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Leadership for change … at a university?!

May 11, 2011

There is a paradox in the politics of professors. Many are “liberal” in the sense that their political perspectives lean to the left. But just as many can be conservative when it comes to their workplace. Change — even a discussion of change — evokes engaged skepticism. This is a leadership challenge, but I think it’s one with a solution. And I think the solution becomes clearer through this paradox.

The ideological tension in the paradox isn’t hard to resolve: Left-leaning ideology values egalitarianism while emerging changes at universities can be perceived as moving away from egalitarianism. In this sense, then, the paradox cannot only be resolved, but the insight speaks to the kinds of leadership that are possible.

If we agree that universities can be better, that we have to satisfy a demanding constituency, that we have owners with a legitimate interest in our development, then that means we agree that there are some things that need to be changed.

And if we want support in a process of change from employees who care about egalitarianism, then we have to lead by facilitating bottom-up processes. We have to build consensus and we have to be inclusive. This kind of leadership takes time.

Last September, at a conference on podcasting, I gave a presentation on implementing change. My talk is not specifically about podcasting, but rather about leading for change in academia. The presentation is now available on YouTube [Part 1, Part 2]. In it, I tell three stories of my own failures at trying to lead academics to change, and then I share the understanding that has emerged from those experiences. The result is an approach to implementing change that I experience as successful. In a nutshell, the key is, “Just ask why.” You’ll find more in the talk.

There are many sources for my thoughts on this approach; one of the more important is Peter Block‘s book,  The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters.

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