First, a confession: I ripped off the basic premise for this column from an essay called "The Right Kind of Nothing," by Michael C. Munger, a professor of political science and chair of the department at Duke University.
Munger argued in that January 2010 column that the best administrators are those who accept a high degree of responsibility for what goes on in their territory but don't feel the need to control everything. They know, that is, when to do "the right kind of nothing."
After 18 years as a midlevel administrator at three different community colleges, I heartily concur. And, having obtained Munger's gracious permission, I would like to expand on his ideas. In doing so here, I borrow also from Stephen R. Covey, who in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, designs a memorable matrix around the concepts of "important" and "urgent." By placing those two concepts on X and Y axes, he creates four quadrants: urgent but not important, important but not urgent, both urgent and important, and neither urgent nor important.
Even in relatively flat organizations, leadership always includes the responsibility of “leading up” to those who have more authority and control over resources. In the middle, people who report to you look to your vision and guidance as you enlist them in the achievement of collective purposes and goals. In academia, perhaps no position better exemplifies leading from the middle than that of the department chair.
This summer, the Academy for Academic Leadership (AAL) welcomed nearly 50 department chairs and other academic administrators to the Emory University Conference Center for AAL’s fourth annual Chairs and Academic Administrators Management Program (CAAMP). The participants represented seven different health professions, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, allied health, public health, and veterinary medicine. Prior to the start of CAAMP, we surveyed the participants about the top challenges facing academic programs in their profession. The responses were similar across the seven professions, with the top four as follows: (1) faculty recruitment and retention; (2) diminishing financial resources; (3) pedagogy, including meeting the needs of a new generation of learners, technology, curricular change influenced by new accreditation standards and emerging models of clinical practice; and (4) the growth of new programs and schools.
These challenges are the environment within which chairs must lead, educate, foster research, provide clinical care, and engage the broader community. In the middle, department chairs wear many hats. As a team leader, the chair supports the dean and other administrators in the greater good of the school, college, and university. As an advocate, they represent the needs of their departments and individual faculty members to those who control resources. As a mentor, the department chair is called upon to help new faculty establish career plans. Department chairs serve as counselors to mid-career faculty, particularly those who feel type-cast in their associate professor roles. They are business managers overseeing the finances of their academic enterprises. Add to the list of responsibilities: mediator, negotiator, teacher, researcher, and often health care provider. To make the matter more interesting, consider balancing family and personal life with these work responsibilities. It’s a tough job.
My 31 years of experience with college faculty members suggests that, while they don’t particularly like being told what to do, they abhor a leadership vacuum.
Years ago, the college where I now teach employed deans over each major discipline: humanities, social science, science, etc. Faculty members used to grouse about their deans’ decisions and complain that they didn’t have enough input. Then the administration changed the structure, replacing deans with committees made up mostly of faculty members—and people complained that there was no one to go to with problems, no one to make a final decision. Now we’re back to discipline deans.
So the problem is not that, as faculty members, we mind being led. Indeed, on some level, we want to be led. It’s just a question of what kind of leaders we’ll have, and what kind of leaders we’ll tolerate. Being led is one thing, but we don’t want to be dictated to, we don’t want to be treated like wayward children, and we don’t want to be sold a used car.
Speaking personally, I associate these qualities with good leadership in an academic (or any other) setting: