 1
- Respondent 3, Interview ↩
- It’s of course just as important to note that many of our bad ideas about leadership likewise fester in and emanate from business schools. ↩
- Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” 38. ↩
- Kotter, 37. ↩
- Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 319. ↩
- Senge, xvii–xviii. ↩
- Schein and Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, xiii. ↩
- Respondent 3, Interview. ↩
- Hass, A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education, 95. ↩
- Heifetz and Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” 77. ↩
- Andre, Lead for the Planet: Five Practices for Confronting Climate Change, 3. ↩
- Choudhury, Interview. ↩
- Montgomery, Lessons from Plants, 149. ↩
- Ancona et al., “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” 179. ↩
- Or, I should say, the president’s vision and authority remain exclusive to an extent: the president is hired by and responsible to the board, and as the board’s sole employee the full weight of that governing body’s pleasure or displeasure rests on the president’s shoulders. There’s another book to be written about remediating the toxic relationships between institutions and their boards, but it’s not one I feel equipped to write. At least not today. ↩
- Ancona et al., “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” 187. ↩
- McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, 182. ↩
- In fact, Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies encourages us to consider whether it’s the inequities that are keeping us stuck, or whether we are in fact recreating the inequities over and over again through our processes of institutional formation. ↩
- Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 9. ↩
- Young, 34. ↩
- Lajoie, Interview. ↩
- Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 69. ↩
- Young, 69. ↩
- Young, 211. ↩
- See Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence. ↩
- Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 79. ↩
- Young, 77. ↩
- Respondent 15, Interview. ↩
- Lajoie, Interview. ↩
This is a great point. One limitation of CommentPress is that I couldn’t add section headings to group chapters — “Leadership” is really Part One of the book, and Part Two is all of the keywords that follow. But even if I had been able to place those markers, making the flow from People to Onward would be a help.