In an earlier post I began with the dilemma of universities around the globe: How do you get all the parts to work together as an effective whole? I introduced leadership coach and author Thomas Sewerin, who identifies four very different “rooms” of leadership in universities, each with a particular “view” (a perspective and set of assumptions):

  • Leading the formal organization (the administration)
  • Leading your own independent field (research groups)
  • Leading cross-disciplinary work (networks, centers)
  • Leading learning and education (classrooms)

A fifth “province” or space designed to hold all four rooms in dialogue is possible and potentially transformative. His compelling white paper on this topic is a great read.  I now pass the talking stick over to Thomas Sewerin himself for further insights on the dilemma of leadership in universities, and how this fifth province can work.

The Enabling Power of AND

And” …  is a small yet highly significant conjunction. In this time of great polarization – us or them,  our beliefs or theirs – it is so difficult to refrain from taking sides, so hard to realize and act on the necessity of bridging differences, holding them.

“And” …  is a boat, as in Burne-Jones’ suggestive painting, The Sirens, steering clear through the waters in between enticing songs.

“And” …  is not jumping ship seduced by the voices of one or the other, and thereby to perish.

“And” …  is to trust the process.

Recently in the newspaper there has been a story about a dispute at our local university, the University of Lund in Sweden. The Vice-Chancellor had been charged through the press with providing false information in his application for the job as the top manager of the university. While this complaint was being publicly investigated there were angry postings and letters to the editor  from professors who used this alleged violation of academic standards as an opportunity to air their frustrations about the senior administrators of the university. These messages complained about how freedom in the research community was besieged by a combination of state bureaucracy and ruthless management practices imported from the business world. “They don’t make vice-chancellors the way they used to,” was one of the conclusions.

I think this dispute is actually a clash between two modes of leading that for a moment got personal. This kind of clash is occurring in universities all over the world. On one side, collegial leadership is based on independence from hierarchical authority. The locus of power and leadership is a seminar, a conversation where there is trust in the intelligence and reasoning power between equals. On the other side is modern management, equipped with the tools from the business world, looking at science and education as a market, using key performance indicators, quality assessment procedures, branding measures, focused on university output.

How can we understand and deal with these forces? Recent work on complexity theory applied to leadership in social systems helpfully describes the “entanglement” of such formal power and informal networks. According to Mary Ulh-Bien and her colleagues (2007) entanglement “describes a dynamic relationship between the formal top-down, administrative forces and the informal, complexly adaptive emergent forces of social systems.” This leads to three kinds of leadership functions:

  • Adaptive leadership refers to adaptive, creative, and learning actions that emerge from  the interactions within complex systems as they adjust to tensions.
  • Administrative leadership refers to the  to the actions of individuals and groups in formal managerial roles who plan and coordinate activities to accomplish organizationally-prescribed outcomes in an efficient and effective manner.
  • Enabling leadership works to catalyze the conditions in which adaptive leadership can thrive and to manage the entanglement between the bureaucratic (administrative leadership) and emergent (adaptive leadership) functions of the organization.

Administrative leadership and adaptive leadership can function together. The enabling leadership function helps to ameliorate the problems, tailoring the behaviors of administrative and adaptive leadership so that they function in tandem with each other.

Apply this systems reasoning to our four room model of university leadership and you see a great resemblance. Administrative leadership is the “Leading the formal organization” room and adaptive leadership is close to the rooms where you “Lead your own independent field.” Enabling leadership, the conjunctive function—the and—are the kinds of interventions that deal with the entanglement of the two and which we have called the 5th province approach to coaching. The intermediate space between administration and independent scholars is a place where middle management, together with external coaches fairly familiar with the values, the languages and behaviors of both worlds, can forge a common ground, and maybe even help discover new frontiers for the enterprise. (See Boundary Spanning Leadership, by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason.)

As a coach I have always felt most comfortable in spaces between, and among middle management. That is where freedom to act and think is the greatest. I am pretty sure that there is the life waters of coaching, designing and leading potential spaces where important kinds of differences can be held and used for creative purposes. And it is wonderful that so many approaches, both theoretical and practical, within the field of organizational development and coaching move in the direction of in-between spaces, of practicing the philosophy of … and

1. Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion and Bill McKelvey (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. Leadership Quarterly, 18, 298-318.

 

3 thoughts on “Boundary Spanning from the Middle

  1. I read recently that the best way to exercise the brain is to have faith, and to me that means walking the line between knowing and not knowing and the courage to keep walking. That is the paradox of living one life that is full of so many delicious offerings that I find it difficult to say no, not yet or not this time!
    I am living a Vav-nik life, and getting to know and, a word i embrace more than ever before, as I become aware of how much i use the word but, mostly under my breath so I cannot hear it right away! And I laugh at myself and my attempts to be mindful and grateful and at the right place at the right time.
    This moment, this blog’s words, is the right time to gather friends who walk the path of and. The Society of the Vav expands and grows and the world, I know this for sure, is a better place.

  2. Chris Ernst says:

    “And” must be in the water right now. I just finished lunch with a great colleague – Lyndon Rego – and Lyndon shared with me he’s been giving a lot of thought recently to how “And” plays out in our relational, spiritual, and organizational lives. Thomas, thanks for this thoughtful post and I look forward to continued exploration.

  3. Lyndon Rego says:

    Interesting post. I presented at a complexity conference a few years ago (at the invitation of Mary Uhl-Bien as it so happens) to talk about some of what we learned after studying leadership lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Some of what we found indicates the need to bring together competing polarities — top down and bottom up, planning and improvising, collective and individual. The report, Stepping into the Void, can be accessed here: http://www.ccl.org/leadership/landing/crisisForum.aspx

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