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A Crucial Step in Academic Leadership Development

May 2014

By Patrick Cullen, Associate Vice President and Scholar in Residence, AACSB International

It is a striking paradox that while business schools provide leadership development opportunities for the students and executives they educate, they rarely offer such training to those pursuing leadership roles within the school. Over recent years, I have had many conversations with faculty members in leadership roles such as department chair, associate dean, or assistant dean—and their stories are remarkably similar. Often, moving into such positions had not been part of a long-term career plan, and usually they were offered very little, if any, directly relevant formal training for the demands of the role.

I was intrigued by this, and decided to delve deeper through a series of interviews. According to a variety of faculty and administrators, across many geographic regions, there is a wide (and potentially dangerous) gap in the professional development required for effective leadership in today's higher education environment. As many interviewees observed, with business schools facing new and disruptive challenges, the need for effective leadership is greater than ever. Comments such as, "the need is critical" and "we do a poor job of developing our leadership pipeline" were typical.

Recognizing that AACSB has an opportunity to help its members address this leadership gap, the research expanded. An extensive survey and further interviews revealed some interesting findings as we sought the most pressing issues to address in a leadership program tailored to business schools. Several important themes emerged: the ability to think strategically and to communicate effectively, and—perhaps most importantly—how to help faculty members re-evaluate (and change) some of their most deep-rooted attitudes and resultant behaviors.

As many interviewees explained, the move to a leadership position within a school requires a shift in mindset, from that of an individual faculty member, to a team member who understands that the needs of the entire school supersede those of any sub-unit. For a faculty member who has been previously rewarded for their individual accomplishments and mentored by colleagues in their discipline, this is often a difficult transition that requires consistent support and thoughtful training.

Beyond a shift in mindset, interviewees stressed that effective leadership in a business school context requires faculty members to develop a set of capabilities that are very different from the discipline-based and theory-driven knowledge and skills pursued in doctoral programs and required for scholarly publications. In this context, effective leadership is predicated on the ability to build, maintain, and if necessary, rebuild, trust and respect throughout the school. The ability to manage conflict, persuade, and build coalitions is vital to leading change when dealing with faculty members, especially as many will have tenured positions.

As with leadership development in any context, the key to success lies in the transition from "knowing" to "doing." Yet, as several interviewees remarked, business school leaders—department chairs, associate deans, etc.—should not be learning how to lead while they are already in the job. The stakes are too high, and mistakes can be very damaging. That is why AACSB is responding to the clear need for a leadership program specifically designed for business school leaders. The series—Leading in the Academic Enterprise™—offers a new framework for leading in a low authority context and custom designed pedagogical tools, such as case studies and reflective exercises created specifically for this series.