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A strategy for strategy: Sleep on it

May 17, 2011

The world’s northernmost botanical garden lies just outside my office door. I like to schedule walking meetings there, and when I visit the garden myself, I enjoy the metaphorical act of choosing which path to follow.

I now know I should do that even more. Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy make that clear when they write about making complex decisions. Their research suggests a three step approach, and the surprising step in the middle, is to sleep on it. Or at least to find a little distraction. “After a period of distraction, one option usually feels better,” their experiment shows. “That’s the option you should choose.”

Leadership development is largely about learning to set up processes that yield good decisions. And let’s be honest: the tradition for good decision-making in academia is not rich. We make decisions in one setting and reverse them in another. The quality of the workplace is damaged and resources are wasted.

When we re-do decisions, we appear to be unclear and unpredictable — disastrous qualities in a leader. Perhaps worst of all, a culture of re-doing decisions is a culture in which it’s worthwhile to continue arguing for the losing perspective.

Bad leadership is a caricature of academia; it’s so pervasive that one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons memorializes The Unknown Academic Infighter. We have to eliminate the remnants of this culture. Infighting isn’t just wasteful, it’s degrading.

Many serious and interesting challenges await our reflection and require complex decisions. How will we work to have greater public support, so that we get the resources necessary to do what we know is important? How will we create the best possible setting for education? How will we communicate to our students’ future employers the value of the relatively new European 3-year Bachelor’s Degree? What are the best conditions for successful research and how can we forge them? Have we formalized a culture of the university-as-workplace that is built on trust or do we have one built on suspicion? How can we satisfy politicians and the general public without being crushed by counting?

From my perspective, these are some of the very biggest challenges we face in university leadership. The strategic responsibility for addressing these lies with presidents and rectors, with deans and with departmental chairs.

However, the people in these positions are trained as teachers and researchers, not leaders. If we want to trust our future to something more than luck, it’s essential that we develop a culture for making good decisions. We have to agree on why that is a worthy goal and we have to work together to make it happen. That’s what I want to think about; it’s what I want to work on. And I know I’m not alone.

But right now, it’s May 17th — Constitution Day here in Norway. I think I’ll go for a walk.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 17:14

    Absolutely concur, Curt. The problem with leadership is everyone thinks they are one and does not want to admit they need any development in that area at all. I teach leadership at my university, but do you think I’m ever consulted about leadership issues? I worked in private industry and the military before academia, and academia is by FAR the most political and dysfunctional culture I’ve ever seen.

    • May 17, 2011 21:15

      Not surprised by your impressions of academia, Bret. One thing I’m trying to do to increase the legitimacy of leadership development is to help people in well-functioning faculties or departments see the effect their leadership team has on the work environment. It’s not always easy, but I do find some acceptance for it. Hope springs eternal!

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