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Sidelight on Academic Leadership

Sidelight on Academic Leadership
 

Training in leadership is much in vogue now. Mason is running the first of several “leadership legacy” programs, assembling people, mostly already in managerial roles in part, for further discussion. I greeted the group last week and was impressed simply by the caliber of those involved, from both academic and staff backgrounds. They’ll learn a lot from each other, quite apart from the formal sessions.

I always feel a bit diffident about contributing to training of this sort, though I do it. I don’t want to end up telling personal war stories. I was not trained myself, which probably shows sometimes, and I don’t read as much in the literature as perhaps I should.

I do however have a few things to say — like the importance of knowing budgets or the need for the capacity for learning from mistakes, including apologizing where necessary but also forgiving oneself.

One angle that interests me increasingly that I have not seen discussed (though again I’m not an expert in the literature) is the need for leaders to have or gain the capacity for embracing initiatives launched by others with an energy and enthusiasm comparable to those devoted to one’s own projects.

Most people, of course, start out mainly doing what other people tell them to do in very early managerial roles. Then, if they’re good, they begin coming up with their own ventures, which turn out to succeed and which command the kind of focus one’s own progeny legitimately command.

Then, again if they’re good, they rise further, still able to have one’s own ideas and energetic projects, but now also with the need to respond to the good ideas of others. Here I’ve seen more than one case of breakdown, where the necessary enthusiasm is simply not generated and the project lags because the unit does not contribute vigorously.

I’m not talking about accepting everyone else’s ideas without critical appraisal. And I’m not urging the kind of hollow endorsement where the projects moves forward on the basis of others’ efforts but the “leader” participates by ultimately claiming credit.

I’m talking about situations where positive and constructive effort is required for success, but where, without formally declaring opposition, the mid-level leader quietly holds back. The energy is still there, but it goes to the leader’s own offspring. Other people’s projects simply don’t seem as compelling, or involve complications that are easier to spot and lament than where one’s own creativity is involved.

So, we need to talk about the capacity to apply enthusiasm more widely, to put in the effort with the same gusto one’s own ideas inspire. It’s a leadership quality that may escape notice, but it’s worth discussing and illustrating. It deserves attention as one of the criteria by which leaders past a certain point will be held to account. And it’s vital for the success of many academic operations.