Friday, May 18, 2012

Leaders Should Be More Ears and Less Mouth

This is a set of thoughts that's been coming together in my head for a week or so, in response to a bunch of disparate things I've both read and written. It started consciously with my post on Obama's "gay marriage" interview, but draws on things rattling in the back of my mind for some time.

Being an administrator in higher education, I get a lot of variations on the faculty question: what the heck are administrators good for, anyway? There's a lot of talk about "leadership", but the fear among many faculty (and I still think of myself as part of the faculty tribe, even if I draw my paycheck from elsewhere) is that universities spend a lot of money on administrators in exchange for - nothing, or sometimes worse than nothing.

So I think it's reasonable to ask administrators about what this "leadership" thing is that they (we?) like to talk so much about. What's the value proposition here? What are we getting for our money?

For some administrators (including some I have worked for in the past), "leadership" means "I'm in charge, do what I say." That this is a vapidly stupid sentiment does not keep some of these folks from thinking it, and even on occasion expressing it. Obviously, that's the wrong path.

We have done a good job of teaching our students that "leadership" isn't about holding a position (another myth sometimes held by bad administrators - think Cartman's "Respect my authoritah!"). We've taught them that leadership is about getting things done. I went to an awards ceremony for students last night, packed with energetic undergrads who have perfected the art of "leading" clubs and organizations by actually getting them to do things - no mean feat.

But in administrative positions, there's only so much we can actually do ourselves. In the mid-levels of administration (the place where I spend my days), my ability to actually do things is limited both by the scope conditions around my authority (which are considerable) and the time I have at my disposal (which is no more than anyone else has). Getting things done is indeed part of leadership - but if we're just doing things that faculty could (and should) do themselves, we're not leading, we're usurping.

In the political context, I suggested in my blog on Obama's interview that one of the most important things a leader can do is lead conversations, so that we (the group, the nation) can understand what it is that we want/need/desire.

This is particularly true, I think, in universities. It is true that, in many ways, the faculty is the university. And it's certainly true that the university can't offer programs, or market itself, in ways that aren't tied to the real and authentic strengths, abilities, and passions of its faculty. But what exactly is that "authentic self"? That's a conversation that individual faculty have views, opinions, and thoughts on - but who collects those views and knits them together into a coherent whole? Faculty don't usually have the time (or, often, the inclination) to do so.

That, I think, is one of the keys to real academic leadership: listening to the faculty (and the students and staff - because they, too, are important parts of the university community) and reflecting back what is heard. I tell faculty in meetings all the time: what I think is irrelevant. I'm not The Decider. I'm the one who has to put into action what the university decides. So I first have to listen to the university in all its cacophony - an act which is sometimes maddening, but never boring.

To me, the best leaders are those who listen (and the worst ones are those who never listen - I've seen my share of those). If you want to be a leader in this business, I think adopting the motto "More Ears, Less Mouth" is a good way to start.

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