What I’m Reading: ‘Shared Leadership in Higher Education’

As a political scientist and academic administrator, I’ve long been interested in shared governance. But a new report on the value of shared leadership in higher education, prepared for the American Council on Education by Adrianna J. Kezar and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, has challenged my thinking. I see now how models of shared governance can focus more on distributing power than on collaborating meaningfully.

The authors differentiate shared leadership — the empowerment of multiple people and cross-functional teams — from the delegating of responsibilities to the faculty (versus administrative bodies) under shared governance.

As appealing as shared leadership is because of its emphasis on flexible, inclusive networks, the concept is less convincing when we make the leap from theory to implementation. How do we share leadership effectively when in reality people have different degrees of power? And how do we hold each other accountable, so that sharing leadership doesn’t devolve into inaction or chaos?

The report is a stark reminder to not let jargon, semantics, or the latest model get in the way. The issue is not about leadership versus governance, which as a political scientist I know isn’t a tenable choice.

It’s the shared part of both leadership and governance that matters. What are the purposes and principles we share, and how can we best collaborate around concrete issues? Figuring that out will always be difficult, but it also seems more authentically liberating and potentially a more effective way of fostering change.

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