Program cuts, reduction in grant support, elimination of academic departments, reduction of organizational layers, centralization of administrative functions, constant changes in technology, and changes in pedagogy are just a few challenges that university and college leaders face today.
In this climate administrators and faculty members must make hard decisions on a daily basis, be aware of opportunities and risk, and be pragmatic in traversing the ever-changing terrain of higher education.
What makes it difficult to lead in higher education is not simply the obvious issues of fewer resources and additional external pressures, but the very nature of the institution itself. The intransigent culture, turf protection, and multiple missions. Universities, at times, appear to be fiefdoms, loosely held together by unstated good intentions and assumed commonality of purpose.
This veil of harmony has been sustained by the banal belief that things will, more or less, work out. Now, as the rubber has hit the road, the pressure is on and leaders are forced not only to make promises and give commencement speeches, but also push agendas. This calls for a new set of practical skills. At all levels of the university, leaders must be taught how to move agendas ahead in a world of differing mindsets, turf, and limited resources.
Today, at every university and college, new strategic plans are routinely put in place. There are endless discussions and meetings about where to go. There is perpetual dialogue about aspiration and intention. All this vision will amount to very little if our academic leaders do not learn the basic skills of moving agendas ahead. We can talk about where to go as long as we want, but we must make sure that at all levels of universities and colleges that leaders and potential leaders have the skills necessary to get there. Nothing will happen if academic leaders do not master the fundamental skills of political and managerial competence.
Political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control, know when to take action, anticipate who is going to resist your agenda, and determine whom you need on your side to push your agenda forward. Political competence is about knowing how map the political terrain, get others on your side, and lead coalitions. More often than not, political competence is not understood as a critical core competence needed by all leaders at all levels of the organization. Political competence is often unstated.
Politically competent leaders develop a compelling agenda. Few people are going to rally around you or your idea because they like you or feel that you are a good person. The roots of long-term leadership success are in having an idea that serves a real need in the organization, makes sense, and generates excitement among a solid base of supporters. The best agendas not only raise awareness of key challenges but also lay out a sound approach to achieving the desired results.
Managerial competence is about your ability to sustain the initiative and move toward a goal, and define who is going to do what, who is going to be accountable to whom, how people are going to be evaluated, how you’re going to keep the group together, and how you’re going to deal with obstacles and challenges. Managerial competence is about your ability to implement and sustain momentum.
Managerial competence implies your capacity to stay focused on the goal while adjusting resources and activities to deal with constantly emerging contingencies. Leaders who are managerially competent have both close and distant vision—they can deal with minutia while looking ahead and being aware of what adjustments have to be made.
Political competence means developing the ability to rally your team around your agenda. Managerial competence is your ability to support that team and sustain their momentum for results. The challenge is to create those programs that will give university and college leaders the specific skills necessary to move change in these complex settings.
Entrepreneurship and collaboration are essential to the modern university, and both require the skills of political and managerial competence. Leadership in academic organizations, as in all organizations, requires the capacity to rally people around great ideas and see them through—whether in pursuing grants, centralizing IT, conducting research, decentralizing HR, establishing an off-campus distance learning program, conducting research, or creating a new professional programs. The successful entrepreneurial leader—academic or administrative—is able to initiate, implement and execute an agenda.