Leadership in HIgher Education, ICOS, January 11, 2002

Leadership in Higher Education
Presentation by Jeffrey S. Lehman
ICOS Graduate Seminar, Ann Arbor
January 11, 2002

I appreciate having been invited to be part of the ICOS graduate seminar.  I think that there is much to be said for the scientific study of organizations, and leadership within them.  And I also think that, as a unique form of organization, universities are endlessly fascinating places to work, as well as endlessly fascinating subjects of study.

I asked you all to read a couple of chapters of Gardner.  In truth, I think the entire book is well worth reading in a course on organizations and leadership.  He is smart, and he himself does what he says leaders do – he stakes out a clear and understandable story about his topic, even if it’s not always right.

Let me use my 15 minutes to do three things.  I want to say a couple of words about Gardner’s view of leadership.  I want to say a few more words about his account of Hutchins and Dewey.  And then I want to give my own, somewhat different view, of what it all means for university leadership today and tomorrow.

First, Gardner.

Gardner’s idea is that leaders shape other people’s behavior, either directly through persuasion or indirectly by saying things that others quote or invoke.  They work at a cognitive level.  And he says either way, the key is their ability to relate a story in words, and to embody that story in their own deeds.

He describes three kinds of leaders.  Ordinary leaders tell the conventional story effectively.  Innovative leaders give the conventional story a fresh twist.  Visionary leaders create new stories.

In the chapter I gave you, he offers a useful observation, I believe.  He notes that for most of us, we aren’t very sophisticated in most areas.  We’re like what he calls five-year-olds, and we like simple clear stories that resonate.  But in some areas, we have expertise.  And there we want a different kind of story.  And he says that this fact has strong implications for people who want to lead large organizations or communities.  He implies, at least, that the most effective, visionary leaders, are people who can move effectively back and forth in their stories, from complex and subtle stories that are appropriate to an audience of experts to simpler narratives that are appropriate to a general and diverse audience.

Second, Hutchins and Dewey.  I think that anyone who cares about educational leadership should be aware of the Hutchins/Dewey debates.  Hutchins of Chicago, Dewey of Michigan, then Chicago, then Columbia.  Hutchins the elite advocate of excellence, Dewey the democratic advocate of diversity.  And I would just assert that in the twenty-first century, the great challenge of leadership is to, with intellectual rigor, to enable people to appreciate that both were right and both were wrong.  To appreciate that there is a powerful, tension, even an irreconcilable conflict, but that it is essential for us to preserve that tension and grow from it, rather than to choose one camp or the other.  When you hear someone say, “Hutchins had it right,” or “Dewey had it right,” you are hearing someone who’s stopped thinking.  The conundrum, the paradox, is the thing.

There is much to learn from Gardner’s interpretation of Hutchins, perhaps as much about Gardner as about Hutchins.  A couple of points.

Gardner suggests that Hutchins was most effective when he was, through his actions, embodying the content of his own ideas – promoting the value of the canon of great books, and advocating for civil rights.  And that he was least effective when he was advocating something he didn’t do – engaging in the kind of debate where you really listen to the other person.

He suggests that, as a result, he was only a partially successful university president.  He shook things up.  He put forth a strong vision.  But he became too much the story himself, and didn’t implant it deeply enough in the institution for others to be able to use the story when he wasn’t around.

Now I don’t really know whether that’s right or wrong about Hutchins.  But I think it is the right way to frame a key challenge for a university leader.

So, finally, what do I think this means for academic leadership in the future?  Five things.

1.  I think that a great leader needs to be able to move comfortably back and forth between Dewey and Hutchins, to feel both perspectives with deep sensitivity.

2.  I think that a great leader needs to be able to speak effectively to a general audience, a broad audience, Gardner’s fifth-grade audience, all of the many different audiences who care about the university, about the importance of a university in sustaining both perspectives and appreciating the deep tension between them.

3.  I think that a university leader must also be able to engage deeply in expert conversation within the different pockets of expertise on campus.  

4.  I think that a university leader must also be able to help the most talented, visionary people on campus to feel that the story is about them, and their activities, and their relationship to the institution, so that when the leader is out of the room they are motivated and inspired to do be at their very best.

5.  Finally, I think that universities themselves must recognize that over time, the institution needs a mix of leaders.  It needs some ordinary and effective leaders, it needs some innovative leaders, and it needs some visionary leaders.  It is hard for an institution to careen back and forth from one vision to its opposite.  It needs to be careful to consolidate its gains before it takes the next step.  In that regard, it may be said that the key for the University of Chicago was that it had Hutchins to articulate a vision, and then it had Lawrence Kimpton, George Beadle, and Edward Levi, each of whom was effective in a different way in consolidating and implementing that vision, in some ways more effective than Hutchins himself had been.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be here today.