Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sustainability of leadership

If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes. Image by Icaza.

Yesterday concluded our 2 day Polytech wide professional development conference, and as always I very much enjoyed the chance to have longer-than-usual conversations with new people, focused on specific topics related to our work.

Outside my own talks, I attended sessions focused on sustainability. Its the one area of change in the Polytechnic that is outside my primary job description, but that I contribute to as much as possible.

In the session we heard Anna and Ella talk through some principles and frameworks for their change agency work, they talked about their effort to develop a model of education for sustainability, and they did a great job engaging everyone in the discussion, and including all manor of contributions.

As usual I mouthed off with opinion and challenges, and I offended some people in the room when I challenged the idea that we need leadership, specifically the suggestion to do away with the leadership team in Otago Polytechnic. Understandably some people took it personally, or fundamentally disagreed with the alternative ideas I suggested to leadership and hierarchical structures, and it seemed to some to be an inappropriate place to raise the idea.

Alarmed by the offense and misunderstanding I caused some colleagues, I have been seeing people one by one to apologise for my careless and insensitive wording and any offense caused, and to try and better explain the intent behind what I was saying if there is any chance left for discussing the intent behind my remarks.

But as a start, there are individuals in Otago Polytechnic's leadership team who are the best bosses I have ever worked for in the 4 or more tertiary education institutions I have worked at in Australia and New Zealand. My CEO Phil Ker is always accessible and willing to discuss any issue at any time with any one it seems. Likewise the deputy CEO Robin Day has been incredibly supportive when I have stuck my neck out on other occasions, and carried a lot of the stress I caused while introducing social media and open education ideas. Without Phil and Robin's support, Otago Polytechnic would not be where it is today in terms of progressive copyright policies and experimenting with open education services.

So my suggestion that our organisation doesn't need a "leadership team" was not intended to be personal, and was not intended to dismiss the work that has been done in that team. My suggestion was intended in the context of sustainability, where I think the existence of hierarchy, leadership roles, difficult to access or privileged information, several chains of command, bureaucracy, inequality in reward and the resulting politics and behavior, have an arguably adverse affect on our efforts to develop as sustainable practitioners, and in helping students appreciate and develop as sustainable practitioners.

I think the opportunity to discuss that point was lost by my poor verbal wording at the time and as a result I am having to apologise and explain myself to several people who were present.

I did propose cooperative organisational structures however, and a radical flattening of hierarchy in the organisation, along with more individual and small team accountability and opportunities to self determine. Perhaps something like Out From Under the Umbrellas, What Would it Be Like to Be the Rain - meets cooperatives.

Organisational structure seems to be a hot topic in the polytech at the moment, the boss is blogging about it, and I have since met several people with ideas they'd like to discuss where it counts. I think it would be a good thing to call an open and facilitated meeting where anyone can have a chance at proposing a structural idea, and a facilitator will help us all recognise the value of each idea and extract and use as much as possible and develop collective idea. But this is easier said than done, because I think so long as the hierarchy and current insulated structure exists, it is difficult to build a sense of ownership and genuine participation. The same problems afflicting effective progress in sustainability work.

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Stephen said...

In regards to sustainability and leadership Jared Diamond gives a strong agrument that any sustainability push needs to be both top-down and bottom-up in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

On the offending others front take heart that the words were only said verbally and will dissappear soon enough. The nice apology will be around for a lot longer through the medium of the Internet.

Sean FitzGerald said...

I'm not surprised that members of a highly hierarchical organisation were challenged by your ideas. I hope you only apologised for your delivery, not the actual content.

It's true that systems that are centralised, hierarchical, top-down etc. are far less sustainable and resilient to shocks than systems that are decentralised, peer-to-peer, networked etc.

Taking it even further, a truly sustainable organisation would be a fully democratic one, and include students as well as all staff in decision-making, as in Democratic Education -

As usual, you are ahead of your time in many ways, Leigh. You truly are the activist. Activists always upset someone, because they challenge the status quo.

I doubt though whether you are ever going to get far until you challenge the power issues involved in educational institutions. The trick then is to develop a language and an approach that doesn't put people off side!

You might be interested in Riane Eisler's dominator-partnership model of cultural power -

Sean FitzGerald said...

Oh... and I'd like to see a post where you lay out your ideas on sustainability of leadership in more detail.

It seems to me that in the past critiques of the power dynamics in educational institutions were centred around either issues of effectiveness of learning (a pragmatic approach) or human rights and human potentials arguments.

As I read more on sustainability - inspired by the need to address coming environmental crises etc. - it seems to me like the sustainability/resilience argument is another fruitful avenue for tackling the isuue.

hadashi said...

And here's another inflammatory comment: consciously or not, people use the technique of 'taking offense' as a means of manipulating the person with whose ideas they don't agree. Keeping each other in line is not what is required in a dialogue exploring notions of sustainability, or indeed in any discussion. Methinks some basic Ed de Bono's six-hat practice might level the playing field.

Robin Petterd said...

Just catching up blog reading. With a organizations has no leadership what about a visions ?

I've worked in team that was Democratic and what it meant was the status quo stand all the time people like the "old way of doing it"

Also the role of managing needs to be thought of differently from the role of leading.

I don't think it's leadership or management styles that are the problems is the scale of learning organizations. They need to smaller, maybe made of separate

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Robin, I agree completely! It is indeed the scale that is the problem.. Typically an educational organisation here is made up or about 5 levels of leadership and management:

1. CEO and Council
2. Leadership team and Group managers (= to deans)
3. Heads of schools
4. Course or programme managers
5. Teachers

Personally, I think course of programme managers are as high as it need go, with each course or programme operating like its own business. The functions above that.. head of school, group manager etc.. become support agencies with little direct input. The leadership therefore - the type of which you describe Robin, is contained very close to the market and the actual operations. Accounting, equipment, room hire are all managed at this new level, and so the team with the new leadership capabilities become more aware of the true costs of their course.

Where this becomes a problem though, is where particular courses are out of flavour. The institutional structure tends to provide a buffer to such fickle markets. This buffer could be preserved however, if the supports are in place. A little like government funding agencies, instead of a decision making leadership team.

Robin Petterd said...

What is interesting is what you talking about is still a large organization.

What would happen if the groups of teachers had to function as small businesses? even with their own brand?

What is hard in these model is that we still talking about is .gov money someone need to decide on what to fund.

Leigh Blackall said...

Still talking about a largish organisation mainly because it would be too sudden and too destabilising to dismantle it all of a sudden.

My thoughts are to take the first (radical) step in empowering each course to operate more as a "business" in its own right, but retain some of the protection of the larger organisation in the years it takes to iron out the bugs and blow out the cobwebs in people who haven't had to operate like that... ever.

Its important that we don't loose certain subjects in this.. the ones that students (markets) wouldn't choose.. such as humanities subjects, or drudgery subjects that are still necessary. A sudden change to the model you describe would put these in short term threat.

Robin Petterd said...

It would take time for people to understand that there is not "they" to complain about !!! and it would take time for teachers to change.

Your comment about subjects being lost is interesting because my experience of large organizations was that the organization wasn't prepare to fund area like the arts and humanities that students wanted to do. Often they area's the organisation want to fund actually had trouble find students.

The other thought that I'm not sure about is a lot of what we are talking about is the idea's behind privatization of .gov .... I think we are talking more about small groups of people that act more like 'tribes' than large armies.

Leigh Blackall said...

Yes, the link to privatisation troubles me also.. The only saving grace in what we are discussing is teh small and self determining feature.

True it is that many organisations have foresaken some subject areas due to finiancial bottom line thinking, but equally if not more have activly preserved them. Preserving them becomes a lot more difficult after decentralisation.