This is an excerpt of a review entitled "Enacting Positive Leadership in the World of Higher Ed" published in Women in HIgher Education.
Even the most optimistic member of the higher education community may roll their eyes while simultaneously reaching for Jeffrey Buller's Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference (Jossey Bass 2013), while they also hope it helps them figure out how to be a better leader in our constant state of “crisis” within academia. While negative leaders may indeed be fixated on problems, Buller says positive leaders are instead “aware of the possibilities and can build something useful out of even the worst type of problem.”
Walking us through much of the recent leadership literature both within and outside of higher education, Buller builds a credible definition of what positive academic leadership is, shows that it is in fact more effective than other, more familiar types of leadership, and then gives the reader a set of clear exercises and strategies that can be implemented immediately for an academic leader at any level.
The purpose of the book is to prompt readers to think past the way we typically do business in higher education and try something new, something different, something more productive and, yes, positive. However, readers may have trouble getting past the problems we have been fixated on for so long.
Naming the problems
Having read a number of books on leadership recently, I was struck by how many of the authors, some academics and some not, dismissed higher education generally, and faculty in particular, as being not just challenging but a downright nightmare to lead. The model of shared governance for Buller, however, is our unique strength, and one that requires a different approach to leadership. Top-down management styles will not be effective in the flatter, and admittedly messier, system within institutions of higher education.
Buller reminds us that collegiality is also an important value in higher education, and that positive academic leadership works to increase collegiality, among other things, in order to allow the system to flourish.
The challenge (or, put positively, the opportunity) in higher education is to lead in a way that allows for the system to reach what Buller calls a “maximum collegial flow” that puts people first, as well as “building a constructive environment that's conducive to generating one highly desirable outcome after another.” He reminds us that focusing on the people and systems within a department, for example, will lead to better retention rates, rather than focusing on the retention rates and willing or commanding the people within the department to improve them.
As I read, the question I kept returning to was, where are these leaders, and how can I work for them?
Starting with positivity
Leaders have to start by focusing on positive approaches to themselves, and this includes positive language, positive perspectives and positive strategies. Positive language forces leaders to think about the words they use to talk about themselves, as well as in their day-to-day interactions with the people they work with. Rhetoric shapes our reality.
Buller suggests that changing the way we talk about a situation (rather than, say, complaining about it) can change not only your own attitude but also the attitude of those around you. Using positive language to describe goals can also help get things done in a productive way.
Changing your language can lead to a positive change in your perspective on situations. While we might not be able to control many situations as leaders in higher education, we can control how we react and how we narrate events that continually arise.
One key to this change in perspective is “to compel ourselves to slow our responses, choose a more constructive vantage point to interpret the situation and only then respond in the skillful manner,” recommends Buller. This advice is particularly resonant in a period of great change, where there is increasing pressure to make decisions as quickly as possible.
Finally, Buller provides a number of exercises to identify what your values are, how your institution works and how those two elements overlap. This information leads to a concrete strategy you can adapt to become a better leader. It is these exercises and examples that are most helpful and useful throughout the book, to help readers put theory into practice quickly.
Defining positive leadership
Coach, conductor, counselor: these are three models for thinking about positive academic leadership. In the first two cases, the person is leading but ultimately the others do the hard work. However, without the coach or the conductor, there would be chaos. The coach and the conductor need to work to get all the parts of the whole working together for a greater goal. Each section, each person, has different strengths to be used at different times — Buller encourages readers to consider how would they, as positive academic leaders, nurture and utilize those roles?
The role of a counselor requires thinking about positive academic leadership as a strong mentoring role: how can you act on behalf of the people you work with and for, to everyone's benefit? Certainly, one of the important parts of this section is re-thinking how you work to mediate and negotiate the inevitable conflict that arises in departments and other larger units.
One of the keys of positive academic leadership is to put people first, where individuals aren't cogs or line items or expenses, but valued members of a larger organization. How can one chair or dean, then, work to change the attitude of an entire institution?
One of the ways is to model good behavior, but also to lead upward and laterally. In other words, remember that you are a part of a larger system; working within the organization, rather than simply being concerned with the smaller unit under your purview, can help change the culture of an institution.
Buller debunks the myth that higher education is in “crisis” — or at least not a new crisis. The role of higher education, the importance of STEM over the liberal arts, pure education over applied job training: these have all been a part of the debate surrounding higher education since its inception.
I agree with how he explains the so-called “crisis” in higher ed. But where I part ways with Buller in his reframing of the crisis narrative is in terms of the very real budget constraints facing public institutions of higher education due to reduced public funding. Certainly there are more people enrolled in higher education than ever before, but public funding is arguably at its lowest.
Buller does state that we need to do a better job making economic arguments to politicians in order to, if not restore funding, then at least stem the cuts. However, he does not address the counterargument that if education is an “individual” good, then the individual should pay for it.
Buller does need to address the fact that in many universities, the people that leaders are overseeing are not full colleagues but instead at-will contingent faculty. Much of the advice rang hollow, as it has been used to justify and placate adjunct faculty: You are part of a larger system! Think of all the good you are doing! Certainly, treating adjunct faculty as human beings is a step in the right direction. It will take a large reframing effort to positively come out of the situation we find ourselves in with regard to contingent faculty.
Healsoneeds to address the question of gender in regard to his advice and approach. His examples are a mix of men and women, but considering how men and women leaders are perceived, I am left to wonder if men are more likely to be taken seriously as positive academic leaders; meanwhile, women would be seen as either being too soft or too nurturing.
These are important questions because this book is too valuable, and the advice too important. We need more leaders like the ones he described in the book, and I want it to be a reality.