Great Books for Higher Education Leaders (Part 2)

This is the second list of books related to higher education that I would recommend to anyone who is in or who aspires to be an effective leader.   In this list, I stretch out beyond education-specific books to include titles that are broader but equally as relevant. As in the first list, I recommend each of these books and encourage anyone who is interested in being a leader within higher education, to take the time to read these books in the years ahead.  These authors will broaden your perspective, deepen your insight and likely enhance your effectiveness as a leader in the Academy.  Once again, short descriptions are included which reflect text that is adapted from the publishers.  A link to purchase the book or read more is provided simply for convenience.

To Serve a Larger Purpose (2011) – John Saltmarsh and J. Matthew Hartley

This is the most recent of the books on my Top 12 list.  This book builds upon Matt Hartley’s thought leadership in higher education change and mission-centric leadership.  The authors (Saltmarsh & Hartley) call for a return to the original democratic purposes of civic engagement and examines the requisite transformation of higher education required to achieve it.  For leaders in higher education, the leadership norms explored are determined by values such as inclusiveness, collaboration, participation, task sharing, and reciprocity in public problem solving and an equality of respect for the knowledge and experience that everyone contributes to education, knowledge generation, and community building.   This book shrewdly rethinks the culture of higher education.  It is timely and can deeply impact how a leader thinks about their role in the evolution of higher education.  Dr. Hartley explores some concepts in this short YouTube video.

Going Broke by Degree (2004) – Richard Vedder

This is really a quasi economic / philosophy book cloaked in the medium of higher education.  It is very American-centric, yet at that same time many of  Richard Vedder’s views can be transferable, particularly to Canadian Universities.  Vedder is also Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and he leverages his economics expertise to explain his analyses on pricing, costs and productivity.  The book is not for those holding the view that higher education is fine just the way it is.  Vedder attempts to push our perspective on the economics of higher education, and is at times counter-intuitive.  As an example, Vedder believes more public subsidies actually make higher education more expensive.  To his credit, he attempts to show this linkage through basic, but powerful economic analysis.  Reading views that challenge our own perspectives should be welcomed.  However, for those of us in favor of publically supported higher education, Vedder’s perspectives can make us uncomfortable.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (2002) – Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Not a book specifically for higher education, but one that I have given to many managers over the past decade.  In my view, one of the top three business books in the past decade.  Up there with In Search of Excellence in terms of impact,  it reflects the fundamental need to to get the job done and deliver results.  Bossidy and Charan blend a leading CEO’s experience with a leading academic thought leader to explain how to close the gap between results promised and results delivered.  The authors show the importance of being deeply and passionately engaged in an organization.  Great book.

Leadership (1978) – James MacGregor Burns

One indicator of a good leader is that they commit to prepare the next generation of leaders in their organization.  This is another recommended non-educational book that should be read my educational leaders this is a seminal book in the leadership literature.  This book is James MacGregor Burns’ seminal examination of how leaders shape the course of history by transforming followers into creative new leaders.  The book quickly became the cornerstone of the emerging field of leadership studies.  It has reportedly spawned over nine hundred academic programs as well as leadership programs in business and government.  It is in this book that the author made the oft-quoted statement, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth”.

Twenty-five years later, Burns expands the subject, offering a new vision—Transforming Leadership—focusing on the ways that leaders emerge from being ordinary   “transactional” brokers and deal makers to become true agents of principled social change who empower their followers to achieve freedom and happiness.  As a historian, Burns illuminates the evolution of leadership structures, staring with the chieftainships of tribal African societies.  He examines great triumphs and failures in men and women, from African leaders to James Madison, Mao, Gandhi, and many others.

Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership 4ed. (2008) – Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal

This is a book that most education administration graduates have had some exposure to since it was first published in 1984.  I was first introduced to the book and one of the authors (Lee Bolman) several years ago while I was in Boston.  On the surface, this is an organizational theory book yet, Bollman and Deal’s treatise has stood the test of time since it was first released nearly 30 years ago.  Now in its 5th edition, the core of the book is “reframing”, a tool to help leaders find new opportunities and options in confusing and complex organizational situations.  The authors demonstrate how multiple frames give leaders an edge in decoding organizational complexity.  These frames are Structural – Human Resource – Political – Symbolic.  The four frames help effective change agents conceptualize different approaches to an issue.

Note:  in 2011, Bolman and his wife Joan Gallos released an education-specific book called Reframing Academic Leadership.  While a lot of the content is not new, the focus on education helpful and an interesting.

 A History of American Higher Education (2004) – John R. Thelin

To know where we have come helps us understand where we are going.  Yes, Canadians can learn from John Thelin and this book can help educational leaders move their college or university forward by understanding the past.  This is a good book for anyone attempting to understand North American colleges and universities.  Thelin challenges conventional wisdom about how these institutions developed and functioned in the past.  He provides a broad account of the origins and evolution of public and private colleges and universities.  Thelin also explores the role of government as well as the influence of private foundations and other organizations.  Interestingly, he also uses films, novels, and popular magazines to explore the convoluted relationship between higher education and American culture.  If one wants to be an effective higher education leader, they need to understand the context and history of this multi-billion dollar industry.

I hope these 12 books may be helpful to all those who are committed to moving beyond simply being a good manager in higher education.  It is a complex and very unique industry.  We need great leaders to navigate our institutions through our dynamic future.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
This entry was posted in Leadership and Higher Education. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Great Books for Higher Education Leaders (Part 2)

  1. Great list.
    I also recommend Thought Leadership Meets Business – How business schools can become more successful by Peter Lorange (2008)

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