Flawed leadership not just in higher ed or rooted in faculty

David L. Arnold
David L. Arnold

In his commentary, Aaron Hughey of Western Kentucky University makes some pointed, and often legitimate, comments about the fallibilities and frailties found in higher education and their implication for leadership and leadership development.

But he falls into a trap he unwittingly lays for himself by claiming that the idea that higher education is qualitatively different is bogus, all the while arguing that its organizations and leadership are so uniquely flawed that they require help from outsiders.

Hughey dismisses faculty as a dangerous source of leadership, arguing that most higher-education faculty are not prepared to assume major leadership responsibilities and that they have little respect for administrators.

That can be true, but then few in the faculty actually aspire to senior leadership. It is probably true that most professionals in many fields do not aspire to senior leadership. Ask practicing engineers out in the field how many of them really want to be corporate executives or, for that matter, what they think of “some bunch of suits from corporate.” But the real danger lies elsewhere.

I have been a company grade and field grade Army officer. I have worked in the private sector in publishing. I have been an organizational trainer, an industrial manager, a higher-education faculty member and a senior academic administrator. Now I am a volunteer and a board member in the nonprofit sector.

If I have learned one thing, it is that organizational culture — micro and macro — matters. Higher education is qualitatively different. The military is qualitatively different. The profit and nonprofit sectors are each qualitatively different.

These accrued differences are important at all levels. While there are certain characteristic skills and predilections that lead to good leadership, being ignorant or dismissive of organizational culture is not one of them.

Good leaders learn early on that one of the most important keys to success is a full and complete understanding of what the people in their organization do, why they do it and how they do it. A good leader can relate to and even perform many of the tasks that are key to the organization’s productivity.

Ask Starbucks why they make certain that every senior manager can perform every task right down to serving coffee and wiping counters. Ask the military why division commanders have been company commanders and why they can describe, relate to and even share experiences with every person and every role in their units.

A leader who is handicapped in the ability to understand, embrace and share the bedrock skills and characteristics of the organization and field will ultimately fail to achieve full potential either personally or for the organization.

A leader in higher education who does not understand or have the background to participate in the instructional environment in some fashion will ultimately fail in the same way. It has happened many times; too many times and in too many ways.

The behavioral flaws that Hughey identifies are not the exclusive property of higher education. The negative traits he parades past the reader are present in greater or lesser degrees in almost all organizations.

As an example, he points with justified dismay to credential snobbery. Anyone with experience in higher education knows that this problem exists. It can be destructive to the field and hurtful to individuals. But it also exists in worlds where the MBA is a ticket or certain law schools carry a cachet that opens doors. It can exist in any setting where earned or perceived credentials are valued.

It is not the litany of common organizational flaws that Hughey calls out that make higher education different or its leadership somehow more flawed than any other field. Nor is it necessarily the responsibility of the faculty to become senior leaders, although they should work to find common ground with each other and with administrators.

Whether among politicians and corporate executives who mock higher education or among department chairs who mock each other’s disciplines, it is the failure of leadership to respect and engage with core culture which presents the real risk to higher education’s ability to move forward.

David L. Arnold of Versailles, a retired college administrator, is a volunteer consultant for nonprofits.