A Case of Absent Leadership: Spinning Wheels
Lack of leadership wastes time and undermines opportunities
Collaboration is made up of many individuals, but having a competent leader or a leadership team authorized to make decisions for the group is imperative. Otherwise, individuals spend too much time navigating obstacles, missing opportunities, and raising questions about whether the collaboration is worth it.
Four presidents from colleges close in proximity, but with disparate programs, came together to forge a formal collaboration. Their goals were to expand educational opportunities for students, facilitate faculty research and teaching across campuses, and streamline administrative functions. Since each school had its own specialized focus, the presidents believed that the collaboration would offer students, faculty, and administrative new opportunities, as well as provide cost savings for each campus.
The four presidents—the visionary leaders of the collaboration—set up periodic meetings throughout the year to touch base on various fronts. The provosts of each school also met regularly about the day-to-day tactical planning of the collaboration. However, these provosts only had authority to make decisions about the items that would affect their respective campuses. The appointed “director” of the collaboration helped to support the presidents and the provosts by planning cross-campus events and initiatives, and disseminating information and enthusiasm about the collaboration to other administrators, faculty, and students. Though many individuals brainstormed and planned various initiatives for the collaboration, there was an absence of leadership for major decisions about the collaboration, causing participants to “spin their wheels.”
What does this “spinning” look like and what are the consequences?
To encourage collaboration among students and professors across the colleges, the presidents offered small grants to create opportunities for work across campuses—so that participants would get to know and respect each other, and to benefit from multiple perspectives.
Professor Backmeister submitted a grant proposal for a course in which students across the campuses would consult for local businesses. The course was specifically created for students who had expressed interests in entrepreneurship. She considered this course an ideal way to bridge the different cultures across campuses while giving students the chance to learn about each other in the “real world.”
However, once the class began, the professor learned that not every institution handled course credit in equal ways. While students from one school were receiving full course credit, students from the two other schools were only receiving half course credit. The professor worried that students from one school would be less engaged because they were receiving half of the credit received by their classmates. She heard the students mumbling about the “inept leadership” that led to these glitches; some of them considered dropping the course. Professor Backmeister didn’t blame them because as she saw it, some students were “giving 100% effort [and] just getting 50% of the credit.”
Professor Backmeister spent significant time lobbying for full credit for all students—partially because she wanted to be fair, but mostly because she viewed the course as a unique opportunity for students and didn’t want to lose anyone. With no authoritative leadership structure in place and no designated individuals to address these kinds of problems, Professor Backmeister scrambled to find a creative solution for those students who had already developed teams and built relationships with the consulting sites.
Despite reaching out for help multiple times to various individuals supposedly “in charge” at each school, Professor Backmeister was repeatedly told to contact individuals at another campus. When she did, these individuals would refer her back to the collaboration director, who was not able to help with course credit issues because, as she was told, these decisions are left up to each individual school. Without ultimate decision-making authority, the director’s hands were tied. She explained, “When I applied for the grant, I had assumed structure was in place to support execution of the programs. At least at the most basic level. But they expected us to fend for ourselves. With students caught up in the middle!”
Realizing that she had to take the matter in her own hands, Professor Backmeister worked out a “solution,” which was fair to the students, but not to herself. Specifically, one of the schools that could not participate in the course decided to “host” the course officially so that students could get full credit. However, this school could not pay for Professor Backmeister’s salary; in the end, she accepted half-pay. Even though this was unfair from her perspective, she decided it was preferable to accept the financial loss rather than to undermine the students. After all, she remarked, “At that point, the students didn’t have another option. We promised them a class and I had to find a way to deliver.”
Most upsetting to Professor Backmeister was the fact that she learned, after the semester had ended, that other grant winners faced essentially identical obstacles. Professor Backmeister said, “I was speechless when I found out that colleagues were making the same endless round of calls about credit issues.” Because no one had been put “in charge” of these decisions, the absence of leadership led to many others facing the same challenges. “Had someone simply connected us to each other,” Professor Backmeister argued, “we could have built on our shared experiences.”
Based on her experience, Professor Backmeister doubted the collaboration’s future. She said that, without an effective leader in place, “it isn’t clear to anyone what to do, where to go, or how to navigate things – there is no playbook to use.” Clearly, if the colleges are going to ask faculty to come up with cross-campus projects, a system should be in place that delineates how to handle the problems that inevitably arise, or whom to consult if someone needs help. Rather than “fend for herself,” Professor Backmeister could have reached out to other professors, contacted the Presidents to request a meeting, or told the director of the collaboration that the course could not be offered if the issue was not immediately settled. Because of the time pressures, all of these options seemed too difficult. Frustrated, Professor Backmeister noted that there is no problem getting faculty to see value in the collaboration or even in getting them to the table, but once they get there, “no one is leading the conversation.” She wondered, “How many times will the faculty continue to show up once they realize that even the most basic infrastructure is missing? We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel! The logistical impediments are just too overwhelming… I think I need at least a year to recover from it!”