Managers in Higher Education Must Harness Power, Politics

Competition for resources – internal and external – means power and politics become even greater issues for managers in higher education today.

Add to that the closer scrutiny of performance, both academic and administrative, and managers in higher education face some real challenges.

From an educational perspective, the changes over the last decade in the way learning is facilitated (e.g. the move to such strategies as distance learning, e-learning and blended learning), mean the challenges for managers become twofold – content, what is done and process, the way it is done.

In such an environment, the calls for the higher education manager to add the “leadership” string to his or her management bow are long and loud. This is irrespective of whether the manager has arrived via the academic or administrative stream to their current position.

But, just what is meant by “leadership”? Does it differ from “management”? And most importantly, how does one “do leadership”?

Let’s start with management. Management is what one gets paid to do, i.e. to achieve certain tasks using the available resources. Management success is seen through the eyes of the organisation. Management is therefore mandatory (probably under pain of death!).

Leadership on the other hand, is only seen through the eyes of others – peers, colleagues, staff and other key stakeholders – those whom we need to influence without authority. Leadership is optional, but obviously highly desirable. Leadership within the group or team is evident when people are highly motivated, working co-operatively and performing at their best.

One further factor distinguishes leadership. Unlike management, it does not reside in one person – it is more a condition or function rather than a role. As Charles Handy once described it – leadership is “distributed” throughout the manager’s group or team. Although leadership may start with the manager, it’s the conditions that the manager establishes and maintains that decide whether the leadership function flourishes.

Just what are these conditions and how does the manager establish them? Four conditions are evident when leadership exists:

* A shared understanding of the environment. i.e., people have a very clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses within their group or team together with the opportunities and threats. There is a collective understanding of “We know what we face.”

* A shared sense of direction. i.e., people know (collectively) what they are trying to achieve. People can say “We know where we are going.”

* A shared set of values, i.e. people will say “We really enjoy working in this team with these people.”

* A shared feeling of power. There is a feeling of “We can do this.”

Establishing these conditions can commence with a series of workshops to encourage the sharing and distributive nature of leadership.

Then of course there is the external focus of leadership – influencing those outside the team or group to adequately manage power and politics. This can start with a thorough stakeholder analysis such as:

* Who are my key stakeholders? i.e., by name and / or position – customers, suppliers, owners, staff, community, industry.

* What is the effectiveness of each of these relationships? Give each a rating from +3 to -3 to give a clearer indication of effectiveness.

* How important is each relationship? Rank each on the basis of “high”, “medium” or “low”.

* Select those with a high degree of importance and a low rate of relationship effectiveness

* Ask – What are their sources of power and influence? How might I best use these?

* Discuss your analysis with a trusted colleague or friend (perhaps from outside H.E.). Develop a plan for managing each of these important stakeholders. Then review these relationships again in three months time.

Managing power and politics is a challenge for managers in higher education, but it can be mastered. As managers, too often we are so tied up in the moment of trying to achieve results that we do not take the time to reflect and plan an effective leadership strategy.

Hopefully the approach discussed here will generate a structure where distributed leadership copes with the day-to-day processes, freeing you up to focus on important management content issues. Great when our people can say, “Yep, we know the challenges facing us, the direction we have to go and that we will support one another. We can really make a difference here.”