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The virtue of weak leadership

May 10, 2011

At an open meeting here at the University of Tromsø a while back, a widely-respected, senior member of the faculty stood to share a bit of his accumulated wisdom. “I’m for weak leadership,” he said, eliciting much laughter and supportive applause.

And it’s easy to laugh along when a colleague makes such a flagrantly honest, almost knee-jerk conservative pronouncement. But a few years later, I still find myself thinking about his comment, wondering if maybe there’s something there that connects to my own work with leadership development.

Maybe the good professor just has a very old-fashioned notion of leadership. He doesn’t want to be told what to do and he believes that weak leaders will spare him that. He is concerned, I imagine, about a growing rhetoric stating that we need to facilitate “strong” leadership.

For several years now, we’ve been changing our leadership culture here in Tromsø. Historically, we have elected academic leadership at all levels: department chairs, deans and even our rector and prorectors. One would serve a term and then the position would go to the next person in the queue. It seemed like the only way to avoid getting elected was to express an interest in the position!

Six or seven years ago, we decided that department chairs would be hired. Two years ago, the approach was expanded to encompass our deans. In both of these cases, we talked about a need for “strong leadership.”

What does a change from weak to strong leadership mean? What should it mean? What can it mean? Surely it isn’t so simple as giving new powers to chairs and deans who previously had very few.

The cultural change that I want to nurture with hired chairs and deans is one in which there is deliberate thinking about departments and faculties as organizations. I want hired chairs and deans to develop skills of consensus-building, of engagement, of working with a group to look further ahead. I want them to work with the employees in their units to develop inspiring visions and good plans for their realization. I want them to take responsibility for facilitating a good and healthy atmosphere for teaching and research.

Strong leadership doesn’t mean telling people what to do; it means that the art of leadership becomes legitimate.

Still, leadership training isn’t normally part of PhD education, it isn’t something a scientist naturally encounters; we can’t expect new chairs to have thought much about this art. For that reason, a change like the one here in Tromsø requires constant attention and hard work to develop the culture of leadership we want. There will be bumps along the way. There may be people hired into leadership positions who have heard that they should exercise strong leadership and who interpret that to mean that they should be braver in making decisions themselves or that they should be authoritarian. It’s not hard to understand how that happens.

As we try to change the culture of leadership at our university, we are fully engaged with leadership development. Simply articulating the vision is not enough; skills must be developed, too. Our goal is a culture of leadership where the focus is on facilitating — rather than distracting from — great teaching and great research. I think we can do it, and if we succeed, we’ll no longer pine for the good old days of weak leaders.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 19:38

    Love hearing the thoughts. One book that comes to mind reading this is “Essence of a Decision,” a great read on decision-making in the context of the cuban missile crisis. Check it out. Enjoy the sun!

  2. May 26, 2011 16:07

    Great thoughts on changing the leadership culture. A challenging task but it sounds like you’re on the right track!

  3. November 14, 2011 15:29

    Great post, Curt. You’re correct – many professionals with degrees have never been exposed to leadership training. Implementing strong leadership within the educational system is extremely important for many reasons, one being the effect on the future careers of the students.

    • November 14, 2011 15:41

      Well-run educational organizations can do better with teaching and better with research. But the word “strong” leads to complicated feelings and thoughts among employees, especially academic faculty. The challenge is to train those in leadership positions to have an approach to leadership that yields increased confidence, doing bottom-up building of legitimacy, working within the group to develop strategics directions, etc. It’s all very unfamiliar in the trenches of these organizations, but I’m convinced that the potential is huge!

  4. Gwyn Teatro permalink
    November 16, 2011 04:04

    Curt ~ your article reinforces for me the continuing need for enlightenment in leadership in just about every area of life. To change a culture is a huge undertaking especially in an environment where tradition is so deeply entrenched.
    What comes to mind for me is that “strong” leadership tends to make us think about heroism and that creates a whole set of images that doesn’t necessarily include the attributes associated with engagement, collaboration and consensus-building. I lean more toward the notion of “effective” leadership and while that may seem like semantics, it allows for a range of activities that are not generally associated with being the hero.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read your post. It certainly gave me food for thought.

    • November 26, 2011 14:00

      Thanks for those good words, Gwyn. I think you’re right that the debate here got off on the wrong foot with the use of the term “strong,” such that it took an extra effort to get to the actual content of the issue. Just another reinforcement of the lesson that the rhetoric we choose is extremely important!


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