PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES FOR ENABLING OTHERS*
More than a coordinator, but less than a boss, the department chair is uniquely positioned to enable each member of the faculty through the practice of "quiet leadership," a form of leadership which discretely strives to improve the context and climate in which faculty work. Thirteen principles and specific practices that exemplify this form of leadership are identified and described.
Leadership: A common view of leadership is of an individual at the top and out in front of an organization, literally "leading it forward." But leadership has been also described in other ways, not all of which fit this view. There are the more traditional forms of autocratic and charismatic leadership, but one can find examples of participatory, transactional, and transformational leadership as well. And although situational leadership is singled out as if it were also a particular type, in actuality all leadership is situational, since different kinds of leadership are appropriate and effective at different times and places and under different circumstances.
Department Chairperson: The position of department chair is no exception to this situational rule. The department chairperson is located in that slightly awkward position of being more than a coordinator but less than a boss, suspended uneasily between the faculty and the dean, and demanding a form of leadership especially sensitive to the peculiarities of that situation. Traditionally selected by immediate colleagues, chairpersons are usually returned to the earthbound status of their peers after only a brief sojourn in the lower altitudes of academic administration. Chairpersons usually have little direct control over their budgets and only varying degrees of influence over their expenditures. They cannot hire or fire without the counsel of their faculty, and they cannot determine salary levels or increases without the concurrence of their dean. The chairperson's impact upon tenured faculty may be slight, while continuance in office is subject to both the scrutiny and satisfaction of the colleagues the chairperson serves.
In this anomalous position of being the "first among equals," the department chairperson has a singular, and perhaps sanguine, opportunity to practice what I have come to call "quiet leadership"--a leadership which concentrates its efforts on enabling others. Except for the awkwardness of the phrase, one might call this "leading from behind." Such leadership is important, even essential, to the successful operation of all organizations, but because it does not draw attention to itself, it tends to go largely unacknowledged, and because organizations do not understanding its significance, they often fail to recognize it or appreciate its value.
The concept of quiet leadership emerged as a result of reflecting on my own leadership endeavors. I realized that I had developed a number of relatively unobtrusive practices in order to help both me and my faculty to become more effective and to move our organization toward the achievement of its goals. In the discussion that follows, I have summarized these activities in the form of a set of principles of quiet leadership, a leadership that strives, without too much notice, to shape in positive and productive ways the environment in which faculty work.
In offering these principles--together with specific suggestions for their implementation--I start from a worldview that has been shaped by two fundamental premises.
Premise Number One: People usually tell us everything except what we really need to know.
Premise Number Two: There is a big difference between knowing something, and knowing what it is that we know.
These premises have helped me to better understand the leadership role of the department chairperson because they lead to the following two corollaries:
Corollary Number One: Faculty are usually appointed to the position of department chairperson without receiving any training or instruction, with little indication of what it is they are supposed to do, and still less of knowing when or how well they are doing it.
Corollary Number Two: An essential way of figuring out what to do as a department chair--to get one's mind around the position--is to pause conscientiously and long enough to develop an overview of what the job actually entails, how it should be fulfilled, and what it might be possible to accomplish in the particular situation.
My own administrative experience, initially one of fumbling trial and error, fostered the development of a covert, exploratory strategy from which emerged a set of principles that increasingly guided my behavior. Only with hindsight have they become identifiable. But stated explicitly, they seem to provide at least some of what it is that one really needs to know about chairing an academic department. In what follows I have identified each these principles along with an elaboration that tries to explain not just what I was doing, but what it was that I was doing.
This last distinction deserves some additional explanation. There is a significant difference between knowing something, and knowing what it is that we know. Simply knowing something usually means that we have the ability, more or less, to do something with our knowledge. But when we know what it is that we know, we are able to see our abilities and our knowledge in a larger perspective--we are able to conceptualize those abilities and that knowledge, to draw lessons from them, to see the principles that lie behind them, to make connections between them and other things that happen. We are then much more able to modify our activities to fit changing circumstances, and to be able to explain what is that we know to others.
Just knowing something means being able to go through a set of motions--but knowing what it is that we know means being clear about the reasons which underlie that particular set of motions--knowing not only what or how, but why. This insight into what it is that we are doing enables us to move away from a simple, rigid adherence to a fixed recipe or rote procedure toward an ability to adjust, adapt, and modify our behaviors while still adhering to the principle that informs our actions. To know what it is that one knows is a large part of getting one's mind around something. Let me now try to help get our collective mind around some useful principles and practices of quiet leadership.
PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES
Principle #1: The department chairperson is a first level manager, the faculty's first and foremost point of contact with the administration. The chair is the faculty's major link to the larger institution, its goals and priorities. Clearly one part of the chairperson's task is to articulate these values downward, but an even larger responsibility is to represent the faculty back to the administration.
Practices #1: Since neither the chairperson nor the faculty will agree with all administrative decisions--and maybe not even with all of the institution's goals or priorities--the chair can and should exercise significant discretion in how these are presented. While some policies and practices can be presented to the faculty with enthusiasm, others will deserve reluctance or qualification. Some administrative necessities may be reacted to more begrudgingly than others. The chairperson must be loyal to the institution, and to represent the administration to the faculty honestly and fairly, although this does not abrogate the chair's right and responsibility to be appropriately critical.
But while all educational institutions have many positions communicating downward, the faculty in a department or discipline have only one voice consistently representing and articulating their needs and concerns upward; that is the voice of the department chairperson. Communicating upward is therefore an essential responsibility of the department chair; it is an activity that requires both skill and tact, and the chair should continuously strive to become better at it. However stressful, the chair must see this activity as a centerpiece of the role, and be proactive around it. In addition, the chair should make every necessary effort to meet the faculty's need to know by regularly informing them about the ways in which their concerns are being communicated upward, and to confirm that it is being done accurately.
Principle #2: It is well known that a faculty member's productivity revolves around his or her teaching, research, scholarship, and service. What is less well known is that becoming a department chair requires a major reorientation about what constitutes one's productivity. The productivity of the department chairperson is no longer principally his or her own teaching, scholarship, research, and service, but the teaching, scholarship, research, and service of the faculty itself.
Practices #2: When moving to a first administrative assignment, one of the hardest ideas to get used to is that success is now measured not in terms of your own direct output, but in terms of the output of the faculty of your department. This shift in perspective is an elusive but significant key to success for any administrator. It has been said that a characteristic of mediocre people is their reluctance to enlist the services of those more capable than themselves. This is a sure route to failure for a department chair. The quality of a department's faculty is as much a reflection of the department chairperson as it is of the larger institution. Therefore, your faculty member's needs for support and resources must always come before your own.
Principle #3: The department chair is structurally positioned in a peculiar middle ground. Neither "fish nor fowl," the chairperson is no longer strictly a faculty colleague, but neither is he or she truly a "real" administrator. Yet the chairperson plays a very significant role in the success of the institution. Like many first level managers, the chairperson occupies what may be the single most important administrative level in the entire institution. One observer has suggested that department chairs are responsible for as much as 80% of all administrative decisions in higher education. And as Robert Tucker (author of Chairing the Academic Department) has pointedly remarked, while "brilliant college administrations with inept chairpersons cannot survive, inept administrations with the help of a group of brilliant chairpersons usually can."
Practices #3: The person occupying the role of department chair has to walk a fine line between faculty and administration, trying to explain and support each group to the other. At the same time, the chairperson must be organizationally clear about what he or she is doing and why. For the duration of the appointed term, the person in the chair is never not the chairperson, and that person needs to develop a continuing sensitivity as to how he or she is perceived by the faculty. It should go without saying that the chairperson must model the behaviors expected of the faculty. It is equally important to keep in mind that the chairperson always has a special capacity to publicly endow events and people with meaning and value--articulating significance, acknowledging contributions, remarking upon what should be publicly recognized, defining situations in terms of their organizational, social, or biographical importance. Because rewards or recognition that do not have to be overtly claimed by faculty members themselves are sorely missing from higher education, a chair who finds ways to provide unanticipated plaudits (provided they are genuine) performs a vital function.
Principle #4: Rather than assume that all faculty members must demonstrate the same modicum of excellence in every area of academic activity, I have found it much more fruitful to think of a department as a loosely associated team, with each individual faculty member offering a unique set of strengths. A major role of the chair is to identify, recognize, and reinforce these strengths, to provide support to faculty in regard to their particular interests, and to make each of them feel valued and significant in the context of the overall group. In this way the chair can take advantage of and the department can capitalize on the multiplicity of individual talents resident in the faculty.
Practices #4: Following a model developed by organizational consultant James House, I have found it helpful to pay attention to four different forms of support: informational, material, appraisal, and emotional. Informational support can be provided by supplying information to faculty in the areas of their special interest or expertise--passing on notices of outside funding opportunities, references in the professional literature, items of information or articles from newspapers or magazines. Material support involves an awareness of the needs that faculty have for physical resources (such as equipment) and a consistent willingness to find ways to recognize and satisfy those needs. Appraisal support--providing useful feedback, both positive and negative--is equally essential but often more difficult. It must be done in ways that are simultaneously equitable, credible, and constructive. Finally, emotional support, while perhaps the most awkward to provide in a work setting, is very important. Faculty need to know they are appreciated and recognized for what they are good at and for what they themselves feel is important. It is the chair's job to know what those things are and to communicate about them effectively. The chairperson must also be aware of and sensitive to issues or events of a personal nature that may be impacting a faculty member's performance or morale, and be able to address those needs in ways that both respect the individual and hold him or her accountable for an appropriate level of professional behavior.
Principle #5: As Peter Drucker notes, meetings are not always--and maybe not even usually--the best context in which to make good decisions, although they can be and sometimes actually are. It must be remembered that a good decision, like good communication--or a good wine--takes time. Faculty meetings provide an important occasion in which future decisions can be put into the public arena to be scrutinized, explored, critiqued, and discussed.
Practices #5: It is important to think in advance about the kinds of things that you want to try to accomplish in faculty meetings. One way to do this is to follow a standard distinction between agenda items: information, discussion, action. It is especially true in higher education that effective decisions require faculty to feel they have had ample time for discussion, both in formal meetings and in other more informal ways. A simply way to ensure this is to introduce action items initially as items of information or discussion, and to move them toward action only in subsequent meetings.
Principle #6: Good meetings do not just happen, they are thoughtfully constructed and artfully conducted.
Practices #6: The following rules may help produce meetings that are not only more effective, but more enjoyable as well.
Be brief. People have a hard time keeping their interest in a topic for more than twenty minutes. Plan your agenda and anticipate the amount of time you intend to devote to each topic.
Be specific. Define clearly why you are meeting and what you hope or expect to accomplish. Identify the time limits you want to observe.
Be selective about who is invited to the meeting and be clear about what role those who are invited are expected to play. Be sure to include those--whether from inside or outside the department--who are able to provide what you need in terms of information, expertise, and experience. Inform those who are invited about the reasons they have been included.
Be consistent in how and when you invite faculty members so that they all feel equally valued; include the faculty appropriately in what goes on before, during, and after the meeting.
Be careful in making preparations so that what is needed for a successful meeting will be on hand. Check the room, the seating, refreshments, needed equipment, and any special arrangements that would be useful or that would make the meeting more pleasant.
Be responsive. Follow up with each member of the faculty with whatever is appropriate--a memo, a copy of a letter, a note, a summary or minutes--and do it as soon afterward as possible.
Be fun, at least on occasion (and I think as often as possible). Provide refreshments, something humorous or unusual, try something different, approach things in lighthearted ways--and remember that random reinforcement works. I think it is appropriate to earmark a small portion of the chair's stipend (whatever it may be) as a "departmental revitalization fund"--for parties, fun, or food--or whatever else may help periodically jog the department out of the sluggishness that invades every organization at one time or another.
Principle #7.:Everything always seems to take too much time. As a chairperson you may often feel that you are never getting anything done. Remember that nothing good ever happens immediately, especially in academia. Allow things to take the time they need, or at least as much time as you can give them.
Practices #7: Administration inevitably includes lots of little, never-ending tasks. One solution to this irremediable problem is simply to redefine what it means to get something done, e.g., that doing a particular set of tedious chores is an important part of your job as chairperson. Another solution is not to do each chore as it comes along, but to let them accumulate and then do a stack of them all at once. You may even want to set aside a certain part of the day, or day of the week to do them. The key is to treat them as a significant aspect of the job; this means that getting them done is "Doing Something Significant."
Principle #8: Given the presence of tenured faculty and the relatively flat administrative structure that characterizes colleges and universities, there is not much power of direct authority in academic institutions. Even though higher education is chronically under funded and not ostensibly guided by pecuniary concerns, most academic power does, in fact, turn out to hinge on controlling the purse strings.
Practices #8.:After grappling with (and perhaps even understanding) your institution's system of budgeting, the smart chairperson devises his or her own way of tracking the department's fiscal operations. While you should not hesitate to seek information and advice from the institution's financial officers, you should also not be constrained by their constricted view of the world. Figure out your own ways of making the budget work for the particular needs of your department and faculty. This may mean breaking up the budget into different categories than those used by the institution, informally keeping what would look like two sets of books, trying out things that haven't been done before at your institution, or becoming truly creative in making limited amounts of resources go to work in new ways. The important thing is not to be inhibited or blocked by the narrow procedures that professional accountants have to follow any more than necessary; instead, try to be as fanciful as you can. They will make sure you don't fly too far.
Principle #9: Almost all chairpersons report that an increasing amount of their time is consumed in dealing with personnel issues concerning both faculty and students. Academics often bemoan this development. However unfortunate it may seem, the essential activity of any administrative or managerial position is working with people; the payoff is in the improved total environment that such person-intensive activities can produce.
Practices #9: One of the first things to do on becoming a department chair is to become organized, consistent, and rigorous about the procedures you will follow and the records you will keep when dealing with any issue of conflict or controversy regarding students and/or faculty. As an officer of the institution you must pay attention to matters of due process, confidentiality, and legal liability. At the same time it is increasingly important to keep in mind that an institution of higher learning that forgets to honor its basic covenant of mutual professional respect, and comes instead to rely only on written contracts and a narrow interpretation of the law, is already beginning to exhaust the fundamental social trust that holds it together. This means that however legalistically things are tending, the department chair especially must strive to identify and illuminate the larger institutional principles that should be served rather than the instrumental means that might be used.
Principle #10: As a member of an institutional organism much larger than oneself, the chairperson is successful to the extent that those who the chairperson works for (the faculty) and those to whom the chairperson reports (the dean) are successful.
Practices #10: The chairperson's two strongest allies and most important resources are the department faculty and the dean. You should try to clarify what they each need from you, and try to provide it. One thing that is always needed is honest, straightforward information. Another is a willingness to take responsibility. Whenever you present a problem, try to provide some tentative but feasible solutions. These will often become the frames within which further discussions are carried out; the first suggestion, even if not followed, may still wield a decisive and disproportionate influence on the outcome. Faculty are often pleased to contribute their ideas because this gives them an opportunity to be involved, it allows them to display their expertise and intelligence, and it tells them they are valued. And higher level administrators, who most often encounter both faculty and chairs only when they are coming to ask for something, are usually gratified to be offered something (like a potential solution or imaginative alternative) for a change.
At each level in an organization, the most effective incumbents are those who look out for the success of the next higher level as well as their own. This is what, in organizational theory, is called linkage. For example, an effective faculty member is one who not only looks after his or her own interests but also has some genuine concern for the department's welfare. Similarly, an effective department chair is one who not only looks after the department's interests but also has some active concern for the good of the school or college in which the department is located. Benjamin Franklin's famous adage to the Constitutional Convention is equally germane here: "We shall all hang together, or we shall all hang separately."
THE FINAL BIG THREE
Principles #11, 12, & 13: As both an administrator and a student of leadership, I have become increasingly captivated by three inter-related principles that seem to recur in every leadership equation. These are the themes of morale, vision, and communication. Let me try to summarize these final principles briefly.
First: I have come to believe very strongly that morale is the single most important aspect of any organization. This ought to go without saying; unfortunately, it needs repeating over and over again. People need to feel that they are playing a meaningful role in the accomplishment of something worthwhile. Both common sense and countless studies tell us that people who feel good about what they are doing will do it well. Morale is always most crucial in labor-intensive, service organizations--which is what education is--because it is in these organizations that the product is so elusive to define and difficult to measure.
As we are well aware, educational institutions are increasingly being pressured to institute some form of outcomes assessment. Many who take higher education seriously see this as a formidable if not impossible problem. Much of higher education is not a "bottom-line" activity; when forced to devise "bottom line" measures of output to determine success, educational institutions begin to distort and even to undermine their primary mission. We see this today in schools that "teach to the tests." The only effective counter to this emphasis on bottom line outputs is to underscore top line inputs--the quality and commitment that faculty are not only willing but eager to put into their work. That quality and commitment is what constitutes morale. And so, especially in higher education, where the most important outcomes are indefinite and distant, occurring in the lives of our students in ways that we cannot predict and often long after they have left our classrooms, the key to success is in the energy, excitement, and commitment--the morale of the faculty.
Second: The members in every organization need to believe that at least one person knows how all the pieces fit together. In the case of an academic department, members of the department need to feel confident in the belief that someone--the chairperson--does in fact know this. Conspiracy theories in academia often flourish because academics strenuously resist the evidence (which, all too often, is all too ample) that nobody really knows what is really going on. In almost every significant work on effective leadership the need for the articulation of a compelling organizational vision is stressed again and again. What is meant by vision is not something vague and mythical, but a concrete image of what the whole looks like and how the various parts are functionally connected to that whole. A vision takes on a meaningful dynamic when it is effectively portrayed to others.
Third: Not so long ago I would articulate this last principle with this statement: "There is no such thing as too much communication." But my experience since has modified this statement to: "Tell everybody lots and tell everybody true, but it isn't necessary to tell everybody everything all the time." Or in the words of the poet Emily Dickinson, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." While still believing that there is no such thing as too much communication, I have come to realize that people in administrative and managerial positions often have to assess complex questions and make difficult decisions which deal with individuals' personal lives and rights to privacy, which deal with sensitive political issues, which involve information which is privileged or tentative or speculative. So I would now state this third principle as follows: Maximize communication as much as possible, keep everyone equally informed publicly and appropriately informed individually, keep hidden as little as possible and prudent, and create a sense of open sharing and exchange so that information flow is optimized in all directions.
Although far from exhaustive, the set of principles and practices described above should stand beginning, and even experienced, chairpersons in good stead as they expand their own leadership styles and sensitivities. Every chairperson must develop the leadership skills that reflect his or her own personal strengths and particular situation. Because all leadership is inevitably situational, some of these ideas may work, some will require modification, and some will prove irrelevant or useless. But I believe that the unobtrusive exercise of quiet leadership will continue to be especially appropriate for the care and nurturing of academic departments and their individual faculty members.
* When offering advice it seems only appropriate to also offer one's bona fides: For five years the author was chairperson of a two-discipline department (sociology and anthropology) located in a large four-year state college, now a university. The department was staffed with nine full time and four adjunct faculty. During this five year period the department transferred two disciplines (social work and gerontology) into separate departments, managed one retirement and three sabbaticals, hired faculty for five temporary and two permanent positions, added a new program (archaeology technician), and initiated extensive curriculum revision. The department inaugurated a newsletter for local high schools, received the first college-wide award for departmental service (for the period 1984-89), and sponsored the departmental secretary's recognition for a college-wide outstanding staff award.
The author has received college recognition as a Distinguished Presidential Professor, Distinguished Honors Professor, and Cortez Honors Professor at Weber State University. He is former vice-president of Behavioral Science Consultants, Inc., co-founder of Editorial Additions (an organizational newsletter enrichment service for executives and managers), and has served as an organizational consultant to the Office of Economic Opportunity, the National Education Association, AT&T, U.S. West, the Office of the Governor of Utah, and the Utah State Division of Social Services. Prior to becoming a college professor, he was a director of VISTA training programs in Utah and Maryland.