Universities around the world are increasingly challenged in realizing their missions in a changing world. The problem is one of leadership as well as administration: How do you get all the parts to work together as an effective whole? How do you pursue a unified mission at a grand scale when local agendas are strong?

For example a recent white paper by The Chartis Group describes the difficulties faced by academic health centers:

“The inherent complexity of most AHCs makes it difficult to achieve rapid changes in strategic direction. Decision making in academic settings is often decentralized; aligning activities across the clinical, research and education missions is complex and involves a large number of faculty and staff. However, to remain recognized leaders in improving health care, AHC strategies must differentiate themselves from their competition by more closely aligning across the three missions. Therefore, any initiative to redirect strategy and operations must involve an essential element of building understanding and support among the diverse audience of faculty and staff .”

This last sentence is key and points to the need for leadership development.  In times of change, university faculty and staff must build shared understanding and commitments across their diverse contexts.

My colleagues Thomas Sewerin and Bruce Flye have each been working to develop more interdependent, boundary spanning leadership at their respective universities: Thomas is a leadership coach at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Bruce is Director of Planning and Partnerships at East Carolina University, North Carolina, USA. I am inviting each of them to write about their lessons in future posts.

Let’s start with the Thomas’s draft paper on the “four rooms” of leadership at a university. According to this model, the work of leadership is different in four distinct contexts of the university, with different sets of rules, roles and even languages. Each room has a distinct “view” and entails certain kinds of leadership conversations, and thus  certain ways of producing shared direction, alignment, and commitment. The idea for those leading strategic change is to support the identity and needs of each room, while at the same time bridging the differences.

Transformative leadership in academia thus means inviting all four rooms into one conversation, by creating what the authors call a “fifth province” or fifth room to hold that conversation.

The idea is to provide a format to make visible and “talkable” leadership in practice where there is a place for both differences and the communal. The university is not a coherent entity of common intentions and objectives. The academy is sometimes rather a conglomerate of completely separate worlds of understanding, meaning and action. We want to stress that leadership in the university is a way of “holding” all four rooms.

These four rooms of leading are:

What might the fifth province be like that holds all these conversations, spans their boundaries, and creates new frontiers? What are the new beliefs, activities, rules and roles of this new space?  How does this kind of boundary spanning leadership become “visible and talkable”? This paper provides some great thinking and action research in that direction. Tell us what you think, what your own experience is, and what questions you have and Thomas will respond in a future post. And check out Bruce’s approach of appreciative inquiry combined with graphic facilitation and design thinking (Bruce is also the artist for Leadership Metaphor Explorer). We will be hearing more from Bruce as well.

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