Magazine article University Business

When Consensus Is Not the Answer: Today's New Leader Draws from a Repertoire of Leadership Styles to Promote Decision-Making

Magazine article University Business

When Consensus Is Not the Answer: Today's New Leader Draws from a Repertoire of Leadership Styles to Promote Decision-Making

Article excerpt

Even as the economy improves, cuts to public higher education are likely to continue. Of course, this only exacerbates the financial crisis that was brought on by drying-up state revenues and heavy tosses in endowments due to over-reliance on the stock market. What does art this have to do with consensus gathering? Simply this: In this financially pressured environment, it borders on irresponsibility to believe that consensus decision-making can always produce a win-win outcome of general agreement or precise equality in each and every decision. And though traditional academic leaders often exhibit a finely tuned, collaborative, collegial style (fostering a culture where conflict and risk are avoided), today's environment requires a new type of academic leader. That "new" leader is a hands-on change agent who draws from a repertoire of leadership styles to promote decision-making that capitalizes on opportunities and advances the institution.


The problem with this new leadership style is that many institutions still retain at least pockets of a culture that focuses on reaching consensus and maintaining the status quo. Symptoms may include "untouchable" programs (sacred cows) or search committees that sunset and reconvene month after month, unable to reach a consensus on the right candidate white a vital position remains unfitted. Underneath these symptoms may be an unwillingness (or perhaps an inability) to test assumptions about strategic directions, programs, fundraising strategies, and infrastructure.

When Alexander Gonzalez became president of California State University, Sacramento in July 2003, he found a status quo culture not unlike the ones we've just described.

"The previous president had been here for 19 years," says Gonzalez, "and although it was not consciously articulated, the main objective had become maintaining the status quo. The campus had lost its momentum and people were disappointed and disenchanted."

Fortunately, white Gonzalez recognized that consensus is the desired norm in higher education, he also knew that an effective leader had to be a change agent. "The [higher education] environment has changed dramatically," he says. "As the University of Phoenix and other proprietary institutions have shown us, higher education is big business. It's good for the country, the economy, and the individual, when we open up educational opportunities for everyone. With that as a basic premise, views of higher education must change." But more important than consensus, says Gonzalez, is "enabling people to develop on their own, have a say in what they do, and contribute to decisions. A leader can strive to approach consensus," he says, "but ultimately has to be the catalyst that moves the institution to the next level."

Wade Hobgood, chancellor of North Carolina School of the Arts, agrees. "Consensus is welcome and desirable, but 100 percent buy-in is an unachievable ideal," he maintains. "We cannot rely on old patterns of decision-making, because the rules have changed. Higher education must be much more responsive to, and participate in, external matters like economic development, cultural diversity issues, and technology integration." He adds that while change is not a natural process in an academic environment, "it is essential in today's climate."

In fact, in the four years of Hobgood's tenure as chancellor, NCSA has undergone substantial change. "We've made significant changes in the behavior, attitudes, and professionalism of the institution, and in the way we interact with the campus, local, state, and national community," he says. From an institution that was primarily internally oriented prior to his arrival, the school has shifted to an external orientation with a resulting greater understanding, support, and involvement from legislators, donors, and individuals with diverse needs and agendas. It has become entrepreneurial in creating business partnerships with corporations and financial institutions. …

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