Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

Leadership in Educational Institutions: Reflections of a Law School Dean

Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

Leadership in Educational Institutions: Reflections of a Law School Dean

Article excerpt

As Deborah Rhode observes in her superb book Lawyers as Leaders, (l) there is a vast literature on leadership. It has become an object of microscopic study. It is as though leadership were an element that could be measured, its essence extracted, its secrets replicated, and its puissance transmitted to those capable of learning.

I have no doubt that we can acquire a great deal by the study of leadership. But my own intuition is that leadership is more a verb than a noun. It is evidenced in actions appropriate to ambient circumstances. Leadership is like the right key sliding into the right lock. Sometimes leadership requires adamant inflexibility, as when Churchill resisted the Nazis, and sometimes it requires endless agility, as when President Roosevelt continuously improvised to get his New Deal off the starting blocks. Sometimes an effective leader must be cautious and appreciative of the wisdom of existing arrangements, and sometimes a leader must be audacious and willing to crack eggs. Sometimes leadership requires cunning, sometimes confidence. Context is everything.

What is clear is that a leader gets no points for following a rulebook. In the end, leaders are almost always measured by their success, and success can be known only retrospectively. Leaders must thus gamble on their vision of the future. Leaders are judged both by the content of that vision and by their capacity to achieve it.

Sometimes, however, we view leadership through a narrower, more technocratic lens. We judge the effectiveness of leadership based on a person's ability to assemble and mobilize followers. (2) The strategies available for a leader to connect with followers will depend on preexisting relationships. Followers can be employees, constituents, or believers; they can be subordinates, coconspirators, customers, or colleagues. As the relationship between a leader and her followers changes, so do the legal and social tools that a leader can bring to bear in making her leadership effective. Sometimes trust is necessary to leadership, sometimes fear. Sometimes discipline is required, at other times inspiration.

Given all of these variables and uncertainties, what can be said about leadership in general or about leadership in educational institutions? I can offer only a few desultory autobiographical reflections. I shall discuss, first, the strategic dilemmas I faced while striving to maintain the pedagogical culture of Yale Law School (YLS) during a time of crisis in legal education and, second, my difficulties in mobilizing various constituencies whom I was expected to "lead."

Vision and Strategy

We assess leaders by success. But what does success mean in the context of an academic organization? While the success of commercial corporations is easily measured in dollars and cents, the success of educational institutions is much more difficult to evaluate.

In his great essay "The Idea of a University," the eminent English philosopher Michael Oakeshott criticized "current talk about the 'mission' and the 'function' of a university." (3) "A university is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result," he argued; "it is a manner of human activity." (4) A university "is a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended, and where the necessary apparatus for the pursuit of learning has been gathered together." (5) How might one measure the success of leadership in such an institution?

The first point, and it is a deep one, is to determine whether Oakeshott has accurately captured the nature of the modern university. In the small corner of higher education that I occupy--legal education--Oakeshott's view of the university as a home of learning that eschews any particular result is quite controversial. So, for example, legal educators were informed during the recent crisis that there was agreement that "the basic purpose of law schools is to train lawyers" (although we were also instructed that "there is no consensus about what this means"). …

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