1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “The leadership skills for the future of higher education are 100% coalition-building and relationships.”1

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This cut-to-the-chase assertion came to me from Chris Bourg, Director of Libraries at MIT. In our interview, Chris talked about the ways she’d built relationships with the libraries’ staff, the upper administration, the MIT faculty, and the libraries’ visiting committee (an MIT structure that acts as a sort of an ongoing external review team) in order to create the MIT Framework. This framework promised to transform MIT’s negotiations with large corporate publishers, but far more importantly, it was offered to the library community in order to contribute to the possibilities for transformation across the higher education landscape. As of the time of our interview, the framework had received more than 200 endorsements from libraries and library organizations across the country, creating a powerful coalition for real, material change.2

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Coalition-building and relationships form the heart of generous leadership, and I’m grateful to the many folks I talked with who, like Chris, emphasized that point for me. As I noted a couple of chapters back, when I first began working on this project, my focus, and the primary subject pronoun I relied upon, was “you.” I felt that my argument needed to be addressed to you, the reader, in order to focus on your role as a leader — whether or not that role is not derived from a position of authority. As the last couple of chapters have indicated, I still believe that all transformative change must start with you: without your determination to make things better, and your commitment to the work ahead, there can only be more of the same.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 However, as readers began to respond to that early draft, it became clear that my focus on you left something out: as crucial as you are to the process of creating transformative change, the key pronoun for thinking about the future of our institutions is not “you,” but “us.” This “us,” however, is not something that exists naturally, except in some limited, and often limiting, senses. Our notions of “us” often develop out of our lived experience, and so come to be associated with “people like me,” thus excluding more members of our institutions than they include. In order to make real change in our institutions, and in the world, we have to work toward an “us” that is expansive and responsive, an “us” that embraces difference and reaches out to build and maintain the connections that can create not just collectives, but coalitions.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 So as a result of the conversations I had with leaders like Chris, I’m focused in large part on how we build the path from “you” to “us” — the process of connecting and developing relationships that will allow all of us to work together on the more just, more resilient, more caring institutions we need.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 A commitment to working together, in fact, is one key to undoing the toxic model of singular leadership that we explored in part one. That model is entirely focused on the power of the individual, and the assumption that the individual’s reach becomes greater as you climb the org chart. Of course, power does grow in that direction: with the elevation produced by a new job title comes an expansion in sphere of influence and institutional authority. But the other thing that often happens is that the connections available to the position narrow, until you find yourself at the pinnacle of the institution: you’re at the center of power, but you’re teetering there alone. Success in such a leadership role — in any leadership role, really, whether one labeled such by the institution or one emerging from a grassroots project — requires developing the relationships that can sustain the work.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 Developing those relationships, however, demands a willingness to decenter oneself and to recognize the mutality required for connection. As Sarah Buss notes in the introduction to Radical Humility, “retreating from the center of things — both in reality and in one’s self-conception — is inseparable from forging connections that expand the boundaries of one’s self.”3 In other words, it’s through connections that we become larger, not through ego. Building those connections requires stepping out of the center — whether that centrality comes from being the boss or from being in a culturally dominant position or from some other aspect of self-conception — and working on coalition-building instead. We need those coalitions to transform complex organizations, and we need to act in solidarity in order for those coalitions to succeed.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Most community-oriented organizations believe they understand that. And yet, as Katherine Skinner, executive director of the Educopia Institute told me, she’s always surprised by the number of communities that “push back when I say relationship-building is one of the things we need to be focusing on right now. ‘Well, we’ve got relationships. We’re doing just fine.’ Now, you may be doing just fine but you better be feeding that all the time or you won’t be anymore.”4 Even good relationships aren’t static, and they aren’t permanent; they need ongoing care in order to thrive.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Institutional structures often inhibit real community and relationship-building, however. In one of the interviews I conducted for this volume, I put the question rather bluntly: given that many of the respondents I’d spoken with had noted the importance of coalition-building as one key to productive leadership — and that it was overwhelmingly the women leaders who used those terms — who does the (female) president of a small liberal arts college get to build a coalition with? Her first response was a somewhat wry “other presidents of small liberal arts colleges.” But then immediately behind that came a different kind of response, one focused on ways of encouraging greater participation in leadership processes within her own faculty by “showing people what’s in it for them,” enabling them to understand themselves as having the potential for real influence, now and in the future:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Every president has a ten-year expiration date on their back. So do you want to be in the position in ten years where you’re the one who’s calling the shots… and if you do, then let me help you get there…. There’s a saying that politicians start campaigning for re-election the day after they get into office. I kind of think presidents need to start thinking about their exit strategies from the day they get into office. It’s not just legacy. It’s — what do you want to be possible that’s not possible now.5

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 What this president reveals in these comments is not just a recognition that structural power does not last forever, or that the individual inhabiting a leadership role is never there more than temporarily. She also suggests that the most important goal for a leader should be working with others in order to ready them for taking on leadership roles, creating the possibility of a future in which the institution can be better than it is today.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Such a willingness to recognize one’s own finitude is a profoundly ethical position. On the one hand, it stems from a deep acknowledgment that any position of structural leadership will of necessity come to an end, and that the best thing you can do for the work you’re trying to accomplish is to enable it to live on without you, to create the opportunities for others to continue it tomorrow. And on the other hand, it entails an equally deep acknowledgement that you cannot do everything, even while you’re still here and still leading. You need others not just to help but to feel the same kind of ownership over the work that you feel.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 There’s a common aspect of leadership that often gets described in the literature as creating “alignment” with the leader’s vision, and it sounds much like what I’ve just described: getting a team to buy in and carry out the work leading to a strategic goal. However, as Peter Senge notes, alignment remains a coercive, top-down form of agenda-setting:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Today, “vision” is a familiar concept in corporate leadership. But when you look carefully you find that most “visions” are one person’s (or one group’s) vision imposed on an organization. Such visions, at best, command compliance — not commitment. A shared vision is a vision that many people are truly committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision.6

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The gap between a leader’s vision and a truly shared vision is what often makes strategic planning processes in our institutions feel like busy work, with an enormous amount of time and effort invested in arriving at predetermined conclusions. The vision for the future that such plans attempt to develop cannot work unless it’s truly shared, and it can’t be truly shared unless it’s developed collectively. 

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 That collective vision is one key to institutional transformation, but of course there’s an enormous amount of work involved in bringing together the people required to develop such a collective vision, much less to work together toward it. The process may not come naturally for leaders who’ve been steeped in conventional hierarchies and workflows, but a new generation of leaders is emerging today and bringing with them what Helen Berry described to me as “a new style of leadership.” Berry called this style “multinuclear leadership,” noting that she has seen it in use in community organizations, and that it has often been adopted by women leaders within the academy. This leadership style works to empower the entire community that will be affected by a decision, not by creating a single forum or feedback session in which the loudest voices can dominate, but rather by organizing that community into working groups charged with particular tasks, and then sharing the work done by each group with the community as a whole. A process like this, used in the context of strategic planning, has the potential to create a form of communal ownership of the outcomes, but it must be approached with a truly open perspective. As Berry notes, this is not a “directive, top-down, here’s my great vision” mode of operation; it’s instead “facilitative… a bottom-up process.” As such, it requires that the positional leader organizing the process be willing to step out of the center and allow leadership to grow from multiple points within the community: “If what emerges is different in the process of doing that vision thing, you have to be willing to change and shift your perspective.”7

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 3 The response of some more traditionally-oriented leaders to such a process, and to the outcomes it produces, is often to say “yes, but the staff doesn’t have the big picture in mind” or “the faculty doesn’t have access to the institutional knowledge that I have.” If this is true, the exercise has become a form of window-dressing for a top-down decision-making process. The goal of a distributed, collective process such as this is precisely to ensure that everyone involved has access to the big picture and all the forms of institutional knowledge that it requires. This means that a positional leader engaging in such a process has to be willing to share what they know and to make what’s often kept behind the scenes more visible. I’ll dig further into this in the chapter on transparency, but for now it’s important to note that it’s only through such willingness to be open with the folks invested in the institution that real trust, and real relationships, can be built.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Those relationships are a prerequisite for shaping an institution’s future together, but it’s important not to overlook the human significance of the relationships in and of themselves. As Este Pope, a librarian at Amherst College and an active participant in multi-institutional collaborations, reminded me, just as important as “what we’re accomplishing” is “that goodwill and being able to really delight in actual relationships with people… This is modeling what — in whatever bigger framework — could be possible.”8

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • What relationships would be most important to your ability to create meaningful change in your institution, or in your corner of your institution? How can you go about building those relationships?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 What coalitions can you imagine bringing together — across units, across fields, across employment categories, across other boundaries — to work toward the change you imagine? What would be required to create those connections?

  1. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  2. Bourg, Interview.
  3. MIT Libraries, “MIT Framework for Publisher Contracts.”
  4. Buss, “An Introduction,” 14.
  5. Skinner, Interview.
  6. Respondent 5, Interview.
  7. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 192.
  8. Berry, Interview.
  9. Pope, Interview.
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