My Way by Frank Sinatra is a popular song among baby boomers. I remember, when I was climbing the academic ladder some two decades ago, the song was often sung by Vice Chancellors (VC) and senior government officers during institutional retreats or dinners events.
Catchy tune and lyrics aside, I felt the song’s popularity among bosses was in its message: a not-so-subtle reminder to employees that “I am the boss and it’s my way or the highway”. It is understandable that all leaders want to bring change and leave a positive legacy to the institutions they lead. However, not all are successful with some, inversely, causing more harm than good.
So, what are they missing?
One of the popular definitions of Change Leadership is by Higgs and Rowland. They defined it as “the ability to influence and enthuse others through personal advocacy, vision and drive, and to access resources to build a solid platform for change”.
While Higgs and Rowland’s definition centres around top management conforming to the way leadership was viewed in the past, Yvonne Akpoveta argued that it is no longer relevant in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, where change is fast-paced and continuously being disrupted by technological advancements.
Akpoveta offers a new definition of Change Leadership that cuts across position and title, as “the ability to influence and inspire action in others, and respond with vision and agility during periods of growth, disruption or uncertainty to bring about the needed change”.
In a VUCA world, the nature of power has shifted from top-down to the centre of networks. Greg Satell in his book, Cascades, reveals how to start and sustain large-scale change and harness the power of cascades – small groups that are loosely connected but united by a common purpose.
Having spent three decades in Higher Education Institutions, and working closely under four VCs before becoming one myself, I had the opportunity to observe different styles of leadership. Despite their differences, they share a common motivation – to lead change. Three favourite changes higher education leaders tend to make are organisational structure, management team, and strategy, which I will share in the following sections.
When I joined the School of Accountancy of a public university three decades ago, the university adopted a School system. When a new VC was appointed by the Ministry a few years later, he changed it from School to Faculty system.
When his term ended, the system was changed again from Faculty to College system. The newest new VC wanted to adopt the US university system. 13 Faculties were abolished and instead grouped into three Colleges led by Assistant Vice Chancellors (AVCs), who was assisted by three Deans: Dean for Academic, Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies, and Dean for Student Affairs. The AVCs were also responsible for student residences placed under the respective Colleges.
While the idea was good, the implementation was poor. It was done in a hurry without proper deliberation and strong support systems. The radical structural changes created administrative problems and academic chaos.
Three years later, with another new VC in place, the College system was retained but Schools were reintroduced under each College. Schools were led by Deans and assisted by Deputy Deans and Head of Departments. The new structure reduced the power of AVCs. Student residences were again separated from the College.
Later, when I joined another public university as her fifth VC, I studied the university structure and noticed a similar pattern. The university had experienced several structural changes despite her young age, but with no significant impact. Learning from past experiences, I decided to retain the existing structure with minor changes to the reporting line.
Another observation is that most VCs tend to form new management teams: A new line-up of Deans, Deputy Deans and Directors. Some even influence changes to Deputy VCs. For VCs appointed from different institutions, they would bring along their trusted team.
Again, that is understandable as leaders would prefer to work with those who share the same values and principles. If their appointments are based on merit, they can form a winning team that will bring significant changes to the institutions. If not, disaster awaits. VCs come and go but the people remain. They will leave pockets of ‘warriors’ from different ‘warlords’.
Bringing together people from different groups and backgrounds was the biggest challenge when I led the university. I did not bring my team although many were interested to join me. Instead, I put my trust on the existing team members.
During my first formal speech to university denizens, I invited all former VCs and emphasised the importance to appreciate past leadership and support the present. We sang You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban as an appreciation to their services to the university. The message is simple, we must work together as one team. Thus we created hashtags #WeAreUMKFamily and #OneUMKOneDream to show our solidarity.
Most VCs would also come up with a new strategic plan or create a revised version to the existing one. Some even change their universities vision and mission. While I believe good plans are crucial to institutional success, changing them unnecessarily must be avoided. Most plans fail not because they are bad but because of poor execution.
Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is worth noting. No matter how strong your strategic plan is, its efficacy will be held back if your team members don’t share the same value or proper culture.
When it comes down to delivering, the people implementing the plan make all the difference. History shows that forced change is not sustainable. Leaders must be open to criticism. Unfortunately, many leaders choose confrontation over compromise. We still hear VCs, “That is my power as the VC” or “Who is the VC, you or me”?
In our case, we did not create a new nor revise the existing strategic plan. Instead, we focused on creating a new work culture that emphasised on strong teamwork. With the right culture that shares the same mission and vision, execution comes naturally, and that was reflected in our excellent performance, where numbers speak louder than words.
This article discusses three common changes made by leaders and where many have failed to bring the intended impacts to the organisations. Here are three takeaway lessons. What went wrong? Great leaders are not power crazy. They only bring change when necessary. When they do, they communicate well, collaborate and commit.
First, successful leaders do not only explain the reasons for change or answer the “what?” and “why?”. Rather, they also show the way and more importantly answer the “how?”. They only bring change when necessary, and are not fixated on the mere change for legacy purposes. They communicate effectively, build trust, empower and demonstrate empathy by putting people first.
Second, successful leaders worked across boundaries and break the silos. They set a clear mission and vision that bring people onboard. Great leaders lead, inspire, and influence others. They bring them together to plan and execute. They pass the credit to the team and take the blame when things go wrong.
Finally, successful leaders do not merely get involved but engage. They devote their time to the change effort. They do not lead only from the top but also from below and side. They identify and overcome barriers to change, and stay focused on the big picture. They are willing to take risks and make important decisions.
Great leaders believe in their abilities. They leave a real legacy that lies in the hearts and minds of their followers.