February 18 2019

In the new university, consensus across stakeholder groups does not precede action, but follows it. Actions and initiatives in the form of pilot programs are essential to try new approaches, to question long-held assumptions, and to demonstrate to the community what is truly possible. Abandoning the elusive goal of consensus allows for the creation of ongoing inclusive opportunities for engagement and the acceleration of new ideas that, through trial and error, can propel the mission and vision of the institution forward. Future-oriented leadership charts a course and engages key visionaries to help shape the institution’s path in alignment with their goals. Once that course is initiated and progress is achieved, then consensus will build around the success.

If leaders clearly present a strong vision that is relevant at a macro-organizational level, they can continue to build momentum despite any tactical setbacks, and consensus will evolve. In any organization, there will always be those who disagree with an approach. Effective initiatives are often critiqued solely because either consensus was not reached, or consultation was not requested. Debate is a healthy intellectual exercise to be valued but is not an end in and of itself. Disagreement is never—ever—a reason to not act. There can be no vetoes over courageous innovation. For presidents in particular, an overreliance on consensus-building, often in fear of the dreaded vote of no-confidence, has a chilling effect on bold, courageous decision-making, frequently miring the university in endless stakeholder input but little measurable action via committees.

In the most innovative universities, the very best strategic work done by committees is accomplished when their mission is clear and directly related to the priorities of the institution, and when the value of speed is embedded and non-negotiable. Committees need enforceable deadlines for results and clear goals and objectives. Maryville University chairman of the board, Thomas Boudreau, said, “Everyone else has access to all of the other things we do, and none if it is proprietary. We have two strategic advantages, speed and agility.” Although speed and agility may be intimidating to many of us in academia, our ability to anticipate and react to change in higher education will define how we succeed in the future. Maryville has embraced a deadline-oriented culture—consensus among leaders from across campus that stalls a deadline is simply not an option.

Whether it is a new program, a policy decision, or a new residence-life initiative, a deadline for implementation is set and adhered to. The results are the reward. Often those results come in job satisfaction, growth, and revenue. Everyone likes to support a winning initiative. Regardless, results provide fuel for the next strategic move. With focus and anticipation, deliberating an idea or program need not be a long march to inaction but rather, a decisive seizure of opportunity.

Courageous Leadership: Championing Disruption, Risk, and Innovation Challenge Questions

  • Is at least one critical constituency at your institution (board, leadership team, faculty, staff) consistently focused on and pushing for change and new ways of thinking?
  • Are your institution’s committees streamlined, functional, and effective at the tasks to which they are dedicated?
  • Does your institution celebrate and reward risk-taking?
  • Does your culture reward continuous internal learning and experimentation for faculty and staff?
  • Is the search for consensus an obstacle to agility and innovation at your institution?

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Did you know that Credo facilitates Aspiring Leaders Workshops? Usually offered in partnership with a higher education organization or association, these workshops give the next generation of leaders an opportunity to evaluate their own skills, gifts, and calling against the primary leadership needs in today’s independent higher education environment.

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