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February 06, 2009

University Leadership -- Wiki Way Part II

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus published a slightly edited version of the the entry below on University Leadership.

I’ve enjoyed much of the email exchange and blog feedback on the Wiki-Way and University leadership posted on Wired Campus. While next week I want to focus on the connection between the digital campus and broadband nation, I thought I would offer some additional insights for reader’s consideration.

Wiki-way leadership is a powerful new dynamic challenging, if not yet changing, the nature and quality of decision-making and management-styles in organizations across the world, including university leadership. That was the ‘bottom line’ of the last blog entry. Leadership and much other human behavior both inform and are informed by the broader cultural, political, and technological context. From my vantage point, the distributed nature of the Net and the emergence of bottom-up collaboration tools on top of the Internet has helped to privilege a new type of leadership quality that aligns and leverages the Net and the bottom-up impulse. The Net does not respect borders, hierarchies, command and control organizational structures or traditional forms of power, including the power of centralized knowledge. Strong leadership, even charismatic leadership looks and works differently in the wiki-way era. Barak Obama’s leadership style and engagement strategy, one might argue, epitomizes this wiki-way of leadership.

The study of leadership whether it is psychological, socio-political, military, religious, or a top 10 read from one of America’s corporate leaders has always been framed by what 19th century historian and social commentator Thomas Carlyle called hero and hero worship. From sports heroes to American idols, from charismatic and powerful political leaders to Hollywood stars, ours has been a culture that creates its powerful myths of unity, cohesion and bonding through the well rehearsed story of triumph of the handsome and rugged ad copy- created Marlboro man.

Theories of organizational leadership and management follow, and actually help to reinforce the myths. The most dominant form of leadership style as any freshmen in an intro economics, business, or sociology course knows is the autocratic leader. They come with a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude. They’re long on order-giving and short on listening, great at micro-managing and poor at motivation, great at caring for the company or organization’s results and poor at promoting the welfare of the people who must achieve those results. Through the 1980s and 1990s the autocrat ruled the American boardroom and most organizations.

A second tradition, which has roots that date back to the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century is generally known as the laissez faire approach to leadership. As complex, modern organizations are formed and reproduced, rational planning is supported by various forms of meritocracies, plutocracies, and technocrats. As the theory goes, in these “new” organizations defined by competent deputies, the leader’s passive, hands-off role leads to a “sink or swim” world, where more times than not, the leader is her or himself a career technocrat who has “made it.” Throughout the world, and especially in Asia and Europe, laissez faire leadership is an extension of management rules and behaviors.

In a more thoughtful and well crafted review, I think it would be possible to make a compelling case that both autocratic and laissez faire forms of leadership are themselves products of the deeply embedded technologies and communication patterns associated the industrial era. Efforts at crafting a sustained democratic form of leadership with shared decision making, employee centered goals, personal actualization, participation and team building are all constrained by the rules of the game and the nature of the market.

So, it’s time for new leadership rules to fully align to the realities of the networked economy. The combination of world-spanning fiber optical networking carrying transactions, services, and information at more than a billion bytes per second, globalization and new, differently-manageable generations of university students coming into the workforce is creating the need for new kinds of leadership. Leadership is no longer like piloting an ocean liner but more like white water rafting that calls for flattened organizations that can change rapidly and accurately, decentralized decision-making, motivated employees, and inspiring relationships. Ours is the proverbial period of transition. Organizational behavior, including the role of leaders is only now beginning to come together in a coherent manner. Wiki-way leadership is hardly a foregone conclusion. This is distinctly contested terrain. Incumbent leadership is likely to resist to the decentralizing of power that accompanies wiki-way leadership.

The single largest leadership challenge in the wiki-way model is building a new consensus. Power in organizations and in politics has usually been defined as power over other people, some agency, or some other set of players. The nature of wiki way leadership— informed by a distributed architecture that encourages distributed communications—means that power will consist of leveraging individual power to work together. Much more than semantics, power in the digital (in contrast to the industrial) city portends a new, inverse form of Robert Michel’s iron law of oligarchy, which asserts that rule by a few is unavoidable in a large, complex organization. Where we see wiki-way leadership at work, we see the leveraging of technology and the redefinition of models to meet the needs of the community.

It strikes me that the complex organization best situated to model wiki-way leadership are our universities.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 6, 2009 10:44 AM and tagged

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