Resonant Leadership in Higher Education

Resonant Leadership in Higher Education

Leaders who are highly attuned to themselves and the greater world exemplify effectiveness

In the past decade, tremendous changes throughout the world have impacted the way we conduct business, interface with our global neighbors, lead our colleges and universities, and educate our students.

Being a university leader has never been easy, given the many--and powerful--stakeholders who care deeply about the quality of college education. Unprecedented global change, pressure from all directions, and ever-increasing competition for the best students, faculty, and research are also factors. As if these demands weren't enough, institutions of higher ed are increasingly called upon to actively support--and build--their local communities.

What does it take to lead universities today? Do IHE leaders merely need to work harder (and longer hours) to stay ahead of the curve? Or is there something more?

Our research and experience with leaders indicates that within today's complex environment, "more of the same" simply is not enough for a leader. Administrators must step up to the challenge by creating powerful, positive relationships and healthy organizational climates that foster optimism, innovation, and the teamwork needed to achieve challenging goals.

The best leaders create resonance: They are highly attuned to themselves and to the greater world, both the local and the broader national and global communities.

John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.), is just such a leader. He builds a vibrant climate inside his institution while fostering commitment among the many stakeholders around the school.

A few years ago, as executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, Fry and President Judith Rodin developed the "Agenda for Excellence"--a plan to alter strategy, structure, and UPenn's relationships to local, national, and global stakeholders. UPenn has since transformed itself--keeping the best of the past and moving with pride and success into the future.

Fry's leadership during those years was powerful. He drove a key part of the agenda--rebuilding Penn's relationships within the West Philadelphia community and jump-starting a revitalization process. This was no easy feat. In recent decades, UPenn's relationship with the community had steadily gotten worse, and the community itself was plagued with rising crime, poor services, and general deterioration. When the agenda was launched, community stakeholders weren't open to working with Penn on anything. Trust was in short supply, emotions ran high, and conflict marred most interactions between residents and the university. Many people expected Fry to simply move on Penn's agenda, regardless of the inevitable resistance from community members.

Instead of diving into construction projects and the like, Fry hoped to "reduce the temperature" by building a sense that he and his team actually cared about individuals in the community. He involved as many stakeholders as possible in decision-making; each one, no matter how "big" or "small," was given a voice in the process.

Fry built resonance in relationships by authentically connecting with people, respecting them, and engaging in simple human conversations and activities. He wrote warm personal notes. He invited people to share meals, and listened carefully when people hinted that they were uneasy or concerned. He gave more of himself than he asked of others, and he never used his powerful role to influence people. He used emotional intelligence.

"Once people started liking each other, creativity flowed and we were able to get to work on the real issues we all faced," Fry says. The resonance he created enabled former "enemies" to share a mission and face issues with creativity and commitment.

Today, Penn's relationship with the community is positive. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in a few short years, and West Philadelphia is on its way to becoming one of the most vibrant urban communities in America, notes Fry.

Resonant leaders like Fry are emotionally intelligent; they can manage themselves and guide others adeptly in ambiguous and trying circumstances. While fear and control may motivate people in the short run, they know this approach results in work climates where people feel less valued and, ultimately, less committed to institutional goals. Resonant leaders engage people's hearts and minds to build a shared sense of purpose. They inspire people to give their best, to willingly work in collaboration with others. Resonant leadership produces results.

Resonant leaders have examined all aspects of their leadership--what's working well and what needs to change. It requires getting feedback from others, something that can be difficult. The best higher ed leaders create environments where people feel safe and are encouraged to speak up.

Resonant leaders are also willing to adapt customary (and comfortable) ways of leading. These leaders are open-minded, non-defensive, and deeply committed to learning about themselves and adjusting their behaviors. Equally important is empathy--understanding others' perspectives and then acting on the information.

Susan Davidson, deputy dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, exemplifies these qualities. Anyone who has spent any time in academia knows you don't manage faculty, students, or even staff. At best, you can influence people, but only if they know you, trust you, and believe you have their interests at heart. Davidson's approach: Create resonance through positive, trusting relationships. And her relationships are authentic, not instrumental. She looks for mutual interests, even beyond work, and connects personally with people.

Resonant leaders know that emotions are contagious. They move people's emotions in a positive direction. Davidson's capacity to develop resonance in relationships enables her to tackle the tough people issues at the heart of most institutional dilemmas.

For example, she describes a recent incident involving a long-standing conflict between two people in the school. Rather than taking on the individuals directly (a strategy that had already been tried), Davidson used a complex influencing strategy involving key people around the two individuals to help them see the problem, and each other, differently. Together, Davidson and one of the person's managers were able to address each individual's needs and concerns, at first indirectly, with their interests at heart. Once this ground was underneath everyone's feet, more difficult conversations could be held, with better outcomes for all.

In some ways, the lessons we can learn from leaders such as Davidson and Fry are common sense: Lead with emotional intelligence; build positive relationships; read the social landscape; and act to build common ground. Why, then, does it seem that resonance is in short supply? Blame the nature of leadership itself. Even the best ones must give of themselves constantly. There are constant demands on university leaders.

People who lead organizations face choices that are rarely clear, where decision-making and communications are complex and where ambiguous authority is often the norm. This is particularly true in universities with shared governance structures. Faculty members want to influence or control academic decision-making and have a voice in other decisions. Students, legislators, parents, and other interested parties are not reluctant to share their views and preferences.

Resonant leaders move people's emotions in a positive direction.

Add to that the loneliness of leadership at the top and the "power stress" formula is complete. Then leaders can become trapped in what we call the Sacrifice Syndrome. People find they are less resilient, that their capacity for empathy and openness is diminished. Even cognitive functioning can be impaired and affect decision-making. Dissonance can become the default response to challenges, and it can spread and eventually permeate the institution.

How can leaders climb out of the Sacrifice Syndrome? It's a holistic process, involving the mind, body, heart, and spirit. The "self" must get attention, despite long hours, tough decisions, and other challenges.

Our work with leaders has shown us that three key elements--or experiences--can help us regain resonance. These experiences spark both physiological and psychological changes that enable us to sustain effectiveness, even in the face of power stress and the unending sacrifices of leadership.

The first element, mindfulness, calls on us to live in a full, conscious state of awareness, being attentive to the context in which we work--for university leaders, the unique context of university and academic life. The second element, hope, helps us believe the future we envision is attainable. Hope is also critical in inspiring others to work together and experience optimism. Then, it's important to develop compassion for self and others. When we consciously attend to others' needs and wants, we renew ourselves and also create resonance around us.

In our discussions with leaders about their efforts to renew themselves, they often speak of personal experiences with mindfulness, hope, and compassion. While individual experiences vary, it's clear that renewal efforts don't happen by accident. Their behaviors have changed as a result of their stress. They commit themselves to a conscious change effort and work on ways to keep themselves attentive. They reconnect to their personal vision and show compassion to those they lead. Resonant leaders use this renewal process over and over again to stay healthy and focused.

Administrators represent important models of leadership for students, many of whom will become leaders themselves. By displaying positive, resonant leadership, university leaders show the student body a model for leading during complex periods of change. This is perhaps the greatest gift that an educator can offer.

Annie McKee is co-chair and David Smith is executive director of the Teleos Leadership Institute. McKee is co-author of Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion (Harvard Business School Press, 2005).


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