Leading from Behind: An Essay on Academic Leadership

October 31, 2007

Few college-level music faculty members enter the profession with the primary aspiration of becoming an administrator. Yet some of us are ultimately either enticed into or thrust into administrative positions. We were chosen for these positions, I suppose, because we are seen by our colleagues and superiors as both trustworthy and somewhat selflessfocused primarily upon the welfare of our school or unit instead of our own personal professional fiefdomand our colleagues trust us generally not to compromise their interests in favor of our own. I also suppose that it's also because we are the members of the faculty who are most often present and who dutifully answer memos and return telephone calls promptly.

One thing we are decidedly not is trained for our new administrative responsibilities, and so each new administrator assumes the role while taking a substantial leap of faith and with a sizeable knot in the stomach. The leap is that with or without whatever outside assistance is available to us, we'll somehow discover how to do what we'll be expected to do. Like every faculty member, we only wish to be seen as fully capable, yet we don't know when we begin that we'll have everything we will need to succeed.

Those administrative positions each carry an expectation of, or at least the possibility of, providing leadership to our faculty and staff constituents. Leadership, it turns outespecially in academic settingsis easy to envision, but rather difficult to operationalize. How do good leaders behave? What principles guide them in providing leadership? How do I lead without stifling initiative? These simple questions have no standard answers. Indeed, we have been collectively asking questions about the nature of leadership, as well as positing notions about what constitutes effective leadership, since before the time of Aristotle.

Steven Sample, the wildly successful president of the University of Southern California, has reported that more than two thousand books were published on the general topic of leadership during the twentieth centurymore than twice as many as on any other social construct. Anyone paying attention knows that there have been several score more during the first years of this century as well. We seem both to have a lot to say to one another on the subject and an extraordinary willingness to hear it. Still, even after all those attempts to bring order to a very slippery topic, there are few, if any, clearly established principles to guide those of us who accept positions in which leadership is expected. The student of leadership is left with little choice but to grab hold of those few ideas and principles that resonate withinwhich somehow seem to capture what he or she has come to know about how humans behave in various circumstances.

In academia, a realm in which the relative independence of the individual faculty member may be the most salient characteristic of the field, leadership is both expected in certain roles and often profoundly difficult to provide. All leaders, regardless of field, struggle to achieve positive impact. But in the Academy, faculty members chafe at the notion that they ought to be led at all, and the outcomes of inappropriate leadership, or no real leadership, can be unsatisfactory to all involved.

The principal difficulty we encounter, it seems to me, is that leadership is often conceived as monolithic when we are increasingly discovering that it is a remarkably complex concept when considered in any depth. A single definition might encapsulate the abstract concept, but operationally, leadership is generally realized quite differently according to the setting. Multiple operational models are in use. The United Auto Workers president, the platoon leader, the pastor, the hospital's director of volunteer services, and the dean each carry the responsibility to provide leadership to and for their constituents, but if they are skilled in their leadership, they are likely to fulfill those responsibilities quite differently. Some past leaders, we can note, were quasi-tyrants who essentially bullied their charges into alignment with their ideas; George Patton, Jack Welch, and Fritz Reiner reportedly were of this sort. Others were "alpha males"the most intimidating member of their groupto whom power was surrendered by others; Saddam Hussein was reportedly of this type, as was the great Chicago Bears linebacker, Dick Butkus. Finally, there are those who are the strongest individual performer of their ilk and who then inherit a mantle of leadership. Michael Jordan would qualify here, as would Andres Segovia. Would any of these models function well in the Academy? Though some have tried one or another (I think of John Silber), I think none have enjoyed true long-term success. A different leadership paradigm, it seems to me, is necessary for success in academia.

The leadership model that I believe has greatest promise for long-term success in academia was described in part by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal. They codified a set of four succinct models of leadership which they teach in management courses at their respective home universities and which they have clearly and cleverly articulated in their 2002 book, Frames of Organization. In the doing, they have helped clarify chaos for us. They name the four models "Structural," "Political," "Symbolic," and "Human Resource." In Structural settings, they say, the one with the authority to make a decision does so; in Political settings, a leader builds a coalition strong enough to survive challenge; in Symbolic settings, leaders pursue an act for its symbolic importance; and in Human Resource settings, leaders act to empower their constituents toward success.

According to Bolman and Deal, each of these models is appropriate under certain circumstances, and the well-equipped leadereven in academiais master of each and chooses which to employ in each new leadership situation. In my mind, though there can be infrequent occasions when wise academic leaders will indeed employ a structural, political, or symbolic frame (i.e. and respectively, dealing with a rogue professor's outburst during a faculty meeting, developing consensus for an emerging strategic plan, and picking up and disposing of a piece of trash from the School's lobby), he or she will employ the Human Resource Frame so regularly and persistently that we should consider it to be "the default setting" for academic leadership.

The primary characteristic of the Human Resources Frame is that the leader acts to empower their constituentsto provide them freely with all the resources they will need to succeed, and then to cheer their progress and celebrate their successes. The ownership that the faculty can feel when the circumstances are right is undeniably a powerful motivator. Regularly, it brings out the best of their potential. After all, the success they achieve is theirs; the acclaim they will receive is what they have truly earned.

There is an appropriate metaphor for this approach to leadership, and it's the sheep dog. Working sheep dogs move the flock toward a prescribed goalperhaps an open gate on the far side of the meadow that leads back into the barn. While the herd is moving toward the goal, the dog crouches down and essentially disappears from the flock's view. If one or more sheep begin to stray too far from the flock, the dog leaps up and runs them down, bringing the deviant sheep back into the flock and nipping at their heels if one or more resist. Once the flock is together again and moving toward the gate, the dog again drops down and again becomes invisible to the flock.

So it is with the savvy academic leader, I think. He or she works alongside faculty to develop and articulate the goals for the unit or school, and takes steps to fully empower each member to reach for them. If the team is strongif the hiring has been strongmost will strive purposefully toward the goals they have adopted. The few that may stray or resist may require a quick "nip at the heels" to bring them back onto the team. Persistent departures from the path toward the goals, of course, do require ever stronger and less subtle interventions; the savvy academic leader simply won't allow harmful behaviors to continue unaddressed. The entire team benefits when such matters are meaningfully addressed.

Others have termed this Human Resource/sheep dog frame of leadershipthis practice of empowering and disappearingas "Leading from Behind". It is what the sheep dog does, and it is what I try to do, as I stand with and behind the faculty members with whom I serve.

A relatively recent book on business management by Jim Collins and entitled Good to Great posits a truth about leadership, which I think is also well applied to academia. Collins and his team examined over a thousand companies in search of those, which performed well for an extended time but which then somehow managed to leap to a level of extraordinary performance and to sustain that for an extended time as well. Ultimately, they found eleven, and they set upon trying to find what it was that these eleven superior performers did to enable such a leap in performance. It's a fascinating study and I commend it to your attention for the powerful lessons it has that can be applied to academia, but especially for the kind of leaders all eleven companies had employed.

Collins and his team came to describe this leader type as "Level Five Leaders", but they described them primarily by their two most salient characteristics. Level Five Leaders, they contend, are marked by willfulness and selflessness, and these are the traits I value in academic leaders, too. Because they are willful, they do not allow disadvantageous situations or circumstances to persist unaddressed; because they are selfless, they empower and celebrate their colleaguesnot themselves. In other words they, too, lead from behind. That's the position from which I intend to do my best work, too, and it's the one I recommend to every new academic leader.

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