Academic Leadership Development: Finding Correlations Between Teaching and Leading

“After 40 years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” (Benjamin Bloom)

Most current literature on leadership claims that leadership can be taught. Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge and Academic Administrator’s Guide to Exemplary Leadership, indicate that the myth that leaders are born inhibits leadership development. Carol Dweck, in her recent book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success makes a similar contention in regard to natural ability. People have a belief that those who excel in certain areas are believed to be gifted with natural ability that cannot be learned.

To return, then, to Bloom’s quote above, that anyone can learn anything given the proper conditions, what would those conditions be for learning about leadership, especially in regard to academic leadership development?

The current conditions for leadership development in academe are less than optimal. More often than not, academic leaders come from faculty ranks having been asked to assume positions as department heads/chairs or even deans having had no previous administrative experience. The individual has opportunities for development, but not on any long-term or ongoing basis.

There are numerous service providers in the area of academic leadership training and development offering everything from daylong seminars and online individualized tutorials to multiweek academies and institutes. Many are of excellent quality. At the department chair level, the offerings tend to be quite practical with topics such as managing time, working with people, leading teams, and developing effective communication. Higher-level administrative offerings focus on topics such as strategic planning, articulating a vision, and creating alliances. The focus of this approach to leadership development tends to be heavily weighted on technique.

Yet if we look at literature on leadership development, technique is secondary to the larger concerns that define academic leadership. Heifetz (1994) made the distinction between leadership that is authoritative and that which is adaptive, adaptive being leadership that facilitates change through the influence leaders have with those around them. The authoritative leader takes on the burden of solving others’ problems and is the source of power. The influencer doesn’t even have to be in a position of authority at all but is a leader who inspires others to act.

Literature on leadership also makes reference to good leaders as good teachers. It is interesting to consider, then, these two leadership styles, the authority versus the influencer, against the backdrop of the instructional versus learning paradigms. Like the authoritarian leader, the teacher in the instructional paradigm is the sole voice of authority, the dispenser of knowledge, the individual in control. The teacher in the learner-centered paradigm is an influencer, a facilitator, a creator of academic experiences and opportunities for learning.

If our goal is to develop leaders who effect change through influencing those around them, which would be consistent with the move nationwide toward a learner-centered academic environment, then leadership development should be able to draw from the rich and varied literature on learner-centered teaching.

Focusing on the similarities between teaching and leading provides an empowering framework for development. From a learning standpoint, this approach relies on the learner’s prior knowledge, which is a fundamental concept regarding the approach to learning in the learning paradigm. Second, focusing leadership development on the essential qualities of leadership that are fundamental to good teaching reduces the sense of alienation that some new administrators feel and empowers them by asking them to rely on skills and expertise that they have already established. If, as the research on leadership purports, good leaders are good teachers, we should consider the many ways in which the opposite is also true: good teachers are good leaders.

Bloom, B. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballentine. Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2003). Academic administrator’s guide to exemplary leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2002). The leadership challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Michael Harris is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kettering University, and Roxanne Cullen is a professor of English at Ferris State University.

Excerpted from Learning and Leadership, Academic Leadership, February 2008.