shopify analytics



January 2015


Reframing Academic Leadership


by Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos (Jossey-Bass, 2011).


What are the big take-aways?


One of the most valuable chapters in this excellent book is the first, in Part I, about “Opportunities and Challenges in Academic Leadership.”  It describes the strange dynamics of higher education that lay the foundation for later chapters offering thoughtful and thorough advice for handling the peculiar difficulties of leading academic institutions.  Higher education sometimes runs like a business, with all the advantages and disadvantages of the for-profit model, but important features make it a unique sector (page 5):


[T]he differences between business and higher education do matter [citation].  Higher education’s distinctive combination of goals, tasks, employees, governance structures, values, technologies, and history make it not quite like anything else [citations].  It is different first because of its educational mission – a complex and variable mix of teaching, research, service, and outreach.  Creating, interpreting, disseminating, and applying knowledge through multiple means for many different audiences and purposes is exciting and significant work, but it is not a simple job – nor is it one in which outcomes are easy to observe or assess.


Why do I like it?


With a good sense of humor and perspective, the authors use fascinating and apt analogies for “leader” like analyst, architect, compassionate politician, servant, catalyst, coach, prophet and artist.  They draw upon examples from other professions, such as medicine, to underscore the points they make about the importance of managing complexity, taking multiple perspectives, seeing with “fresh eyes” and reframing situations.  Their hypotheticals from higher education are very realistic.  They take an appreciative orientation to the work of academic leadership and focus on how the best practices of learning, reflection, and politics can affect the success of institutional leaders.  In many ways, the authors are coaches, as I use the term: they encourage the reader to be self-observant and proactive; to seek growth opportunities and feedback; to test assumptions and run experiments; and to stretch the comfort zone and try new strategies.


Other things I like about the book include its focus on leadership as a developmental journey, and the particular emphases it places on authenticity, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, non-cynical politics, teamwork/collaboration and celebration of the mission.  In Part II, “Reframing Leadership Challenges,” the book also provides an excellent blueprint for effectuating major change in the higher education context.  In Part III, it offers a comprehensive and practical appraisal of the personal demands made upon people who hold academic leadership positions, and a formula for helping leaders stay healthy and energetic – in body, mind and spirit.


In what situations would this be useful?


While new academic leaders and seasoned veterans alike – regardless of their title – will get plenty out of Reframing Academic Leadership, I would especially recommend it to freshly-appointed or long-serving department chairs, deans and other “middle managers”; academic leaders in any position who are afraid of burning out; and first-time presidents who are about to embark on a major institutional change effort.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


The works of Ronald Heifetz on adaptive leadership would pair well with this book, as well as John P. Kotter’s treatises on organizational transformation.  Since Reframing Academic Leadership adopts an inherently developmental approach, any of the resources I usually recommend regarding adult development and leadership would also be good choices (e.g., Rooke & Torbert, Kegan, Cook-Greuter, Joiner & Josephs, etc.).


Return to Leadership Library