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Academic Leadership and the M Word

Leadership and Management

Academic Leadership and the M Word

You can get a really impassioned faculty discussion going just by mentioning “the M Word”: motivation. Try being intentionally provocative sometime and drop “But isn’t it your job to motivate students?” into the conversation, and sit back to enjoy the show. Someone will almost always respond that it’s a faculty member’s job to educate the students. Motivation is their own matter. If they register for courses and can’t be motivated enough to do the homework, show up, and participate in discussions, then maybe they shouldn’t be in college anyway. “We’re not their babysitters,” someone will probably say. “One of the things that’s wrong with higher education is that we’re expected not just to teach our courses and engage in research, but also recruit new students, entertain them, and prod them to become interested in things they should already be interested in. It’s ridiculous.”

In most cases, the counterargument will follow quickly. “I’m not sure I agree,” someone will say. “I think it is our job to make sure that students become excited about our disciplines. We’re their role models, and if they can’t catch the fire of intellectual enthusiasm from us, who are they going to catch it from? My best professors were always those who didn’t just teach me facts and formulas; they also inspired me to enter the field. They opened my eyes not just to what was interesting, but also why it was interesting. A good teacher is a good mentor, and mentoring is at least as much about motivation as it is about instruction.” One volley will follow another, and the argument will probably last until it’s time to go home or to teach the next class.

These discussions about academic motivation often become heated because there’s such a strong case to be made on both sides of the issue. By the time they’re in college, students should be motivated by the ideas, skills, and principles that are going to be integral to their careers. At the same time, we as faculty members should recognize that effective teaching involves a great deal more than information transfer. The argument will never be resolved, because each perspective is correct. Some of us are just pulled a bit more by one side than the other.

When it comes to administrative positions, however, the context for the discussion changes radically. True academic leadership isn’t just about getting the decisions right; it’s also about getting the motivation right. Because of the power that comes with their positions, presidents, provosts, and deans can certainly make those who report to them do what they want them to do. But enforcing a decision, even when we have to do it, doesn’t have anything to do with leadership. At its best, it’s a type of management, making sure that the work gets done and the goals are met. More commonly, however, it’s reflective of a negative leadership style, a belief that mistakes rules for principles, rigidity for firmness, and control for authority. Bosses don’t have to motivate subordinates, because the chain of command places them in charge. But leaders have a responsibility to motivate those who work with them, because if you go charging off and no one follows you, you’re not a leader—you’re just on your own, moving quickly, perhaps, but ultimately never “arriving” anywhere.

Positive academic leadership recognizes that in a system of shared governance, organizational charts and chains of command are only approximations of the truth. We are all leaders in an environment rich in leadership. There are faculty leaders, student leaders, administrative leaders, leaders who hold impressive titles, and leaders who aren’t technically in charge of anything. As positive academic leaders, we don’t cringe when someone mentions “the M Word.” We do our best to motivate others to do their best, captaining the team sometimes but also cheerleading sometimes. We lead more with moral suasion than with enforcement of policies. We micromanage only as a last resort, preferring that others accompany us because they freely choose to do so rather than that they march merely because we’ve issued the command.

Ken Blanchard, the author of The One-Minute Manager and Who Killed Change?, has described a central component of his business philosophy as “Don’t mark my paper; help me get an A.” See, for example, Blanchard and Ridge (2009). It’s an outlook that seems perfectly fine in a corporate environment but one that strikes exactly the wrong note in higher education. To begin with, the metaphor itself seems jarring. It appears to emphasize getting a grade rather than getting an education, valuing the outward signs of success rather than working to deserve the success itself. But even more important, it’s a philosophy that we associate with negative academic leaders. They’re the ones who are so fixated on reaching the goal—the A, the metrics outlined in the strategic plan, the ever expanding enrollment, or whatever—that they no longer see their job as having anything to do with “the M Word.” Like Blanchard’s putative student, they may ace the course, but they’ll never really master the material. They’ve forgotten that communication requires listening as well as talking, “managing the journey” (to adopt another of Blanchard’s metaphors) rather than just “announcing the destination” (Blanchard & Ridge, 2009, p. 15).


Blanchard, K. H. & Ridge, G. (2009). Helping people win at work: A business philosophy called “Don’t mark my paper, help me get an A.” Upper Saddle River, N.J.: FT Press.

Blanchard, K. H. & Johnson, S. (1982). The one-minute manager. New York, N.Y.: Morrow.

Blanchard, K. H. (2009). Who killed change?: Solving the mystery of leading people through change. New York, N.Y.: William Morrow/HarperCollins.


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