Friday, October 13, 2006

Share Leadership

Sharing leadership is particularly important for directors and administrators in educational settings. One reason for this is the tendency of people working in education to be “low risk entrepreneurs.”

Education is not a particularly high-paying career path, but some people are attracted to it because it provides many of the aspects of an entrepreneurial career – flexible hours, lots of opportunity for creativity in your work, and a relative lack of interference from a strong, hierarchical management system. True entrepreneurs enjoy these aspects of their careers, but also have low job security and assume considerable financial risks. For many people this combination of low level of job security and high financial risk is not an acceptable price to pay in exchange for the autonomy they want. For some of these people accepting a low-paying career in education is a good way to gain relatively high levels of autonomy, job security and low financial risk. Since there is an element of financial sacrifice involved in their career choices, many educators place a correspondingly high value on their independence in the workplace. This means educators generally resent and resist any imposition of a corporate-style management hierarchy*. As a result, most educational institutions have a very flat organizational structure – a lot of Indians and not many Chiefs. The few formal administrative or managerial positions outside of support staff positions are commonly filled on a rotating basis from among the general faculty. Even in situations where there is an administrative position with clear supervisory authority, there is an expectation that the person in that position will be sensitive to the education culture and its entrepreneurial expectations. Part of that sensitivity is sharing leadership even if it isn’t automatically built into the system. This generally means basing decisions whenever possible on consensus (ideal) or majority vote (next best) and it means substantial use of committees, task forces or working groups.

One important consideration in how to make this all work well is to balance responsibility with authority when sharing leadership. Whenever elements of leadership are delegated, the people given responsibility for the element need to be given a commensurate level of authority. When this doesn’t happen, there are often problems.

On the other hand, there are times and situations when an organization needs someone to exercise authority in order to deal with problems that are not amenable to a simple vote or consensus decision. Directors need to be willing to step in and resolve such problems. This works well when there is a general understanding that the problem is not amenable to consensus and when there is general trust in the director to make fair and balanced decisions overall. That kind of trust is normally based on the experience the organization has with the director over time.

As a new director in the ELP, I haven’t been able to establish any basis for trust in my ability to make decisions when that is needed. I hope that will come over time.

I have also noted that even though many educators resent corporate style organizational structures, there is a human tendency to want individual recognition and reward. Thus, even in the flattest educational hierarchies divisions based on some differentiation in status tend to emerge. This is sometimes reflected in job titles or contract types; sometimes it is reflected in which office or office furniture people have. Maintaining both a flat, we-are-all-equal organizational structure and providing recognition of individuals through some differentiation in status is a tricky thing. I think that the ELP will definitely present a challenge in this regard.

(*When I was manager of the in-company English program at Sumitomo Metals, a large part of my job was dealing with any conflicts or problems that occurred at the various office and factory English programs throughout Japan. I anticipated that differences in Japanese culture and the Western culture that the English teachers came from would cause most of the problems. Over time, though, I learned that in fact we were dealing with four cultures – Japanese, Western, Business and Education. It was the clash between the business and education cultures that actually produced most of the problems.)

Next time: Make exceptions (but only when you have a good reason)

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