Monday, October 12, 2015

Crazy-making by Design

In my job as an academic administrator, I am so embedded in the organization that it can be hard to think of my work with any sense of separation. Stepping in the door in the morning is like shooting out of the gate of a ski race onto a mogul course: the moguls are coming at you, you're going as fast as you can, the side of the course is lined with spectators shouting things, and if you don't make a great time you might be dropped from the team. And before you step through the door, you're thinking about the course - how you will take this section of it, preparing your mind and body, trying to quell the anxiety. After the race, you mentally go through the critical turns where you lost a second or two, or caught an edge, or made up time, and you're thinking ahead to tomorrow's race on the same mogul course but it will be different because it's going to warm up and there will be a huge dump of wet snow and one of your top team members will be out of the race because of injury.

Okay, enough with the skiing metaphor. It works for me because I am a skier and because skiing a race, while challenging, still gives the competitor some control. But in fact, many days at work feel way more out of control than that. Daily, I am bombarded by problems and bizarre situations that seemingly come out of nowhere, and have expectations thrust upon me over which I have little choice. Maybe a more apt metaphor would be that of being thrown into an old fashioned wringer washer. In the washing machine, you are being vigorously agitated, crashing against and becoming entangled in poorly defined problems spinning about in murky water, and then at some point being dragged out and squeezed dry.

The point of all this is that, it seems to me, academic organizational structures have evolved to be such that leadership is doomed to be done poorly. The lived experience of leadership is extremely frustrating to boot. I have read many leadership books and attended many workshops and courses on academic leadership. While I have gleaned useful tips along the way and some strategies to survive, it seems to me that the books and courses are missing the boat. They focus on skills,  strategies, and leadership styles rather than addressing core underlying issues. I will talk about some of these as I perceive them: the macho culture, the career ladder, the collaborate/compete conundrum, and the confusion of purpose. 

The Macho Culture

Although women now proliferate at the bottom levels of the academic hierarchy and some are even inching onto the upper rungs, the overall institution is steeped a macho culture of, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." No matter what they throw at you, you take it like a man; you are a wussy if you cry; you suck it up; you don't complain. Being way too busy at all times is a given, as is working long hours every day and showing up for evening and weekend events as well. Leaders who don't let it get to them or who can feign that they don't, who float unscathed above the mess, and who can crack an inside joke are admired as successful, regardless of what they actually accomplish. For here's the thing: this culture of being the tough guy leads to a lack of reflection and real acknowledgment of the practical challenges of leadership. It breeds a context of overwork where there is too much too do and little time to think, so therefore projects may not be clearly defined, completed in a timely way, or done as well as they might. Triage is necessary, and without time to reflect or consult, many times the urgent will trump the important. 

The Career Ladder

One result of the culture of of machismo pervading academia is that people who are willing to play this game and who master the art of of looking like they are unruffled and in control are more likely to be seen as successful and rise on the career ladder. Hence the culture perpetuates itself. Another career ladder factor is that whatever leadership role people are in, they have risen to it from some other lower  step on the career ladder, probably quite recently. As an example, recent statistics show that the average length of time that a university president remains in his/her position in Canada is three to four years. I don't have the statistics on other academic leadership positions, but I would guess they are somewhat similar. This means that most academic leaders are beginners at their job. They are just learning. They haven't completed the seven years or ten thousand hours of experience that research suggests is necessary to achieve mastery. By the time they have completed the seven years in their role or before, those with ambitions as administrators have moved on and up. 

The Collaborate/Compete Conundrum

Academia is a fishbowl in which all the members are under surrveillance by all the others. It is called "peer review" or peer evaluation. Peer review is used to determine whether research is worthy to be published or presented at a conference. Committees of peers also decide whether professors should be promoted or receive tenure. This kind of committee approach has been extended to most aspects of decision-making in academia. Just about every decision, whether regarding program development, curricular change, hiring decisions, or the annual budget goes through a consultation process and approvals by various committees. There is an underlying tension between collaborating to get broad buy-in for your project and competing to make sure that your pet idea wins approval over the many other proposals vying for attention and approval. Status also plays into this. The big fish's proposal is likely to slide through the consultation process with only minor feedback (e.g., change this comma on page 17), whereas the little fish's proposal will be shot down (if it even makes it to the table). So the little fish get together or cozy up to a big fish to win support ahead of time. The status of the little fish goes up for each visible win, so picking easy projects rather than hard ones is rewarded, as is self-promotion (which to avoid the appearance of hubris has to be framed as "communication").  It would be naive to think that this type of personality politics could be avoided - it is after all the way the game is played - but it does not ensure that the best ideas come forward or ultimately win support. 

Confusion of Purpose

Canadian academic institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a local, provincial, national, North American, and global context. Each institution looks to its peers and also to broader societal trends. So while on one hand, universities are resistant to change because of their structure and by necessity on a slow change curve, on the other hand they are subject to being judged on the latest trend or hot topic. This leads to a "follow the shiny squirrel" mentality, whereby each institution copies other institutions, says the same buzz words and implements the same initiatives, but with just enough differentiation to brand them as unique. This investment of effort in copying each other on rapidly changing issues of the day uses up our precious energy and time and distracts us from the very real challenges universities are facing. 

I believe that globalization, the new Information Age created by the participation in and affordances of the Internet, and the sustainability challenges facing humanity have created a context in which universities as we currently know them may not survive. But we the leaders are not putting our brilliant minds to work on this huge issue facing us because we are caught up in and exhausting ourselves surviving the macho culture, climbing the career ladder, building local alliances, and chasing shiny squirrels. 

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