The COVID-19 pandemic has helped expose two systemic flaws in higher education. First is the inflexibility of the traditional learning model, and second is the institution’s overvaluing of their campus experience. Both have led to a deer-in-the-headlights response as students and other education consumers take the opportunity to question the very value of what they are paying for. The surprising case I would like to make is that the solution to both these flaws is leadership, and not leadership in the traditional sense.

I have found that the only way to get through times of existential change is to lead through it. These crisis situations require every person affected to think and act like a leader and change agent. Unfortunately, higher education has been built on titles, driven primarily by credentials and degrees, that assign or designate responsibilities but often limit those who can and should contribute leadership in times like those wrought by the pandemic. 

My argument, based on over 30 years in higher education and the better part of 20 years of consulting for the entire spectrum of higher education institutions, is that in times of fast-paced advancement and transformation, leadership should not be restricted to the highest rank. It absolutely must be shared and shouldered throughout the institution. 

It begins with shared vision. Leadership begins with vision, and organizations thrive when a clearly stated vision is supported by the entire organization. Consider your own position: If the people you report to and the people reporting to you are pursuing different visions for your college, then you will not send the mission-critical shared vision to students and external stakeholders so they can align with you. For example, if the new chancellor/president is the only person with vision and faith in a plan for the future, operational members who don’t buy into that vision are unlikely to effectively relay it to students. In this scenario, how is transformation possible?

The vision must be customer-centric. To succeed in today’s educational marketplace, every person in your institution must thoroughly understand the educational consumer’s mindset and rethink their strategies and approaches based on that. The successful institutions of the future will lead with this new mindset and build followership from each level on the campus, including students and future education consumers. Simply put, in the new normal, it is everyone’s role to lead. 

The next generation of higher education leadership is about reimagining your college’s academic and campus enterprise, and that can’t happen solely from the top. When we advise our clients who are looking to pursue innovation and transformation, we tend to look at the organization through four levels of leadership.

1. Institutional Leadership. Chancellors/presidents, board members, and provosts hold responsibilities to create a specific vision for the institution and its offerings. They need to set specific goals to develop the brand that creates market value. This vision enables all levels of leadership to foster the five value drivers—brand, experience, specialization, convenience, and affordability—that, when successful, resonate with education consumers.

2. Academic Leadership. Academic chairs and faculty members are responsible for leading the academic culture within an institution. One of the key assets of an institution is the unique knowledge these leaders possess, develop, and share. As many campuses reimagine the academic enterprise influenced by the future of work, the ability of these individuals to lead the educational shift will be vital.

3. Executive Leadership. The staff at this level, primarily CEOs, vice presidents, and deans, create and think about specific strategies and changes that need to happen in order for the vision set by institutional leadership to be made clear. They are called to have a more innovative, rethinking mindset to create a new campus enterprise and way of serving the market. Especially during challenging times, this group must lead by figuring out why students should come to their college and why industries should want to work with them and their students.

4. Operational Leadership. These individuals, typically staff members and directors, are the root of activity that intersects with the consumer experience. On the forefront, they need to lead by remaking and reimagining the culture they create for their students, alumni, and community.

Although these four structures are at different pay and status levels, and have different day-to-day tasks and objectives, they still must perform as one integrated unit working toward a common outcome. Therefore, leadership must run through each member and structure so innovation isn’t limited or blocked at any one of the layers. 

Sound impossible given your current culture? Have faith. It is absolutely possible, and we are seeing it happen across the globe. 

I have found that an overall culture that embraces leadership and entrepreneurial innovation unlocks an environment in which everyone uses their personal responsibilities to make the institution as a whole more sustainable and attractive to consumers. When that culture is not embraced, silos and fiefdoms follow. 

Some people believe a title makes a leader. That is far from the truth. I categorically find title inflation to be real in higher education. Fancy titles abound, but the people who hold them too often lack the actual empowerment to lead. Titles don’t make leaders. An ability to innovate, deliver stated outcomes, and create followership makes a leader. 

No matter what seat you sit in on your institution’s bus, ask yourself these two questions:

1. Am I being innovative, looking for ways to improve the consumer experience and/or the institution’s sustainability?

2. Who has taken notice of what I am doing and chosen to follow me and my work as a result?

The answers to these questions will set you on a path of authentic leadership in your institution. Now, more than ever, every layer and title in the institution must think entrepreneurially and see themselves as the change agents the college needs most. As I often say, lead by letting others see their vision through you.

Matthew Alex

Higher Education Thought Leader and Futurist, Beyond Academics


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