Tellin’ Ain’t Leadin’ 

Tellin’ Ain’t Leadin’

Every now and then, some young person or other—usually a friend’s child—will ask me what I do for a living. I try to make my answer appropriate to the child’s age, often describing a dean’s similarities to and differences from the principal of a school. Frequently, the response I’ll get is something like, “Boy, it must be fun to tell all those people what to do all the time!” When I respond that it really isn’t like that, and that I hardly ever out-and-out tell people what to do, the child will always be surprised, often disappointed, and sometimes even be baffled that anyone would agree to take on a leadership position where you don’t get to bark orders all day. That’s not surprising. Children often have a limited understanding of what the adult workplace is actually like. But what’s more surprising is how often the parent will then say, “Really? I thought that was what deans do. How do you lead if you don’t tell people what to do?”

There’s a folksy saying that people sometimes cite when they want to talk about the merits of active learning: Tellin’ ain’t teachin’. The idea is that if a teacher simply provides information, students don’t learn to think critically or find out how to discover things on their own. The goal of the teacher is to make himself or herself unnecessary. And you can’t do that if you merely spout facts and formulas. You’re basically making yourself a walking encyclopedia, not a trainer of people’s minds. In much the same way, I think we need a parallel folksy saying: Tellin’ ain’t leadin’ either. If a provost, chair, or dean merely tells a faculty member what to do (and by the way, if you’re ever successful doing that to begin with, let me know how you did it), the administrator is failing in his or her responsibility to be a mentor to others. The goal of the academic leader is to make the work of the faculty and students more fruitful. And you can’t do that if you merely spout rules and regulations. You’re basically making yourself a walking policy manual, not a genuine academic leader.

The academic leader as gardener

We can think of academic leadership as something like working in a garden. The gardener doesn’t bear the fruit or produce the blooms, but he or she does tend the conditions that make the fruit and foliage possible. You can tell a tomato plant to produce more tomatoes all you want, but if you haven’t prepared the soil, provided just the right amount of water, and protected the plant from predators, you’re not going to achieve the goal you had in mind. Even worse, you can tell a tomato plant to produce cucumbers all you want, but you’ll just be wasting your effort. Tellin’ ain’t gardenin’; producing the right conditions, caring for the plants, and not expecting them to yield impossible results is far more effective. No one may see all the effort that went into producing the prize tomato or breathtaking orchid. But the gardener knows, and anyway he or she is far more interested in the tomato or the orchid itself than in the credit that comes from growing it.

True academic leaders take much the same approach. They don’t teach all the classes, publish all the books, or receive all the grants, but they do create the conditions that make all that productivity possible. They know that you don’t get more creativity simply by telling people to be more creative. They know, too, that different people may have different strengths, and that their star teacher may not be their star researcher. It’s pointless (and poor leadership) to assume that everyone has to be excellent in precisely the same ways. So they spend their time producing the conditions that make excellence possible, not telling people what to do. Tellin’ ain’t leadin’; producing the right conditions, caring for the students and faculty, and not expecting them to yield impossible results is far more effective. Besides, if you tell people what to do, at best they’ll do only that and not a bit more. If you give them some freedom, they’re likely to come up with something far more creative and wonderful than you could ever have dreamed of yourself. No one may see all the effort that went into producing the winning grant proposal or the game-changing book. But the academic leader knows, and anyway he or she is far more interested in the success of the faculty and students than in the credit that comes from leading them.

Limitations of the metaphor

Like any image, that of the academic leader as gardener does have its limitations. If we get carried away with the metaphor and start talking about how we sometimes have to “prune” programs to make them stronger and “sow the seeds” of our ideas, we’re likely to find ourselves accused of taking on yet another function of the busy gardener: just spreading a lot of manure. More seriously, however, there’s one way in which too much insistence on the gardener metaphor can yield exactly the opposite result from what we intended: when we assume that gardeners are judged by the “productivity” of their gardens. The more vegetables and the more bouquets that come out of a garden, we may think, the better the garden is and thus the better the gardener’s skill. In a similar way, we can fall into the trap of thinking that the more student credit hours, refereed articles, funded grants, and timely graduates a program produces, the better the program is, and thus the better the skill of the academic leader.

Approaching our work in this way simply drives us right back to the fallacy of leading by telling. We start thinking of our role as setting goals for our programs, while leaving it to others to determine how they can possibly meet those goals. We forget that our academic programs exist to produce understanding, insight, and new ideas, not simply degrees and student credit hours for their own sake. We start evaluating our programs—and ourselves—by the “bushels” of articles our faculty produces or the “acres” of students who graduate within a set period. And so, we revert to telling our faculty members that they’re not excellent unless their productivity is abundant and continuous. We expect our students to complete their programs on a timetable that made perfect sense for students in the 1950s and 1960s, not those of the present day who often have to work full-time jobs simply to pay even a portion of their tuition.

Understanding that tellin’ ain’t leadin’ means recognizing that the administrator’s job is to create an environment that is most conducive to the development of understanding, insight, and new ideas. It means seeing our jobs as weeding not “inefficient” programs but those obstacles that make the work of our students and faculty more difficult. It means that our default approach to most situations is to help our stakeholders discover how they can do something, not why they can’t. And it means devoting many more hours each day to asking, mentoring, and assisting than to telling people what to do.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on February 1, 2014. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

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