ERIC Identifier: ED317099
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Bensimon, Estela M. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.
Making Sense of Administrative Leadership. The "L" Word in
Higher Education. ERIC Digest.
A perception exists that higher education is experiencing a great leadership
crisis. Calls for better, stronger, more visionary, and bolder leadership
intensified after the publication of several reports by blue ribbon commissions,
whose running theme is the decline of higher education. "To Reclaim a Legacy"
(Bennett 1984) challenges presidents to be more courageous in assuming the role
of leadership in curricular reform. And "Integrity in the College Curriculum"
declares that this generation of academic presidents and deans is required to
lead us away from the declining and devalued bachelors degree (AAC 1985, p. 7).
The message in these and other reports on the state of higher education is
that official campus leaders--presidents and other academic officers--need to
direct and guide their campuses if the problems of higher education are to be
confronted and resolved. This faith in the power and wisdom of leadership and
its potential to make a difference in colleges and universities underlies much
of the literature of higher education and is particularly ubiquitous in
contemporary and highly popular works on leadership. Recently, however, scholars
have posited new ideas that challenge traditional notions that organizations are
driven by leadership or that the quality of leadership significantly affects
WHAT IS LEADERSHIP?
Research traditions in leadership can
be grouped into six major categories: trait theories, which attempt to identify
specific personal characteristics that appear to contribute to a persons ability
to assume and successfully function in positions of leadership; power and
influence theories, which consider leadership in terms of the source and amount
of power available to leaders and the manner in which leaders exercise that
power over followers through either unilateral or reciprocal interactions;
behavioral theories, which study leadership by examining patterns of activity,
managerial roles, and behavior categories of leaders--that is, by considering
what it is that leaders actually do; contingency theories, which emphasize the
importance of situational factors, such as the nature of the task performed by a
group or the nature of the external environment to understand effective
leadership; cultural and symbolic theories, which study the influence of leaders
in maintaining or reinterpreting the systems of shared beliefs and values that
give meaning to organizational life; and cognitive theories, which suggest
leadership is a social attribution that permits people to make sense of an
equivocal, fluid, and complex world.
One of the most useful organizational typologies from the perspective of
leadership suggests that organizations can be looked at through four different
vantage points or coherent perspectives, identified as frames (Bolman and Deal
1984). The structural frame emphasizes formal roles and relationships, the human
resource frame focuses on the needs of people, the political frame considers the
conflict over scarce resources, and the symbolic frame views organizations as
cultures with shared values.
IS LEADERSHIP IN HIGHER EDUCATION DIFFERENT?
the literature on leadership and organizational theory is rich, its many
conceptual orientations and interpretations do not appear to be particularly
influential, at least not explicitly, in informing the literature on
administrative leadership in higher education. Much of this work tends to be
atheoretical, with considerable attention given to style of leadership and
The study of leadership in colleges and universities is problematic because
of the dual control systems, conflicts between professional and administrative
authority, unclear goals, and other special properties of normative,
professional organizations. Leadership in higher education can be examined from
the perspective of leadership theories and organizational frames, however, even
though an explicit conceptual orientation is absent in many of the works.
Research and commentaries on the presidency suggest that presidents tend to
accept a traditional and directive view when they define their leadership role;
few appear to emphasize the importance of two-way communication or social
exchange processes of mutual influence or to identify leadership as facilitating
rather than directing the work of highly educated professionals. Furthermore,
few works have considered the possibility that the debate about transformational
versus transactional may not be purely an either/or and that both perspectives
may be useful but in a more complex configuration.
HOW ARE OUR VIEWS OF LEADERSHIP CHANGING?
contemporary works indicate that the understanding of leadership in academic
organizations, at least among scholars, may be undergoing a paradigmatic shift,
from a rational perspective toward a cultural and symbolic perspective. Close
attention is being given to the manifestation of symbolic leadership, as shown
by works concerning the role of college presidents in the management of meaning,
the construction of institutional reality, and the interpretation of myths,
rituals, and symbols. For the most part, however, cultural and symbolic views of
leadership have not been incorporated into the practitioners perspective of
higher education administration, perhaps because it tends to present the leader
in a role that is considerably more modest than seen in images of heroic or
transformational leadership associated with rational and power-based theories.
Cultural and symbolic theories deserve serious attention because they present
a view of leadership that is highly compatible with the characteristics of
academic organizations. The ambiguity of purpose, the diffusion of power and
authority,and the absence of clear and measurable outcomes are but a few of the
constraints faced by college presidents and other administrative leaders. Viewed
from a rational perspective, these constraints make the presidency appear as an
impossible job. Presidents who consider their role from a symbolic perspective
will be less concerned about displaying bold leadership to leave their imprint
on a campus, more concerned with making marginal improvements and helping campus
constituents make sense of an equivocal world.
Bass, Bernard M. 1981. STODGILL'S
HANDBOOK OF LEADERSHIP. New York: The Free Press.
Birnbaum, Robert. 1988. HOW COLLEGES WORK: THE CYBERNETICS OF ACADEMIC
ORGANIZATION AND LEADERSHIP: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bolman, Lee G. and Deal, Terrence E. 1984. MODERN APPROACHES TO UNDERSTANDING
AND MANAGING ORGANIZATIONS. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cohen, Michael D., and March, James G. 1974. LEADERSHIP AND AMBIGUITY: THE
AMERICAN COLLEGE PRESIDENCY. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Dill, David D. 1984. "The Nature of Administrative Behavior in Higher
Education." EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY 20 (3): 69- 99.
Dill, David D., and Fullagar, Patricia K. 1987. "Leadership and
Administrative Style." In KEY RESOURCES ON HIGHER EDUCATION--GOVERNANCE, MANAGEMENT AND LEADERSHIP: A GUIDE TO THE LITERATURE, Edited by Marvin W. Peterson and Lisa A. Mets, pp.
390-412. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fisher, James L. 1984. THE POWER OF THE PRESIDENCY. New York: Macmillan.
Kerr, Clark, and Gade, Marion. 1986. THE MANY LIVES OF ACADEMIC PRESIDENTS.
Washington, D.C.: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Yukl, Gary A. 1981. LEADERSHIP IN ORGANIZATIONS. Englewood Cliffs, New
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and
published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.