Emerging Definitions of Leadership in Higher Education: New Visions of Leadership or Same Old "Hero" Leader?

By Eddy, Pamela L.; VanDerLinden, Kim E. | Community College Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Emerging Definitions of Leadership in Higher Education: New Visions of Leadership or Same Old "Hero" Leader?


Eddy, Pamela L., VanDerLinden, Kim E., Community College Review


The higher education literature suggests that alternative leadership styles are replacing the traditionally held definitions of leadership and provide new and different (and possibly superior) ways to understand leadership. This article looks for parallels within the current leadership literature to see if community college administrators use the alternative language or emerging definitions of leadership to self-describe their own leadership or if their self-descriptions fit the more traditional hierarchical ideal of the positional or "hero" leader.

Keywords: leadership styles; positional leader; leadership development; administrators

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Challenges and opportunities exist simultaneously in the administrative and leadership ranks of our colleges and universities. The current context of higher education is shaped by the decline of institutional resources (Johnstone, 1999), changing student demographics (Hurtado & Dey, 1997), shifts in teaching to student-centered learning (Barr & Tagg, 1995), the impact of technology on faculty roles (Baldwin, 1998), and the paradigm shift from an industrial age to an information age (Dolence & Norris, 1995). The historical demand-response nature of community colleges pushes for strategic responses on the part of leaders (Gumport, 2003). Although the calls for leadership to address challenges and take advantage of opportunities are not new, the emerging definitions of what it means to be an institutional leader or practice leadership are changing.

Throughout the last half of the 20th century, scholars spent considerable time postulating the requirements for and definitions of leadership. A scan of recent books published in higher education literature suggests that an interest in leadership continues to prevail (see, for example, Astin & Astin, 2000; Bowen & Shapiro, 1998; Chliwniak, 1997; Davis, 2003; Nidiffer, 2001). In addition to investing much time and energy studying leadership in the academy, colleges and universities, as well as local, state, and national associations and organizations, have devoted valuable resources to fund and send campus members to leadership training workshops and programs. In 2003, for example, the American Association of Community Colleges offered a Future Leaders Institute. The Institute targeted senior administrators and had the stated objectives of instilling the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for successful leaders. Yet with all these expended resources and pursuits, a question remains: Have the traditionally held definitions of leaders and leadership changed substantially within the ranks of administrative leaders?

The literature suggests that alternative leadership styles are replacing the traditionally held definitions of leadership and provide new and different (and possibly superior) ways to understand leadership. According to Davis (2003), leadership has been recognized as an activity that can "bubble up" in various places within institutions and no longer is only focused on formal leadership roles. Discussions of leadership throughout the organization (Peterson, 1997), team leadership (Bensimon & Neumann, 1993), servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977; Spears & Lawrence, 2003), transformative leadership (Burns, 1978), inclusive leadership (Helgesen, 1995), and the role of followership (Kelley, 1998) have replaced the traditional discussions of the "great man" or "hero" leader.

Alternative definitions of leadership demand rethinking the traditional images and the traditional relationships associated with leaders and followers (Green, 1997). Central to this rethinking is the transition from theoretical discussions of appropriate leadership to the actual practice of leadership at colleges and universities. To that end, this article looks for parallels within current leadership literature to see if community college administrators use the alternative language or emerging definitions of leadership to self-describe their own leadership or if their self-descriptions fit the more traditional hierarchical ideal of the positional or "hero" leader. …

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