Reluctant leadership: Why bother to lead?

Do universities deserve engaged leaders? Yes, of course. Do faculty members value leadership contributions? Not always. Being autonomous followers, many faculty are skeptical about academic leadership and its pursuit.

There’s a difference between leadership and management. A leader seizes opportunity and puts change in motion. A manager follows leadership and better structures procedures and ideas to create greater value. Autonomous followers prefer leaders to managers because, as George Orwell put it, “When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.” We don’t like to tread water.

Leadership is difficult. There is a constant proliferation of policies and regulations, and increasing expectations regarding compliance, which leads to a need for constant conflict resolution. Who needs more stress in their life?

There’s banter in any university about leadership being on the “dark side”. Sometimes it is equated with “impressive bullying“. Of course, there can also be straight disparagement of leadership roles, particularly for nonacademic service.

However, faculty members can also have authentic concerns about assuming leadership roles. Mid-career  faculty view leadership to be incompatible with their work-life balance. For many, it detracts from their primary passions, which are typically research, teaching and students.

Since the available leadership pool is usually small, this leads to the appointment of “reluctant leaders“.  They are convinced to assume a leadership position through a sense of obligation rather than embracing these positions wholeheartedly. These recruits into leadership do not initially view themselves as change agents, and in many cases have not contemplated making contributions through effective management. They fulfill only two of Max Weber’s three criteria for leadership by showing responsibility and judgment, but not passion.

Passion can be engendered. Mythology and history are replete with reluctant leaders. 

Moses gave God many reasons why he was the wrong leader for the Israelites. “I’m a nobody; I don’t speak well; I’m not brave.

Shortly after arriving in South Africa in 1893, a white conductor asked Mahatma Gandhi to leave the first-class compartment of a train traveling from Pietermaritzburg to Pretoria due to his race. “Coolies” and non-whites could not travel in that compartment. The problem was that Gandhi had purchased a first-class ticket. Although he had viewed discrimination beforehand, this seminal experience changed the course of his life as he contemplated his “duty”. Initially interested in furthering his career as a lawyer, he became a reluctant leader in the fight against injustice. He went on to lead the resistance to racial oppression in both South Africa and India. In 1947, the British Raj collapsed in India.

Nelson Mandela trained as a lawyer and became part of a small emerging educated black middle class in South Africa in the 1940s. He was personally comfortable in a relative sense but, experiencing and observing racial discrimination, became frustrated with the extreme moderation and passivity of the old guard of the African National Congress. While the ANC kept petitioning the British Crown for change, racial discrimination became increasingly institutionalised in colonial South Africa. Thus, Mandela moved to radicalize the ANC towards mass defiance actions and eventually became a reluctant revolutionary. Decades later, when these actions broke the back of Apartheid, he assumed leadership of a democratic South Africa as its first President.

A reluctant leader is successful by being realistic, skeptical, dogged and collaborative. Moses, Gandhi and Mandela shared these characteristics. The problems of universities are of course far less profound than the ones that these leaders faced but there are lessons for reluctant leaders in academia.

These reluctant leaders can be successful because they are exemplary professionals who have the legitimacy to lead. Being academics, they are used to enabling autonomy while exerting control. They have the superior political skills required to negotiate through a heterogeneous and autonomous environment and yet, bacause of their reluctance, are perceived as being “above politics”. This last paradox, of being both within and outside of  politics, allows reluctant leaders to lead under conditions, such as in universities, that are replete with autonomous followers.

Great universities require visionary leaders, reluctant or otherwise, to constantly innovate. They also need competent managers who can administer the consequences of this change. Outstanding managers are difficult to find and visionary leaders even harder to identify.

Considering reluctant leaders should always be an option. Certainly, motivating and exciting them need not be difficult once the broad need for change and innovation is clearly presented.

The best work is not what is most difficult for you; it is what you do best. From Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1948.


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