Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. James MacGregor Burns (1978)
A Complex Environment
The environment in which most higher education institutions operate is becoming more complex and challenging. Each institution is expected to execute what appears to be the impossible quest of increasing access, maintaining quality and lowering cost. These expectations further increase the need to invest in the development of the next generation of college and university leaders. The challenge we have before us is to determine how to best achieve this objective.
Seeking the Next Panacea
Certainly there is no shortage of approaches towards leadership development. There have been many thought leaders who have espoused interesting theories and models including Heifitz, Bennis, Kouzes and Posner, Hersey and Blanchard, Tichy, Bolman and Dean, and Kotter. Sadly, in the desire to address leadership gaps, we have come to ignore what we know. That is, sending our staff to a seminar with the hope that a theory-oriented learning session will somehow create the next higher education icon such as Judith Rodin, Derek Bok, Gordon Gee or David Johnston simply does not work.
In most cases, individuals passively sit in a class and listen attentively to the speaker. I believe we must move away from the temptation of superficiality-oriented, theory-based learning and provide more opportunities for aspiring leaders to have authentic experiences that will build their leadership and management capacity.
Creating a Leadership Institute
At Algonquin College, we have invested over three years of effort to develop the Algonquin Leadership in Education Institute (ALEI). ALEI provides aspiring leaders with relevant theory that is buttressed by authentic learning experiences. The program requires a commitment from participants and their supervisor. The institute takes place over a period of months, not days. We have moved from the notion of talking about generic leadership theories towards the application of deeper and richer learning engagements. Participants apply to the program and they are supported by an experienced mentor. These future leaders are also tasked with the responsibiity to lead and implement a solution to a real issue facing the college. Perhaps equally important, the program’s content is directly related to challenges and perspectives of leaders within higher education.
The late Canadian media guru, Marshall McCluhen, once advised that we can drive into the future by looking “through a rear-view mirror”. With this retrospective, he suggested that we can “march backwards into the future”. In the context of developing leaders, I believe that the most effective leaders are those who are able to figuratively drive backwards in time and leverage the benefits of previous authentic learning experiences.
Managing future talent is critically important to all colleges and university. It is our responsibility to provide authentic learning opportunities for our staff and this does take time and comes with risks. However in doing so, we prepare our leaders more effectively and we come closer to understanding the least understandable phenomena on earth.