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A day of sorrow

Leadership

Leadership has become a big buzzword on college campuses - leadership for students, that is. Can it be learned? Should students read books or take part in case studies? And so on. Nobody talks about leadership from the professors' side. I am not referring to platitudes such as leading by example, though; what strikes me is the similarity between a professor in academia and a manager in industry. Case in point: absenteism in class. So many of us teachers try to convince students to come because "it's good for them and they will learn things that will be useful later on." We know that they will need the material. We know that they will struggle if they don't attend. So what do we do? We cuddle or we threaten. Come to class! Come to class! We devise ways to make the material more interesting. We can't believe our eyes when we see them text-messaging under the table in the middle of the wonderful lecture we've prepared. The truth is, many educators would benefit from reading or re-reading the classic books on leadership by John Kotter and Ronald Heifetz. As both authors point out, you cannot initiate lasting change from people unless those people decide by themselves that they need to change. (Heifetz in particular studies at length the Civil Rights Era and Johnson's actions from that perspective.) In the classroom, this means that you can neither convince nor force students to attend. Of course you can have attendance count towards the final grade, but this will only bring sulky text-messaging kids (see above - a real-life experience that is becoming the norm in many universities) into the classroom. They won't listen until they realize by themselves they need to. So what kind of experience is required to make that happen? We can try to write tests that give an advantage to students who attended class, while we wait for everybody to take an internship and face the real world. We have to keep the pressure on the students so that they realize by themselves they should attend, and that's really the one thing we can do. The main differences with industry are that professors might not bother (they are not officially the students' bosses; besides, can't 19-year-old kids figure out by themselves what they have to do?) and students might hopelessly fall behind without being fired (the normal course of action in industry) and end up in learning limbo. The academic world removes pressure from the professor in that respect, and even implicitly rewards flunking students (look how tough I am! grade inflation stops here!), but offers many leadership lessons nonetheless.

The unit closest to a manager and her team in academia would be that of the professor and her graduate students. That part of my job has taught me a lot on human nature since I started. Motivating grad students and making sure they perform is even more critical in academia than industry as research sponsors ask for reports detailing the use of grant money - you sure don't want the National Science Foundation to think you're wasting taxpayers' dollars and then refuse to give you your next grant, all this because one of your students didn't complete what you had promised you would do in the proposal. If you want a primer on Motivation 101, here it is: the human mind either moves away from things or towards them, and people tend to respond more strongly to one of the two. The key is to figure out which one. Some graduate students will turn into first-rate scientists if only you encourage them enough. Many students, however, especially in the early years of their graduate studies (when they are still in college mode), move away from things. Those will present you work that changed from their results last week by all of two lines and hope you do not notice, and you have to keep pressure on them by suggesting that maybe your funding would be better used on someone else until they figure out what kind of commitment is expected from them. I do not particularly enjoy that part of my job, but if funding runs out at the end of the semester, I do have to figure out which student should go - a tough call that no one else can make, and the students at the very least deserve to understand the rationale behind the choice. Because the money is not coming from another part of a big company but from outside sources, you cannot hope to open the cash faucet again just by skilful negotiations with your boss, and the need to ruthlessly evaluate performance is then a lot more critical in academia than industry. In that way, academia does have a leadership lesson or two to teach industry after all.

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