Perhaps uniquely in the world, contemporary America is increasingly fascinated by the possibilities and mysteries of leadership. From small human service organizations to large multinational corporations, from the halls of government to the local school, leadership is of vital interest in both theory and practice. Books on leadership fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores, and every organization looks for ways to develop the leadership skills of its members. As citizens, professionals or volunteers, we will help people understand what effective leadership means and how to practice it.

The precarious position of leadership in higher education

When it comes to institutions of higher education, there are many paradoxes about the phenomenon of leadership, such as - the field of study, the mission of education and the organizational process. This theme has long been the subject of inquiry in both the social sciences and the humanities. Studies in this field provide diverse accounts of leaders and leadership as part of their intellectual stock in business. Further, colleges and universities often turn to the language of leadership to describe how their academic programs will prepare students for future intellectual and social responsibilities. Yet at the same time many academics resist the endorsement of the leadership theme, as it is associated with vague and unattainable educational goals and is suspiciously linked to the moral ambiguity of privilege and power that leaders in history often endure.

Perhaps a final irony is that colleges and universities, institutions that conduct analytical and empirical studies of leadership, rarely develop their own decision-making and leadership processes and are the object of formal programs of development or inquiry. There are notable and growing exceptions to leadership development programs in large organizations, but even in these cases the emphasis is often on the responsibilities of designated positions of authority. They usually focus more on management than leadership. It is at least understood as a process that involves setting direction, motivating others, and coping with change.

When we turn to sound educational decision-making, the currency in higher education is governance rather than leadership. Official texts and documents that define campus decision-making say a lot about collaborative efforts or shared governance, but little about leadership. Balancing the various forms of campus authority and decision-making processes, and parsing the text and describing methods for doing so, is often the focus of faculty and administrative activities. The big and often pressing question of leadership (for example – how to develop a shared vision for the future) is obliquely pursued by activities such as strategic planning that have a peculiar place within the formal governance system itself. Leadership as a process of change and motivation is a pressing theme.

This is a peculiar and troubling form of neglect, especially given the ever-increasing demands placed on colleges and universities in a challenging environment.

If we are to bring new resources to bear on these complex issues, it will be in part due to the convergent understandings of leadership that have emerged in various fields over the past several decades. Although the work on leadership is of mixed quality and importance, there is much to be learned from the excellent literature, from self-enhancing memoirs to groundbreaking scholarship. It is worth taking a closer look at leadership in colleges and universities from this perspective.