Leadership as defining what’s successful

After spending a few days visiting friends and family in Central Queensland – not to mention enjoying the beach – a long 7+ hour drive home provided an opportunity for some thinking. I’ve long had significant qualms about the notion of leadership, especially as it is increasingly being understood and defined by the current corporatisation of universities and schools. The rhetoric is increasingly strong amongst schools with the current fashion for assuming that Principals can be the saviour of schools that have broken free from the evils of bureaucracy. I even work within an institution where a leadership research group is quite active amongst the education faculty.

On the whole, my experience of leadership in organisations has been negative. At the best the institution bumbles along through bad leadership. I’m wondering whether or not questioning this notion of leadership might form an interesting future research agenda. The following is an attempt to make concrete some thinking from the drive home, spark some comments, and set me up for some more (re-)reading. It’s an ill-informed mind dump sparked somewhat by some early experiences on return from leave.

Fisherman’s beach by David T Jones, on Flickr

In the current complex organisational environment, I’m thinking that “leadership” is essentially the power to define what success is, both prior to and after the fact. I wonder whether any apparent success attributed to the “great leader” is solely down to how they have defined success? I’m also wondering how much of that success is due to less than ethical or logical definitions of success?

The definition of success prior to the fact is embodied in the current model of process assumed by leaders, i.e. telological processes. Where the great leader must define some ideal future state (e.g. adoption of Moodle, Peoplesoft, or some other system; an organisational restructure that creates “one university”; or, perhaps even worse, a new 5 year strategic plan etc.) behind which the weight of the institution will then be thrown. All roads and work must lead to the defined point of success.

This is the Dave Snowden idea of giving up the evolutionary potential of the present for the promise of some ideal future state. A point he’ll often illustrate with this quote from Seneca

The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.

Snowden’s use of this quote comes from the observation that some systems/situations are examples of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). These are systems where traditional expectations of cause and effect don’t hold. When you intervene in such systems you cannot predict what will happen, only observe it in retrospect. In such systems the idea you can specify up front where you want to go is little more than wishful thinking. So defining success – in these systems – prior to the fact is a little silly. It questions the assumptions of such leadership, including that they can make a difference.

So when the Executive Dean of a Faculty – that includes programs in information technology and information systems – is awarded “ICT Educator of the Year” for the state because of the huge growth in student numbers, is it because of the changes he’s made? Or is it because he was lucky enough to be in power at (or just after) the peak of the IT boom? The assumption is that this leader (or perhaps his predecessor) made logical contributions and changes to the organisation to achieve this boom in student numbers. Or perhaps they made changes simply to enable the organisation to be better placed to handle and respond to the explosion in demand created by external changes.

But perhaps rather than this single reason for success (great leadership), it was instead there were simply a large number of small factors – with no central driving intelligence or purpose – that enabled this particular institution to achieve what it achieved. Similarly, when a few years later the same group of IT related programs had few if any students, it wasn’t because this “ICT Educator of the Year” had failed. Nor was it because of any other single factor, but instead hundreds and thousands of small factors both internally and externally (some larger than others).

The idea that there can be a single cause (or a single leader) for anything in a complex organisational environment seems to be faulty. But because it is demanded of them, leaders must spend more time attempting to define and convince people of their success. In essence then, successful leadership becomes more about your ability to define and promulgate widely acceptance of this definition of success.

KPIs and accountability galloping to help

This need to define and promulgate success is aided considerably by simple numeric measures. The number of student applications; DFW rates; numeric responses on student evaluation of courses – did you get 4.3?; journal impact factors and article citation metrics; and, many many more. These simple figures make it easy for leaders to define specific perspectives on success. This is problematic and it’s many problems are well known. For example,

  • Goodhart’s law – “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • Campbell’s law – “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
  • the Lucas critique.

For example, you have the problem identified by Tutty et al (2008) where rather than improve teaching, institutional quality measures “actually encourage inferior teaching approaches” (p. 182). It’s why you have the LMS migration project receiving an institutional award for quality etc, even though for the first few weeks of the first semester it was largely unavailable to students due to dumb technical decisions by the project team and required a large additional investment in consultants to fix.

Would this project have received the award if a senior leader in the institution (and the institutional itself) heavily reliant upon the project being seen as a success?

Would the people involved in giving the project the award have reasonable reasons for thinking it award winning? Is success of the project and of leadership all about who defines what perspective is important?

Some other quick questions

Some questions for me to consider.

  • Where does this perspective sit within the plethora of literature on leadership and organisational studies? Especially within the education literature? How much of this influenced by earlier reading of “Managing without Leadership: Towards a Theory of Organizational Functioning”
  • Given the limited likelihood of changing how leadership is practiced within the current organisational and societal context, how do you act upon any insights this perspective might provide? i.e. how the hell do I live (and heaven forbid thrive) in such a context?

References

Tutty, J., Sheard, J., & Avram, C. (2008). Teaching in the current higher education environment: perceptions of IT academics. Computer Science Education, 18(3), 171–185.

4 thoughts on “Leadership as defining what’s successful

  1. Sturgeon’s law comes to mind for your first question. For the second, I was fortunate to stumble upon 3 folk who understood ‘leadership’ and they informed how I tried to work with folk – my remote mentors when I needed mentoring in the face of ridiculous, absurdist, self agrandisement – the rest? – frauds, snake oil merchants in a world swimming in snake oil–and these are the kind terms to describe the jetsam that one finds in much of the ‘leadership’ in the academy in Oz (there are good folk in this mess but they, in my experience are rare and not good at stomping on the under-talented bullies that pop up in these roles. Those that can’t do it teach, those who can’t teach opt to “lead” not having the first clue about what that might mean.

    If a “leader” is not growing leaders then she/he is not a leader.

    The good guys:

    Ricardo Semler,
    Dee Hock
    &
    Jean-François Zobrist

    or, if you’d prefer a more artistic version of the same argument: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/itay_talgam_lead_like_the_great_conductors.html

    happy to add to this collection – the rest… frauds.

    1. This will be a good start, thanks Chris. I’ve heard you mention Semler and Hock previously. I’m wondering how much the ideas of these folk have infected the formal literature, especially in the school leadership stuff? To explore as time permits.

    2. I’d be thrilled to know if you found anyone who was. I should not pass judgement on the ed. leadership lit. but what I have read, long time back never impressed me.

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