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Leadership for Constant Change


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Diana G. Oblinger (doblinger@educause.edu) is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

This issue of EDUCAUSE Review focuses on leadership and celebrates leaders in the higher education IT community. Leadership can exist at all levels of an institution or organization. It does not come from a job title, nor is it self-appointed.

Leadership is adaptive: as the environment changes, so must leaders. Constant change may sound like an overused phrase, but it describes our world and higher education. We do not yet fully understand the meaning of the shift from an analog to a digital world. We believe that education is essential for individuals and society, even though we do not yet know how to provide enough education of sufficient quality at adequate scale to meet the need. Traditional financial models are unsustainable. Work, productivity, and employee-employer relationships are being redefined. In spite of all the challenges, the author Jim Collins argues that this may be “normal” rather than the “new normal.” Uncertainty and chaos are more common throughout history than is the calm we experienced in much of the twentieth century.

Particularly in times of constant change, we look for leaders—and try to understand what makes a leader. According to the writers in this issue, good leaders have similar traits: strong values, a variety of experience, analytical capability, and discipline.

Leaders catalyze change, not for the sake of change itself but for the sake of preserving fundamental values. A starting point for any leader is knowing who you are and what you believe in. Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University, reminds us of higher education’s three missions: creating knowledge, disseminating knowledge, and preserving knowledge. This belief in the value of higher education underlies the commitment of all the leaders in this issue. CIO Bruce Maas states: “For me, higher education is a calling, [with] stewardship expected of us by students, parents, and the public.” That belief is essential. As Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky note in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, there is no reason to exercise leadership or to take the risks involved unless one cares deeply.

Leadership also requires a variety of experience. CIO Michael Ridley observes that the different backgrounds of IT leaders nurture the expertise and skill sets that are essential for success. The other participants in the panel discussion similarly cite the value of the interplay between their degrees and the range of their experiences. Indeed, in uncertain times, it may be the diversity of experience that allows people to see alternatives and new models. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky state: “The answers cannot come only from on high. The world needs distributed leadership because the solutions to our collective challenges must come from many places.”

Analytical capability is also cited as critically important. Setting the right direction, or developing the most effective plan, hinges on data and analysis. Collins illustrates this point in his book Great by Choice by contrasting several myths with his findings. For example, he asserts that it is a myth that successful leaders in a turbulent world are bold, risk-seeking, creative visionaries. Rather, “they observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon proven foundations.” Also, successful leaders aren’t always fast in their actions; they “figure out when to go fast, and when not to.”

Values, experience, and analysis morph into leadership when combined through discipline. Keith McIntosh quotes Colin Powell: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” Leadership requires discipline to take the best from traditions, history, and opportunities and create the future. Although leaders may not need to know everything, they need to understand how things are related. And discipline is required to balance individual strengths with organizational needs. CIO Theresa Rowe uses the term “competency portfolio,” which refers not just to recognizing and developing individual competencies but also to understanding and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses in the IT organization.

Finally, as McIntosh posits, leadership means helping other people do their job well. Leadership often takes the form of making a difference through others. He suggests a question all leaders should ask: “What is your leadership legacy—what have you done to further the IT community within higher education?”

We must take the best from our traditions and our experience so that we can adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Leadership is about more than power or authority. It is about values, experience, analysis, and the discipline to change what we need to change. As Collins notes: “We cannot predict the future. But we can create it.”

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 1 (January/February 2012)

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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