Academia: A Follower's Desires
Thursday's Child Has Far to Go
Many of us have heard the story, probably apocryphal, about a speech given to incoming freshmen at an Ivy League school where the dean of students congratulated the one member of the incoming class who identified as a follower rather than a leader in his application, assuring him that he would be the most popular person on campus for the next four years.
I recently had an invitation, not the first time, to consider myself as a candidate for Provost at my institution. I surprised myself by actually thinking about it for a while despite having chosen not to go forward in previous opportunities. I decided it would make me really unhappy to try to do that job and I’m too old to voluntarily add a new kind of unhappiness to my life. If I was going to have tried to do it, I should have tried a long time ago.
However, the other thing that occurred to me is that I don’t think I’m really qualified any longer for that kind of broad-spectrum leadership. I know a lot about higher education and I have a lot of ideas about how it should operate, as any reader of this newsletter knows. That’s not necessarily a good thing in that role. I would have a hard time shutting up on one hand (and it’s a position that requires doing so) and on the other hand, I’ve found that over the years I’ve become much more reluctant to seize the reins and drive a process of decision-making forcefully in the direction I personally judge to be best. I’ve now been in a series of leadership roles where I end up passive-aggressively deferring to more forcefully decisive people and then sometimes I end up being the front-man for a decision I wasn’t very happy about in the first place. The most forceful leadership I think I’ve exerted has been as a chair, but that often involved subsuming or deferring my own best judgment or preferences in service to the needs of others, of being someone else’s representative or advocate.
I’ve discovered, perhaps, that I’d much rather be on one hand self-sufficient—to take care of my own shit, pursue my own goals, do my own thing as seems best to me. And on the other hand, I’d desperately like to be well-led and to help my leaders as best I can by providing counsel and advice about how they can lead me (and others) well. I see from a 1988 Harvard Business Review essay that these are completely compatible goals and in fact qualify me as a “highly effective follower”.
So what follows here is my cover letter applying for the position of highly effective follower to whomever is prepared to lead me well. Here’s what I think will lead me well, and what would lead many of us in higher education well—I think this could be the cover letter for many other faculty aspiring to be effective followers.
I want leadership that understands and respects that decentralized institutional structures are in many ways extremely efficient, highly functional. I’m not parroting surface-level management talk about empowerment and so on, the kind of thing that leaves people with all the responsibility and none of the authority, that is mostly about having someone else to blame (or no one at all) when something goes wrong. I’m talking about genuinely charging everybody with taking care of their own shit and giving them the resources and trust necessary to do that effectively. (Trust in this case including job security like tenure.) Leadership should cut into that self-sufficiency with authority only when it has blatantly failed to function as it should: when someone is abusing their power and trust, to stop them; when someone is having trouble coping on their own with their responsibilities, to support them and build them back up. Building taller and more centralized hierarchies intensifies fragility and it makes the jobs of leaders more and more difficult on the leaders—a cycle that drives what has become known as “administrative bloat”. The answer to a job that has become impossible in its scope and responsibilities is not more leaders or more hierarchy, it is the dispersal of some of the responsibilities and powers that have been taken into the leadership to the whole. Decentralization when it is done right not only creates far more robust kinds of collaborations where people can pool different insights and knowledge to create better decisions, it is also a way to avoid the kind of terrible mistakes that lengthy, protected hierarchies are prone to make. A decentralized institution is one where many people have their eyes on potential mistakes, simultaneously and independently of one another. The trick is to make sure that information flows between those compartments freely and that leadership doesn’t frivolously override or ignore decentralized practices and insights. (More on that shortly.)
I want to led by people who believe that you should move from individual self-sufficiency to collaborations at all institutional scales via consultative, democratic processes. Again, for real, not just in top-level rhetoric bursting with insincerity and diversion. One reason that universities are suffering from a disconnect with their students and surrounding communities is that they struggle to apply their advocacy to themselves. University and college administrations are enthusiastic about the idea that they are educating students to be participating citizens of a democratic society and increasingly uninterested in the basic norms of democratic consultation within their own walls. I understand that not everything can be transparently consultative with the largest possible assemblies—small meetings infused with trust and imbued with the authority to act are both necessary and generative in many cases. But those meetings get infused with trust when they are part of a deep-seated, persistent commitment to operating consultatively, to anticipating who might care about a decision and taking their concerns seriously even if there’s already a will to override their preferences.
Decisions should always really feel contingent, not inevitable. An ostensible consultation that is in fact just an information session for a decision long since made is a profound violation of this commitment. To be well-led, I have to be able to feel as if my counsel, advice or information might at any time meaningfully affect what leadership was previously inclined to do. Not because I’m important or have a fixed place in the hierarchy, but because all decisions should always be subject to reconsideration in the face of good arguments and valuable counsel. I don’t ever want to feel that leadership is keeping what they’ve already decided from me and people like me because they know we’ll disagree and they’re just figuring out a strategy for “handling us” after the decision becomes a fait accompli. I don’t want anything to be handed down as a dictate that cannot be discussed, reviewed or challenged. That’s especially bad in an institution made up of highly educated professionals that aims to educate highly intelligent and capable students: it’s not just infantilizing, it undercuts the whole point of the damn thing.
The #1 thing I need as an effective follower to function as a citizen of the institution is information. I need to know a lot about what goes on in my own institution, about why we’re enacting X policy and making Y change to our organization. To know it honestly, not euphemistically or through top-level communications strategies that obscure as much as they reveal. I need my colleagues in the faculty and staff to feel comfortable sharing realistic, grounded, truthful explanations of what they’re doing in their areas of responsibility. I understand the importance of confidentiality—it’s a practical mistake and a moral misfire for both institutional citizens and leaders to persistently assign blame to named individuals who aren’t in the discussion when talking about changes or problems. And I understand the importance of liability, of not exposing the institution to legal harassment for perfectly sensible decisions by being too clear or honest about the basis for those decisions. But those two considerations are being used all across higher education to absolutely stifle the flow of information. When I am an effective follower, it is because I have the information to accurately and convincingly narrate the institution to students, parents, prospective applicants, job applicants, interested publics. When I have the information and I’m treated as a citizen, I can talk about the challenges involved and debates surrounding particular disciplines, pedagogy, libraries and information technology, admissions and financial aid, budgeting and investing, pursuing innovations like makerspaces or teaching-learning centers. When I don’t have that information and I can say either nothing or just repeat a high-level communication that says nothing meaningful, I stop being able to speak about and for the institution. Or I start being pushed into the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, into a discourse that encodes and reproduces distrust and alienation, that overinterprets thin or fragmentary information via rumor and misrepresentation.
I need to know that my leaders are plugged into the habitus of their institutions. For academic leadership particularly, that means taking the time to be with faculty in ordinary ways. Not just committees, meetings, deliberations, or formal rituals, not just when being petitioned to fix a problem or find a solution. Deans of faculty, provosts, chancellors and the like need to attend to the sociality that keeps them in the loop. That means something like having a kitchen cabinet of informal advisors who can be trusted to have critical, perspicacious evaluations of possible decisions or proposals, but it also means valuing ordinary sociality with people who are not necessarily friends or close confidants. When leaders only talk to leaders, it becomes easy for them to do things that baffle or alienate almost everyone else. When leaders assign subordinates the job of interacting with the wider community, they put those subordinates in an impossible position—either of being the lightning rod after transmitting unpalatable news or of taking some already-vague proposal or idea and making into completely empty mush in order to keep themselves from being targeted. I want to see and know that my leaders are seeing and knowing us as we really are, not just through chains of interlocution from subordinates who are likely afraid to relay the honest truth of how things are.
I want leaders who very profoundly believe in the professional and social values that I want to uphold as a follower, or if they don’t, are coherent and legible in their dissent and are prepared to have a genuine discussion (full of forking paths and possibilities) of why they don’t share my values or the wider values of my colleagues or community. I want to be led by people who are expressive and eloquent, both spontaneously and otherwise, in their defense of those values—and who are gifted strategists in how they carry out that defense. I want leaders who are not scared of confrontation when it is necessary in defense of my profession and institution (as opposed to being the tool of others bent on confronting my profession and institution). I want leaders who value what I value; I will be glad to have their back in a fight if they do and have shown that they do. I want leaders who cheer us on with unfeigned enthusiasm and love for what we do. I want my leaders to align the everyday practices of my institution with the values we claim to uphold overall. I want a leadership that is at least aware of the need to try and walk the walk that corresponds to the talk.
I want some sense of anticipation of future challenges and problems and some ability to call me and my colleagues (both faculty and staff) to the table to grapple with the future in ways that none of us can do by ourselves. I want someone who understands a particular institution down to its smallest details but who also sees some of the big picture more than any followers can. I want to feel confidence in the vision of my leaders and the teams they assemble to keep them abreast of the big picture. I want to be confronted or debated with when the leaders can see something I can’t or don’t, and when they feel the urgency of making decisions that might not be as visible or urgent from inside each decentralized compartment. If am well-led in all the other ways I’ve described, then when that moment comes, I will feel I have information, I have trust, I have alignment with values, I am seen and known, and the decision isn’t a done deal as we enter the debate. And I will at that moment be a happy follower who is content to give everything I have to the work I am doing and to sustain the institution into its future as best I can, in the most constructive spirit possible.
Image credit: Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash
This post hit home. I'm finishing a long stint in a semi-administrative role and wondering about these aspects of small-college life a lot. Thanks
Tim, you have totally mastered the “art of being ruled”--kufugibwa in the language of Buganda. And I think you have, in the process, provided the richest and most valuable understandings of that concept. No way “they” can turn you down from this opportunity.