Aspirational Leadership

You may have heard the old adage; the value of real estate is determined by three factors, location, location, and location. Here is a twist as we think about our university; the quality of the university is determined by three factors, leadership, leadership, and leadership. People in universities are cautious to say too much about the importance and power of university leadership as they feel it might undercut the importance of shared governance: the idea that faculty, staff and students have a voice in the direction the ship should go.

Strong leadership does not undervalue participation, but rather makes an organization come to life with communication, conviviality and collaborative decision making, even when it creates challenges by airing tough questions. This works at home, in the office, the classroom, at church – all over town. Strong leadership coupled with communication makes things go.

One of Southern Illinois University’s late presidents, Delyte Morris, arrived on the campus of Southern Illinois University, then Southern Normal University in the late 1940s. He retired in the early 1970s and his widow, Mrs. Dorothy Morris was present in 2005 when the time capsule from the cornerstone of Morris Library, placed during his tenure as president, was opened. In it was his simply articulated vision, from which he never fainted… giving power and life to it.

Morris carried the vision on folded paper in his wallet; a list of things he wanted in place for future generations. It included building residence halls, a student center, classroom buildings, and top-notch faculty. He could see that a small, teacher’s college could become a leading national research university and he convinced others to believe with him. He was an aspirational leader.

Aspirational Leaders in universities see beyond the daily routines and clearly understand where they want to go and what the benefits will be. They live for the sake of progress; they realize that change is powerful and positive.

Leadership of any variety cannot be effective unless the primary purpose is center stage.  Serving students by challenging them to become something they are not is the work of a university. There is no other purpose. The nature of many students, like all of us most days, is to resist change. Universities always need to be in the process of change – of becoming something they are not. We can get distracted by all the things that we do that support our service to students and miss the point of serving students.

The result of inaction, complacency, or a desire for the status quo is flatness in the trajectory of the university.  It is aspirational leadership that can overcome lethargy. Bureaucracy is the nemesis of progress and it is not open to leadership of any kind. Leadership causes universities to move, to be upwardly projected. Nothing else can.

A lack of leadership will grind a campus to a halt as surely as spring break. But leadership cannot move without focus, on a specific vision. Warren Bennis, former president of the University of Cincinnati said it best. The first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization…. Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.

Our university always needs leadership at every level, and it must be guided by a unifying vision.

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