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The Academic Leader As Conductor

Tomorrow's Academy

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Positive academic leaders rarely get thanked for what they do, even though they thank others often. When superb books of research are published, grants are received, students are graduating on time, and admission is increasing, no one\'s going to stick their head in the door of the provost, dean, or department chair and say, \"Hey, good job administrating this year!\" 



The posting below looks at the the metaphor an orchestra conductor in developing a systems approach to quality academic leadership. It is from Chapter 9, The Academic Leader as Conductor, in the book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, but Jeffrey L. Buller. Published by Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Brand, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Is Intellectual Curiosity a Strong Predictor For Academic Performance?



Tomorrow's Academia

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The Academic Leader As Conductor


In a now-famous presentation at the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Long Beach, California, Benjamin Zander (2009), music director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, described a moment that entirely changed the way he approached his job. He noted that not until after he had been at the podium for twenty years did he realize that the conductor is the only person in the orchestra who \"doesn't make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.\" In other words, great conductors aren't those who demonstrate their creativity through skill on an instrument or the beauty of their own performances. Rather, they are judged by their ability to produce an environment in which the artistry of others may emerge and the quality of that performance may be experienced. Of course, conductors should also be fine musicians themselves. Many of them have studied numerous instruments, performed in a variety of venues, and become virtuosi in their own right. But we appreciate conductors as conductors, not on the basis of the music they create as individuals but on their skill in inspiring others to provide fine performances. 

There's a strong parallel between what Zander is describing and the goal we're trying to attain as positive academic leaders. Administrators frequently have had highly successful careers as instructors, researchers, and academic citizens. What's more, they were often encouraged to pursue administrative careers precisely because of their achievements in these areas. But once they become administrators, academic leaders start to be judged less on the quality of their own teaching, scholarship, and service and more on the quality of what their programs achieve. Presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs may be among the very few people at their institutions who hold academic rank but teach no classes, write no grant proposals, publish no books or articles, and are elected to no committees. And yet without them, none of those activities can occur. 

How does it change the perspective of administrators when they begin to think of themselves as conductors? Zander describes his sudden awareness of his true function in the orchestra as a life-altering event. When a performance was not going well, he could no longer see it primarily as the fault of the musicians. Rather, he began to ask what it was he was conveying, intentionally or not, that prevented the orchestra from performing well. In a similar way, administrators who view themselves as conductors ask wholly different questions from those of negative academic leaders. When something goes wrong, they don't ask, \"Who's fault is it this time?\" Instead they ask, \"What am I doing wrong that's not motivating people as well as it should? What am I expressing that's not inspiring the level of excellence I know we can achieve?\"

The academic leader as conductor is someone who recognizes the truth of the seventeenth verse of the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu and Le Guin, 1997, p. 24):

True leaders are hardly known to their followers.

Next after them are the leaders

the people know and admire;

after them, those they fear;

after them, those they despise.

To give no trust

is to get no trust.

When the work's done right,

With no fuss or boasting,

Ordinary people say,

Oh, we did it.

Positive academic leaders rarely get thanked for what they do, even though they thank others often. When superb books of research are published, grants are received, students are graduating on time, and admission is increasing, no one's going to stick their head in the door of the provost, dean, or department chair and say, \"Hey, good job administrating this year!\"

Students, faculty, and staff will attribute this success to themselves, and that's exactly the way it should be. Positive academic leaders want their stakeholders to say, \"Oh, we did it!\" In fact, if the administrator's the one who's always in the limelight, something has gone wrong. Either the administrator's ego has gotten in the way or a paternalistic leadership style has made everyone far too dependent on the direction provided by just one person.

Positive academic leaders don't need fanfare to know that they've created the environment that made all those books, grants, successful students, and high admission levels possible. The leader has \"conducted\" a complex \"orchestra\" that produces beautiful \"music,\" even if he or she \"doesn't make a sound.\" To put it another way, being a good administrative conductor means understanding how to make everyone perform well as part of a system.

The Systems Approach to Positive Academic Leadership

Every orchestra is a system in the sense of the term that we saw in chapter 1: a collection of distinct individuals who are connected in such a way that they affect and are affected by other members of that system. The resulting synergy is a key reason that systems are so beneficial and yet so difficult to understand at times. After all, you can't learn everything about a computer system just by studying the keyboard, you can't learn everything about your body's circulatory system just by studying the heart, and you can't learn everything about an orchestra simply by studying the flute. In a similar way, positive academic leaders recognize that progress is achieved not by focusing on this particular faculty member or that specific part of the curriculum but by considering the system as a whole.

Systems thinking influences our approach to academic leadership in many ways. First, it causes us to consider how a change we make in one part of our system is likely to affect components elsewhere in the system. Do the following thought experiment: 

A faculty member comes to you and complains about his salary. \"I know we're all underpaid,\" the faculty member says, \"but it bothers me that I'm the lowest-paid faculty member in my rank and the lowest paid in our entire unit. I could've jumped from school to school as a way of raising my salary like other people have done. But I've been loyal. When you consider how many years I've served this institution, my low salary just isn't right.\" 

Since you first need to verify some of the claims the faculty member has made, you begin by checking where this person's salary falls relative to others at the institution. In doing so, you discover that he really does have a case: his salary is inexplicably low when you compare it to others in the discipline, no matter how you interpret the evidence. Even by controlling for years of experience, merit, market factors, rank, and every other explanation you can think of, this employee's salary still appears to lag significantly behind that of others. You check with your supervisor and, although it's uncommon, receive permission to make a special salary adjustment. The faculty member's happy, and you're happy: you've just taken a step closer to positive academic leadership.

But then something odd happens. In keeping with the time-honored tradition that no good deed goes unpunished, another faculty member makes an appointment to see you. Now she is the lowest-paid member of your faculty and wants an adjustment. (After all, the precedent's been set.) You now see what your future will be like: every time you make a special adjustment to one person's salary, another person becomes the lowest-paid member of your program and demands the next special increase. You envision the line of \"unjustly treated faculty members\" who are going to appear at your door as stretching to infinity. How might seeing the first faculty member's issue as a system issue rather than as a discrete problem have resulted in a better outcome for everyone?

In this thought experiment, you may have regarded your original solution as a good example of systems thinking. After all, you did look at part of the system: you took market factors and years of experience into account; you compared the faculty member's salary to that of others in the system; you even expanded the system by working in cooperation with your supervisor. But those actions didn't provide you with the whole story, and so your solution ended up \"introducing an exotic species into your ecosystem.\" Just as this faculty member's salary wasn't just low but also low relative to what other people were making, so did your attempt to solve the problem affect not this person alone but everyone in the system. The average salary for the entire unit has now changed, and a faculty member who may have been content to be above average in income yesterday may suddenly become angry or demoralized for being below average today. By helping one faculty member, your decision may result in salary compression or inversion for a dozen others. If this scenario seems far-fetched, it really isn't. This type of problem occurs all the time when administrators operate in silos and don't take account of how their systems are interrelated.

This doesn't mean that you should never raise the salary of an individual faculty member or do anything else that helps one person but not another. But it does indicate the importance of considering all the ramifications of each decision. Most people, when they use the word ramifications, treat it as a synonym for implications or consequences: \"I got into trouble because I never considered the ramifications of my actions.\" But this word is actually derived from the Latin words ramus (branch) and facio/facere (to do or to make). So the origin of our English word ramifications relates to how branches are made as they spread out from a single trunk or source. For this reason, the ramifications of your actions are not just the implications or consequences of those actions, but all the resulting occurrences that branch off from it as part of the system in which that action occurs.

To switch metaphors for a moment, adopting a systems approach means looking at each decision as though it were a chess move. A chess player can't think solely in terms of a single piece and a single move but has to consider each piece's relationship to all the others on the board, all the possible moves his or her opponent may make, and all the possible results of each decision ten or fifteen moves further into the game. Positive academic leaders work in this way as well. They consider the potential impact of their choices in order to select their best possible alternative, and what may appear to be the best solution now isn't always the best solution in the long run.

In the case of our hypothetical situation, a better approach would have been to respond, \"Salaries are such an important issue that we can't ever look at just one person's situation in isolation. We always have to examine the larger issue. Give me a few days, and l'll get back to you with my specific plan.\" Then, after verifying the faculty member's claims and receiving your supervisor's approval, don't make a separate deal with this one faculty member; rather, speak to the faculty as a whole:

I've been reviewing salaries in our area, and it appears that we have at least one serious case of inequity that we can't remedy through our ordinary salary process. I want you to appoint a group of representatives [at this point, you'd state a specific number; based on the size of your program] who will work with me to develop an approach to salary equity that will guide us for the foreseeable future. We'll take a look at such factors as years of experience, market value, and the results of annual evaluations. And then we'll come as close as we possibly can to achieving consensus with you about the best way to proceed. Once that plan is in place, we'll follow it, and there will be no equity adjustments outside of that plan. That's why it'll be important for you to make your views known. We probably won't be able to incorporate every opinion, but we will consider them all carefully. In that way, everyone will know how we're proceeding, what the ground rules are, and how the plan relates to his or her individual situation.

By taking this approach, you'll have reduced the length of the line of petitioners forming outside your office in the future. And when someone does plead an individual case, you'll have a clear policy in place that addresses the needs of the entire system, not just the claims of an individual faculty member.


Lao Tzu & Le Guin, U. (Trans.). (1997). Tao Te Ching. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Zander, B. (2009). Classical music with shining eyes. Retrieved February 24, 2009,

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