1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “We all tend to think of our organizations as being more like machines than living systems,” writes Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline — and even when we don’t consciously think of our organizations as machine-like, we nevertheless treat them as if they were.1 One of my goals in this book is to change that, to encourage a serious reckoning with the fact that while our institutions too often feel to us like cold, mechanical entities, they are in fact made up of actual people and operate through the real interactions among them. There are two implications to understanding our institutions as living systems: first, that without the people they comprise and the people they serve, our institutions are hollow, useless structures. And second, that creating change within our institutions must be a people-focused act.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 In the first part of this book, as I discussed the transformation I hope to foster in our understanding of leadership in higher education, I talked a bit about why I focus on individuals as agents of change, a notion that may at first glance seem to contradict recent arguments about the locus of power in contemporary culture. It is, without question, the institutions and systems that hold sway over our lives that require transformation. These are the structures that enact and sustain privilege and oppression, that keep us ignorant of one another’s struggles, that keep us competing for resources and support. These are the structures that must be reimagined and rebuilt in order to foster the kinds of generosity, equity, and integrity we’d like to see in the world. But those structures, understood as machines rather than living systems, come to possess a kind of impersonal, imperturbable inertia, the brick wall that not only foils all attempts at change, but, as Sarah Ahmed explores, has the potential to cause grievous harm to those who bash themselves against it.2 That’s certainly how many of us experience them. And those structures are not going to transform themselves; they are all too self-reinforcing.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Changing our institutions is going to require reframing our perspective around people, in two regards: first, we must recognize that the people within them are what keep the institutions going, and second, we need to find the people willing to plan, execute, and follow through on the work of transformation. The initiative for that work — the leadership that makes it possible — requires people, acting as individuals and building the coalitions and communities that can create something new.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 And that leads me to this key claim: those people and coalitions and communities are far more important than any of the other structures and processes and functions that make up our institutions. The relationships they foster and represent are the source of our institutions’ humanity, and without them, even the most ostensibly mission-driven not-for-profit may as well be a soulless private equity firm. None of our structures and processes matter at all unless they are at the service of people, rather than the other way around.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Generous leadership must place people first. In fact, the focus of leadership should always be people; if the institution is the focus, the action is management.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As I noted in the previous chapter, this distinction is not meant to discount the importance of management. Good management of an institution is without question key to its survival. Any organization must have appropriate budgetary processes and governance structures and personnel policies if it is to survive. And of course one requirement for managing an organization well is a willingness to make hard choices when they are necessary for the organization’s survival. But as Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale note in Unmanageable, those choices are often predicated on several bad assumptions:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 We’re being asked as bosses to make choices between the well-being of the communities we live in and the company we help run. In almost every case, the idea that those things are in conflict is a lie. We should all refuse to play that game. But in the cases where they are in conflict, or where we’re forced to pretend that they are, we have a choice to make. You have a choice to make. Companies don’t have intrinsic value. People do.

Choose people.3

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 Choosing people is key, because the mere survival of an institutional structure is not enough. The structure without the people is a lifeless shell. If an institution is going to become genuinely capable of generosity, of both fostering community internally and supporting rich connections to communities externally, it must prioritize the well-being of the people in and around it. The relationships and connections with and among them are necessary to ensuring that a mission-driven organization or institution can remain true to its mission, especially where that mission is centered around the public good.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 It would be rare to find an organization — especially a non-profit organization — that doesn’t claim to put people first. Even in the corporate sector it’s a bit of a commonplace to hear things like “people are our business,” emphasizing with pride the role that “human capital” plays in the organization’s success — all without hearing the deeply dehumanizing effects of terms like that: human capitalhuman resources. People are not adjectives in the service of capital. In order to lead, it’s crucial to understand who you’re leading: people, not resources. The terms need to be flipped, not just rhetorically but structurally: we must understand our organizations and institutions as existing in service to the human, the humane.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 To put it plainly: Leadership requires leading people rather than leading institutions. It requires seeking at every turn to reframe your sense of purpose around the needs and concerns of those who contribute to the institution. It requires working to maintain a clear vision of the humanity not just of those whom the institution serves but also of the real role of the structures through which they are served. It’s entirely too easy for the success of those structures to become a top priority, to come to stand in for our purpose. Such structural success can appear to be an end in itself, when in fact it is not — and should not be — anything more than a means for achieving our actual goals. That status is significant enough; the instruments through which we work toward our purpose need to be healthy if we are to succeed. But ensuring the health of the instruments before — or worse, at the expense of — the health of the people doing that work will not only undermine our purpose, but is in and of itself inhumane.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 We have seen such inhumane focus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A few university presidents early in 2020 publicly expressed their determination to re-open their institutions to in-person instruction as soon as they could, minimizing the potential risks for students and ignoring altogether the dangers to staff, to faculty, and to their families and communities. Such calls to return to instruction as usual were frequently framed as a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver the high-quality educational experience they deserve, we must do whatever is necessary.[See Daniels, Jr., “A Message from President Daniels Regarding Fall Semester.” As he notes, “Closing down our entire society, including our university, was a correct and necessary step.  It has had invaluable results.  But like any action so drastic, it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, those will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance. Interrupting and postponing the education of tomorrow’s leaders for another entire semester or year, is one of many such costs.  So is permanently damaging the careers and lives of those who have made teaching and research their life’s work, and those who support them in that endeavor.” It’s hard to remember in the midst of one’s fear for “the education of tomorrow’s leaders” (not to mention the not-so-veiled threat of injury to one’s own livelihood: nice career you got here; I’d hate for something to happen to it) that the “benefits” of closing down are primarily fewer people dying. See, by contrast, White, “Message from the Office of the Chancellor,” September 10, 2020, in which the decision to remain virtual was cast as “the only responsible one available to us at this time,” given the twin North Stars of safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of our faculty, staff, students and communities, as well as enabling degree progression for the largest number of students.”] Lingering behind that determination is, of course, the idea that if we don’t deliver that product, our customers will go elsewhere, and the university will not survive.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 I want to be clear here: I am a deep believer in the value of institutions of higher education, and especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned, if with deep flaws, as engines for social mobility, for empowerment, for democracy. Maintaining those engines is vital, and I, like the vast majority of faculty and staff, will do a lot to ensure that our institutions survive.4 But institutions do not automatically deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not when it becomes evident that they will sacrifice the health and well-being of the people they comprise in order to do so.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the executive teams at our colleges and universities have been charged by their boards with their institutions’ survival, and that a significant portion of that survival is bound up in the revenue provided by students who pay to attend. But the primacy of that charge is exactly the problem: getting the students on campus is far more pressing than their well-being once they’ve arrived, and certainly more than the well-being of those who fall on the expense side of the budget.5 (There’s another book to be written on this particular problem: the long-term ramifications of the neoliberal turn away from public investment in higher education and toward a market-oriented model of financing and a corporate-derived board structure has submerged our campuses in the death cult of late capitalism. But I digress.) The bottom line — and I use the term advisedly — is that we must consider what our institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution’s survival is moot.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Even more, caring for the lives of those people means caring for their whole lives, and not just the hours they spend on our campuses or in our offices. This requires understanding that their families and communities are not just at-times inconvenient background noise distracting them from their on-campus roles but are in fact a key part of the reason they fulfill those roles. It requires backing that understanding up with family- and community-friendly policies that enable students and staff to meet the full range of their obligations. It requires a kind of care that is transitive, that doesn’t just express concern for those directly connected with the campus but that supports those people in caring for their objects of concern.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Caring for the entirety of these people’s lives also means working to understand their differences, to support them in those differences. It means hearing and valuing their perspectives, especially when they disagree, rather than requiring that they get in line. Leading people can never mean simply ordering them about, but rather must be focused on building a collective sense of purpose and finding ways to help everyone work toward living out that purpose. And the collectivity of that purpose means that sometimes you’ll find yourself serving purposes that belong to those you lead. I’ll talk about this more much later, but this kind of solidarity — understanding that those you lead can only be with you if they are certain that you are also with them — is a crucial component of living up to the missions that our institutions espouse.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1
  • What are the aspects of your job that are about management? What are the aspects that are about leadership? How are they related, and how are they distinct?
  • What groups of people do you have the opportunity to build a kind of leadership among? What are their needs, and how can you help support them?
  • Where do you feel conflict between your role as a manager and your role as a leader? How can those roles be brought into better alignment?
  • How can you find ways to connect with and better understand the people you lead as people, rather than as functional units in your organization? How might your leadership practices expand to understand the full lives of those people?

  1. 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  2. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 268.
  3. See Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life.
  4. Nightingale and Nightingale, Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons from an Impossible Year, 67.
  5. This is not a wasted effort in an era when politicians seem determined to tear those institutions down. See Snyder, On Tyranny: “It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning” (12).
  6. Marshall Sahlins explores the particular ends-means inversion that derives from the emphasis on revenue, noting that for all his critiques of the governing structure of universities, Thorstein Veblen “did not foresee the day when money ceased to be merely the means of making the university, but more and more the university became the means of making money — a development consummated in today’s for-profit institutions, yet long prefigured in the best research universities” (Sahlins, “The Conflicts of the Faculty,” 1002).
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