Universities are organisations which are not easy to run and manage. Most employees are highly educated professionals, and as such often self-confident intellectuals with their own independent visions and ideas and not necessarily diligent and willing employees happy to follow any directives of their superiors. They are not easily managed or steered. Leadership in these kind of settings can not easily be characterised. Of course knowledge in the ‘knowledge industry’ of a university this specialised knowledge is a crucial asset for leadership, but also experience with different kinds of settings and situations in which knowledge is created are of equally great importance. Seniority expressed in this kind of knowledge and experience, often in a very specific specialised field, therefore is an important resource, and often the main criteria for appointing professors. At the same time especially full professors as chair holders are supposed to also have the scope and overview over the broader disciplinary and inter-disciplinary field, as well as the ability to think outside of the box based on experiences with doing ‘science’ in very different organisational situations and settings. These are essential qualification for leadership in knowledge oriented organisations. So even when we would seek to create a flat organisation, we need to accept that we are dealing with a situation where there is a kind of natural hierarchy with respect to the professional background and experience. On the other hand in this situation also an autocratic authoritarian leadership will always fail. There is no-one able to have the competence to overview it all and know it best. So hierarchy is somehow naturally given within specific professional fields, but respectful collegial team work between peers in different disciplinary fields is needed.
Given this situation in universities and other organisation in higher education, one often prefers a collegial model of management and leadership. ‘The academic environment seems to be particularly suited to collaborative leadership. The presence of numerous semi-autonomous academic, administrative, and staff structures characterised by relatively highly educated individuals makes the academic particularly susceptible to silo thinking and a lack of a level of communication and interaction across areas necessary for optimal success’ (Mooney, Burns & Chadwick, 2012, p. 144). But what does this entail?
What is collegial leadership?
Bush (2003, p. 65-67) report that collegial models have the following major features (adapted from http://www.opentextbooks.org.hk/ditatopic/17925):
- They are strongly normative in orientation. This is not so much leadership because of formal procedures and division of authorities, and much more based on the normative visions, convictions and strategies, and therefore much more ‘content’ and less process and structure based (Webb & Vulliamy, 1996, p. 443). Usually, taking in the competences and experiences of the leader into account, this also implies that the leader takes the initiative and comes with elaborate proposals. Here hierarchy thus pays a role.
- Collegial models seem to be particularly appropriate for organisations such as universities that have significant numbers of professional staff. Scientists have an authority of expertise that contrasts with the positional authority associated with formal models. Scientists require a measure of autonomy in the lacture hall and in their research but also need to collaborate to ensure a coherent approach to teaching, learning and researching (Brundrett, 1998, p. 307). Collegial models assume that professionals also have a right to share in the wider decision-making process. Shared decisions are likely to be better informed and are also much more likely to be implemented effectively.
- Collegial models assume a common set of values held by members of the organisation. These common values guide the managerial activities of the organisation and are thought to lead to shared educational and research objectives. The common values of professionals form part of the justification for the optimistic assumption that it is always possible to reach agreement about goals and policies. Brundrett (1998, p. 308) goes further in referring to the importance of ‘shared vision’ as a basis for collegial decision-making.
- The size of decision-making groups is an important element in collegial management. They have to be sufficiently small to enable everyone to be heard. This may mean that collegiality works better in elementary schools, or in sub-units, than at the institutional level in secondary schools. Meetings of the whole staff may operate collegially in small departments but may be suitable only for information exchange in larger institutions. The collegial model deals with this problem of scale by building-in the assumption that scientists have formal representation within the various decision-making bodies. The democratic element of formal representation rests on the allegiance owed by participants to their constituencies (Bush, 2003, p. 67).
- Collegial models assume that decisions are reached by consensus. The belief that there are common values and shared objectives leads to the view that it is both desirable and possible to resolve problems by agreement. The decision-making process may be elongated by the search for compromise but this is regarded as an acceptable price to pay to maintain the aura of shared values and beliefs. The case for consensual decision-making rests in part on the ethical dimension of collegiality. Imposing decisions on staff is considered morally repugnant, and inconsistent with the notion of consent.
One can also have a look at this brief video by Dan Wood on different collegial leadership styles (click on image):
Essential to this collegial idea is that leadership should not just be seem as a vertical relationship, but also as a horizontal leadership relation between equals. In practice this implies that there is a hierarchy in decision making based on differing level of qualifications and competences, but that this vertical leadership is based on persuasion creating sufficient support. At the same time the horizontal leadership is based on respectful acceptance of the specific competences of one’s peers. With respect to decision making this requires a consensus model in which final decisions need to be taken by unanimity, or to put it in other terms, that each of the members of the decision making body have a right to veto the decision. In a working consensus model this will probably be a very rare case. In case of a consensus decision, in a collegial system this decision is also presented as a joint decision, and the decision making body would also be jointly responsible for the implementation of the decision. If no consensus can be reached usually the next higher level of authority would come to a final verdict.
These collegial ideas are, in my personal view, very essential for the kind of Place a university is and for the kind of Culture which characterises our Department as an intellectual breeding ground for great scientific ideas for the future.
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