Department chairs and deans find that campuswide and unit strategic plans expect them to internationalize their curriculum, globalize their programs, integrate the latest technology innovations, better meet the needs of diverse students, become more learner-centered and assess student learning, help students become more innovative and entrepreneurial, move faculty to interdisciplinary research and teaching, and use evidence-based teaching practices, to name a few priorities for action. And while all of these ideas sound good, they suggest moving in many different directions and not always in areas in which an academic leader feels that he or she has strong expertise and understanding. Add on the complexity of engaging in processes that involve politics, negotiation, persuasion, and inspiration, and the process can seem overwhelming.

A recipe for leading change would be appealing when confronted with these many strategic priorities. Leaders often think about change in a linear and simple fashion—develop a vision or goal; implement; and then assess and revise. But research suggests that there is no recipe for change. Effective leaders custom design strategies based on their local context—based on its politics, assets, leaders, and the type of change embarked upon. Trying to move a diversity initiative forward brings up different issues than does helping faculty use technology within their courses. Faculty often need more detailed discussion about their understanding of diversity and exploration of their assumptions, because diversity is a more multifaceted and complex concept than technology, for example. For detailed examples of how leaders custom design strategies for change based on the type of change and context, see my book How Colleges Change (Routledge, 2013).

While developing a local strategy is best, there are critical strategies to analyze for fit before they are used to address these key changes on your campuses. One such set of tools for determining appropriate change strategies is offered through Bolman and Deal’s leadership frames. The frames serve as a way to examine different facets of organizations as well as approaches to leading within them. In short, Bolman and Deal describe leaders in these four frames offering the following skills and strategies:

  • Structural Frame—Leaders who operate within this frame are social architects whose leadership style is analysis and design with a focus on structure, strategy, environment, implementation, experimentation, and adaptation.
  • Human Resource Frame—Those with this orientation are catalysts and servants whose leadership style is support, advocacy, and empowerment. Visible and accessible, they empower, increase participation, support, share information, and move decision making down into the organization.
  • Political Frame—Those who work in this frame are advocates whose leadership style is coalition and building. They clarify what they want and what they can get. They assess the distribution of power and interests. They build linkages to other stakeholders. They use persuasion first, then negotiation and coercion only if necessary.
  • Symbolic Frame—Leaders who operate in this frame are storytellers whose leadership style is inspiration. They view organizations as a stage or theater on which to play certain roles and give impressions. They use symbols to capture attention. They try to frame experience by providing plausible interpretations of experiences. They discover and communicate a vision.

Bolman and Deal also link these various frames to barriers to the change process as well as leaders’ roles or strategies in a change process:

StructuralHuman ResourcesPolitical Symbolic
Barriers to ChangeLoss of clarity and stability, confusion, chaosAnxiety, uncertainty, feelings of incompetence, needinessDisempowerment, conflict between winners and losersLoss of meaning and purpose, clinging to the past
Essential StrategiesRestructuring; realigning and renegotiating formal patterns and policiesTraining to develop new skills, participation and involvement, psychological supportCreating arenas where issues can be renegotiated and new coalitions formedCreating transition rituals: mourning the past, celebrating the future; storytelling

Source: Bolman & Deal (1997), p. 321

These four frames and their potential for helping academic leaders successfully engage in change processes will be featured my March 12 Magna Online Seminar “Leading Change: A Framework for Department Chairs.” (For information about this online seminar, see Through case studies and further articulation of the ways these four leadership frames have been used on college campuses, leaders can start to better craft their responses to change processes they are charged with. While the changes ahead may be complex, through this upcoming webinar leaders can help make the process of change less elusive.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Reprinted from “How Colleges Change: Proven Tools for Academic Leaders to Successfully Lead Change,” Academic Leader, 30,02 (2014): 5,6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.