Higher education leadership – for sharing?

Shared leadership has become a popular (if not always well understood) concept in recent times, and has been a topic of analysis within higher education. The academy was traditionally seen as a collegiate body in which a ceremonial primacy was granted to one of its own in return for collegiality in decision-making and governance. But that social contract came under stress some time ago, particularly as universities started to see themselves as business entities that needed to be competitive; and a whole new framework was constructed around that assessment, with corporate leadership at its pinnacle.

Of course every such trend produces a backlash, and in this case a tsunami of critiques crashed in rejecting the marketisation of higher education and the corporate practices thought to accompany it: dictatorial leadership, unresponsiveness to dissent, bad communication, over-valuation of managerial status and responsibility. And here is where, for some, the answer to all this is the idea of ‘shared leadership’, in which governance and decision-making is informed both by managerial judgement and an empowered wider body of people. This position has been developed in an interesting report sponsored by the American Council on Education (Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice, by Adrianna J. Kezar and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, University of Southern California) . The report suggests that organisations with shared leadership are ‘better able to learn, innovate, perform, and adapt to the types of external challenges that campuses now face.’ The key elements of such an approach are listed as ‘team empowerment, supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders, autonomy, shared purpose or goal, external coaching, accountability structures, interdependence, fairness of rewards, and shared cognition.’

Conceptually this isn’t easy. For those strongly dissenting from the strategic direction of an organisation, it is much more attractive to call for an ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach to unresponsive leaders, although such calls rarely lead to actual revolution and are more likely to result in truculent disengagement. For those at the top who have been persuaded that they are strong leaders, sharing their power with others can look like weakness. And then there is the lesson of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose desire to share leadership with¬†Goneril, Regan and Cordelia ends in tears.

Higher education has changed fundamentally since it ceased to be something that catered for the formation of social elites, and it cannot return to the forms of governance of that era. But shared leadership may offer a formula of success for the present age, dispensing with the idea of a ‘leader-follower binary’ and focusing instead on ‘how those in power can delegate authority, capitalize on expertise within the organization, and create appropriate infrastructure so that organizations can capitalize on the leadership of multiple people.’ This is a model universities and their leaders should consider much more seriously.

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2 Comments on “Higher education leadership – for sharing?”

  1. Vince Says:

    I think perhaps those that haven’t gone down the admin route believe that being treated as a sole trader with the precarious implications to life until they are in their 30s to then have to endure some Colonel Blimp with a god complex a tad much.
    My issue, and it’s not just confined to your field, is if you have a method of thinking across an industry you have the two destructive forces at work, silo thinking and confirmation bias. Whom do you have to mutter ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ in your pretty shell like.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    “that social contract came under stress some time ago, particularly as universities started to see themselves as business entities that needed to be competitive”
    Well, a lot could be said about this interpretation of the history of academia, universities did not see themselves as business entities because of some ‘stress in the social contract’, but because certain decision were made at government level in the context of a certain ideological agenda and universities embraced the new agenda with the fervor of the new convert, occasionally oblivious to the self-damaging consequences of some new initiative meant to stimulate competition over collaboration.

    As for shared leadership, I would be all for it, particularly for the inclusivity aspect that it seems to foster however when I read the following:

    “Shared leadership is different from shared governance. Shared governance is based on the principles of faculty and administration having distinct areas of delegated authority and decision making. Shared leadership, by contrast, is more flexible and identifies various individuals on campus with relevant expertise”

    I am a bit puzzled as to how shared leadership could be successfully implemented unless governance is profoundly reformed. But this is one of those times when I would really like to be proven wrong.


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