Changing Leadership Metaphors:
From a Culture of Blame to a Culture of Responsibility


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Organizational instruments of our curiosity and wonder, American colleges and universities are crucibles of dissent and debate, adversarial forums for the discovery and testing of truth. They are places where we advance on the enemies of ignorance, hypocrisy, and prejudice; and they are repositories of value, beauty, and standard-calling both student and society to excellence in the arts, humanities, sciences, and professions.

Americans see their colleges and universities also as engines of cultural and economic development, as organizations designed to help both individuals and society reach the far edge of their circle of promise and potential. We have assigned to them the responsibility of putting knowledge to work, grappling in the dirty trenches of the nation and the world to battle those problems that beset mind, body, and spirit.

Finally, our colleges and universities are guarantors of democracy and servants of liberty, a principal means of educating the discretion and judgment of our people, wellsprings of critical and affirming impulses for our society. They are a forum where egalitarianism and elitism exist in delicate embrace. They are havens of both diversity and community, where difference is welcome and an agenda of common caring is cultivated . Cultural curators and cultural critics, colleges and universities are expected to nurture a reverence for history and heritage even as they are expected to challenge conventional wisdom and today's common sense. Holding hands with the past while reaching for the future is a mission destined to produce tension, within the academy and among its external supporters. That Americans have been willing to support politically and financially an enterprise with these missions is a matter of marvel and wonder.

It is a system in which the principle of autonomy, so essential in the search for truth and in the nurture of democracy, is in dynamic tension with the principle of accountability, which is antidote to professional arrogance and intellectual narrowness. It is a system in which debate over educational purpose and method constitutes a form of ideological conflict, and the metaphors of war are often used to describe the "battleground" of the curriculum.

American higher education is a system central to our social, economic, moral, and political welfare-a system too important for its purpose and performance to be left entirely in the hands of those faculty and academic officers who are the first trustees of educational purpose and excellence. It is, therefore, a system with complex governance structures in which other trustees, members of lay boards play a distinctive and critical role, a system of multiple stakeholders in which many external voices have an influence on the campus--alumni, accrediting agencies, government. It is a system of shared authority that works but is easier experienced than explained, a culture of decision and authority that seems strange and unwieldy to those who labor in simpler line and staff configurations.

No era of American higher education history could be more dynamic than the last half of the 20th century. Within the space of a generation Americans have made, by any criterion, an astonishing investment in their colleges and universities--building and expanding campuses from 1900 to 3700, bringing higher education within financial and physical reach of 14 million Americans each year, and creating an enterprise with annual income and expenditures approaching $200 billion. This investment of both faith and finance has created a system described by management scholar Peter Drucker as a model of imagination and innovation and a system widely regarded nationally and internationally.

This distinctive and important civic instrument has, however, come under frequent critical assault in the eve of the 20th century, though these years are by no means the first season of higher education criticism, as any close reading of history will reveal. Indeed, were the phrase not something of a contradiction, that history would leave us convicted that American higher education lives in a state of "chronic crisis." Though not unchallenged in previous years, traditional assumptions and principles are being contested in professional and public forum with considerable frequency and intensity.

For each year of the past decade, as an example, there has been at least one major book length critique of American higher education from Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Charles Sykes' Profscam, Anderson's Imposters in the Temple, Page Smith's Killing the Spirit, Roche's The Fall of the Ivory Tower, Solomon and Solomon's Up the University, Wilshire's The Moral Collapse of the University, and Patterson's book with the forbidding title When Learned Men Murder. There are informing counterpoints in such volumes as Boyer's College: The Undergraduate Experience, Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, and Benjamin's An Aristocracy of Everyone.

Among the emergent themes in the more critical works are these. Some faculty are in flight from their most fundamental responsibility of teaching, to other more lucrative and selfish pursuits. Too often faculty and administrators are not exemplifying constructive values in either educational standard or operation: taking their students and institutions in harm's way and diminishing higher education as sanctuary of truth and nobility. Too many faculty and administrators are empty of conviction, compassion and courage, vacillating to fads and pressures. And in the University, science has been too often divorced from the humanities so that soil erosion is accepted as a proper theme for engagement but soul erosion is not.

Surely there is much about our colleges and universities that warrants reform and renewal, and they no more deserve deferment from critical scrutiny then other organizations in our society. However, criticisms of higher education mission, traditions, and performance are not necessarily signs of pathology. . . or even crisis. An institution whose mission embraces the unswerving search for truth, whose work includes a constant assault on common sense, whose methods include the adversarial testing of ideas in public forum, whose spirit embraces a certain irreverence, and whose best work is done when its graduates exit with as sustained curiosity and with the competence and courage to ask "Why" may count it a measure of success when those graduates turn their curiosity and their criticism to the academy itself.

How do we honor the heritage of American higher education and simultaneously move thoughtfully to the future? This is a dance of tradition and change that is difficult to choreograph and to perform. And it is certainly one that calls for a change in the way we view leadership in academic life.


Metaphors of leadership role and responsibility in all organizations, corporate and collegiate, have been evolving over this century. Earlier metaphors of commander and controller accented the mechanistic and structural notions of organizational life where conformance and compliance were terms central to the leadership lexicon. Leaders solved problems brought to them for resolution, made decisions for others, issued orders and repressed or resolved conflict. In this earlier vision, those men and women who issued voice and meaning to an organization were viewed as interchangeable parts in a network of bosses and workers, and a narrow reality was to be found in position descriptions and policy manuals. Some would suggest that this view of leadership role and responsibility were outcomes of a male-dominated scholarship and organizational leadership.

From contemporary perspective, such a vision could be seen as confining to the human spirit. From another perspective, however, it was a highly satisfying arrangement. It created a climate hospitable to our proclivity for criticizing and blaming leaders, a climate that allowed us to escape responsibility. There is an appealing simplicity to the "Czar Concept" of organizational life. As long as there is someone in charge, all will be well. And if things are not well, then we have someone to blame. And if we get rid of that someone, all will be well again. This is a culture of blame and too often a culture of irresponsibility.

For any organization, can any pastime offer more pleasure, can any distraction be more attracting than finding fault with those in the administrative suite? Wander the hallways of corporation or campus and catalog the conversational content there. For colleges, one might come to believe that it would be an unnatural act to tender a complement to the dean or the vice president. This fault finding is a calling with special appeal to some faculty who would find it beyond belief that their chancellors and chairs, deans and directors could possibly harbor ideas in their head or conviction in their heart. Having lived in both administrative suite and monastic faculty cell, I confess that I too find the opportunity of criticizing administrators alluring. If I am busy thinking about the faults of "the administration," I can avoid thinking about my own responsibility, and I can bemoan my assumed lack of power and authority, to which I return in a moment.

The argument can be so circular and defeating. I once attended a planning meeting of faculty, one designed to craft new directions for a college. The first and dominating item of conversation from those faculty assembled was that the dean already had in mind a direction for the college and that the work of the task force was just so much busy work, destined to be ignored or trashed in the grand garbage bin of ill-conceived faculty thought. I found this an astonishing view. Robert Hutchins once noted that a college administrator having ideas would be rightly considered a dangerous person. For me, however, a dean without ideas and conviction was potentially more dangerous and damaging than a dean who stood for something. One can engage and contest conviction, even prejudice, but tis more difficult to confront apathy, ignorance, or emptiness. The assumed or constructed reality of dean as ideological czar was strangely attracting, however, because it allowed the faculty a potential escape from their duty for either thought or action-for their own leadership responsibility.

I do not argue that we cannot find conceptual, emotional, or moral shallowness in some college administrators. Inept evangelists whose only tools are worn sermonettes and homely quotations, empty of substance and skill. Managerial mechanics enamored of technique but seldom asking questions of purpose and meaning. Friendly mannequins clothed in the fashion of power and status and thinly veneered in social grace but empty of ideas or conviction. Limited scholars of conventional intellectual brilliance but often infantile in interpersonal, emotional, and political intelligence. Social chameleons and personality puffs having no center of mind and heart, agreeable and inoffensive souls offering no edge of personality or resistance to the challenges of duplicity and intimidation from within our without. Sterile and brittle folks of small compassion and empathy because they have traveled few paths of defeat, pain, or suffering. Status worshipers impressed with the insignia of office and trivia experts occupied with the day of small things. Flawed personalities whose character fissures are exposed under the seductive call of power and status, who have abandoned their integrity and prostituted their honor.

The sour fruits of these collegiate leaders are regrettably displayed in local and national press and constitute one more reason why higher education is experiencing so much criticism today. For these leaders, the lights may be on but no one is at home. They deserve our scorn and our criticism.

Newer metaphors for leaders are designer and moral-exemplar, coach and covenant-maker, maestro and steward. I would even include here the metaphors of radical and guerilla. These newer metaphors signal a change from leadership in the imperative mood to leadership in the interrogatory mood, if you will permit a slight play on the indicative. Under this vision, leaders ask questions instead of furnishing answers, call others to a standard of responsibility rather than encouraging their dependence, share threat and insecurity rather than shielding colleagues from conflict. They inquire as often as they tell. Under this vision, leaders work not so much to persuade others to follow their intent and will-the vision thing-but to help colleagues discover what is necessary for them to meet their own responsibility. Under this vision, leaders look behind the quiet smile of their colleagues to see what battles of conscience are raging there and know how to hug as well as tug, to inspire as well as instruct. It is informing to note that a woman writing almost eighty years ago, Mary Parker Follett, was one of the first to frame this call-to-responsibility concept of leadership role.

What makes the evolution of metaphors of more than passing interest is that metaphors are a shorthand way of expressing our theories. Everyone has a theory of leadership role and responsibility, and that theory is the design instrument-designer as metaphor-via which we construct social realities and working climates. In the remainder of these reflections, I would like to examine some of the implications for new visions of leadership and the metaphors that operationalize those visions.


The first implication is that leadership is not just the responsibility of those holding formal administrative office but is a responsibility residing in the hearts and minds of everyone holding learning climates in trust. Leadership flows as much from our passion as our position. Indeed, one might argue that it is a lack of passion, an absence of caring that has so characterized some of our collegiate communities. Somehow we divorced competence and conscience and came to believe that objectivity and impartiality would deliver the only truth in our scholarship. What we know, however, will always be servant to what we believe. There is no neutral ground for any organization, as our policy and practice will exemplify our value commitments, will establish a culture of caring or a culture of neglect. Is this not a theme of central interest to the Society for Values in Higher Education?

Whether occupying office of modest or grand dimension, effective faculty and administrative leaders will be loving leaders. Browsing through book indexes is not a routine activity of mine, but if one takes a few moments to examine either tables of contents or indexes in the leadership and management literature, it will be clear that the word "love" rarely appeared in volumes published in the first half of the 20th century. But you can find that word in newer volumes.

Effective leaders will love soul, standard, and system. Let me quickly illustrate. Several years ago I encountered a young man as a student in an early morning class. Eric, a pseudonym, was not a brilliant scholar. He submitted for this course, however, a brilliant final paper that looked as though he had been using a dictionary belonging to William Buckley, Hannah Arendt, or John Kenneth Galbraith. I suspected that Eric had not written this paper; and so I invited him over to my office to see if he really knew what the words "oxymoron, autochthonous, pusillanimous, and multifaceted" meant. I like the first three words enough but confess an active disaffection for "multifaceted." If some enterprising computer wizard were to construct a virus that would gobble up the word "multifaceted" anytime it appeared in text, I might even be willing to disengage my Norton Anti Virus program.

In the spirit of my reflections here , I used an interrogatory approach, asking of Eric whether he could tell me what each term meant in the context of his own paper. After the third question, a guilty grin marked his countenance and he confessed that his girl friend had crafted this lovely paper. Now I cared for the soul of Eric, and I cared for educational standard. I loved him and I loved excellence. And so I threatened him with a "F" unless he brought me a paper that he had written. He did. It was not an "A" paper. It was not an "F" paper. But it was his paper. As any artist teacher knows, a well constructed question will often carry as much power in gentle discovery and delivery than a harshly worded accusation or reprimand. Questions are instruments of gentle power in calling academic colleagues and civic friends to responsibility.

Beyond a concern for soul and standard, loving leaders will recognize that competent and well intentioned colleagues may labor in flawed systems. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge called our attention to the impedance of faulty systems and to our lack of awareness to context and connection. Another contemporary American scholar, W. Edwards Deming alerted us to sources of error in our systems and set in motion the foundations for total quality management. Any college administrator who has experienced the anger, the frustration, the enmity of students exposed to flawed systems of admission, registration, financial aid, parking, or academic policy will understand the need of leaders to love not just the soul and the standard, but the system. There are personal, ethical, and technical engagement for the loving leader. Concentrating on what it means to love soul, standard, and system keeps the leader from the cynical distraction of small issues and minds, and encourages both patience and persistence, among the most underrated qualities of effective leaders in any setting.

An American gangster of the depression era once remarked that you can make progress more quickly in most situations with a gun and a kind word than you can with a kind word alone. My version of this thought nugget is that you can make progress more quickly and effectively in many social settings with a thoughtfully crafted interrogatory than you can with an imperative alone.

This illustration can also be used to exemplify two other value commitments-those of civility and accountability. I did not demean Eric's ability or personality. I accented the call of his own performance. I concentrated on improvement rather than punishment. I offered him candor and courtesy rather than arrogance and anger. I sought to integrate his interests and mine. And this leads me to my next reflection in the implications for changing leadership metaphors.


Colleges and universities are more than configurations of hierarchy and collegiality. They are political entities as well, where differences over mission and method are to be expected and conflict is a signal of those differences. How many college leaders have you experienced who held negative and zero- sum theories of conflict. If we are not informed, we can believe that conflict is a sign of either personal or organizational pathology and that the leader's responsibilities are to repress or to resolve. If we are not informed, we can believe that there are only winners and losers in any conflict, and the leader's work is to avoid being a loser. In the minds of many leaders there is an understandable yearning for order, and this can dispose them to fear conflict and to treat dissenters as enemies.

This is a strange and unexpected perspective in an organization that so depends upon conflict for the discernment of truth. You cannot live a single day, however, in the house of intellect without finding there some faculty or administrative colleague who lacks the capacity to entertain honest dissent, who assigns dark motives to those differing in perspective, who degrades those who cannot share his or her conviction on goal or method. Such imperious attitudes mitigate against constructive interpersonal relationships and against meaningful and healthy change. Neither philosophy or science will support such confining theories on the role and management of conflict.

Avoidance, denial, repression, compromise-are these the only paths to conflict management? There is another, albeit more difficult path. It is the path of integration, a path that calls for engagement and acknowledgment of the conflict and that calls for a search for resolutions that integrate the interests of all parties. To the earlier metaphors of commander and controller perhaps we should add combatant. The early history of leadership thought was built on a macho model of winning and losing and the idea was to win. There were bosses and employees, companies and unions; and it did not occur to us in our mental model of organizational reality that the interests of the parties might have any intersection. For those who can only count to 100, there is no number greater than 100. If conflict means war, then let us gird for battle.

Now this view of conflict should not overlook the idea that there are mean-spirited folks even in colleges and universities, folks lacking nobility of motive and method. It is not necessary to be paranoid to understand that there may be folks out there intent on doing us harm. Nor should it neglect the reality that in an age in which cooperation and collaboration are celebrated virtues competition is neither absent nor unessential. The artistic leader entertains multiple truths about the nature of conflict management.


The essential themes of my reflections thus far are simple. Metaphors are a shorthand way of expressing our theories, and both our theories and metaphors on the nature of leadership role and responsibility are changing. The ability and the inclination of those holding leadership responsibility to frame thoughtful questions is an effective way to call colleagues to responsibility in setting direction and evaluating performance, and often a helpful approach to the management of conflict. Leading with an interrogatory style also happens to be a happy complement to the questing nature of the academy, and to a vision of academic leaders as custodians of wonder and curiosity. None of this, however, is intended to suggest a consistently passive role for those who lead, some metaphorical vision of leader as intellectual pillow or conceptual beanbag, offering little or no resistance when struck and returning to original posture when threat is removed. Nor am I suggesting a vision of leader as the organizational punching bag, offering therapy to the disaffected-though there is something to be said for the metaphor of leader as therapist, absorbing the hostility of the ill mannered and the ill informed and accepting the pain of the injured and ill treated.

And I certainly do not suggest that academic leaders should never work in the imperative mood. There are moments of issue and place, personality and policy where it is entirely appropriate, even essential, to engage in blunt conversation, to entertain the role of Godfather and make folks an offer they cannot refuse. To bring arrogance under confrontation, to bring duplicity under correction, to bring intimidation under challenge, to bring mediocrity under exposure-are these not worthy occupations of the artistic academic leader?

Leadership in any organization is a conceptual art form, built on the power of ideas, a moral art form, built on constructive values, and a performing art form, learned in the exchange of reflection and action. Artistic leaders will know about the authority of position, their legal and formal foundation of influence. They will hold in their behavioral repertoire, however, an enriching range of other authorities: the authorities of personality and character, the authorities of competence and shared values, the authorities of exchange and leverage. We may respond to the influence of others not just because they may issue orders but because we respect their record of professional and technical performance, because they have a record of integrity, because they have treated us with dignity, because they honor civility, because we share a commitment to common values. We may also yield to their influence because they can bring our motives and our behavior under threat or offer an incentive appealing to our self interest. A leader having limited acquaintance with only one or two forms of authority possesses the same artistic potential as a carpenter with only hammer and saw, a painter with only two colors, a musician with one clef or key.

I like the metaphor of leader as "Goodness Guerilla," as someone willing to be a little unorthodox, a little radical, and a little subversive for good cause. Well, there are interesting precedents are there not? Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Luther, Pasteur, Einstein, Nightengale, Tubman, Follett, Sanger, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Stravinsky, Hutchins, Dewey, King, Ghandi-radicals everyone and subversive to conventional wisdom. Are the views of leader as a performing artist, as a goodness guerilla not also complementary to the idea of colleges and universities as radical and subversive organizations, confronting each day the confinement of conventional wisdom and the limitations of common sense?


Should we be surprised, then, that an organization like a college or university, whose principal work is to assault common sense and conventional wisdom may itself come under critical assault? Today's truth was yesterday's heresy! The messengers of new truth, the wreckers of paradigm, the critics of common sense, the raiders of conventional wisdom are not always greeted with warm and friendly embrace. In an organization that prospects for truth in adversarial form, in an organization holding that we have not understood a truth until we have contended with its challenge, would we feel comfortable if our own policies and our practices, our traditions and assumptions went unchallenged? The mind of the scholar is hospitable to dissent and disputation. . .and should remain hospitable when the dissent and disputation target traditions and principles of the academy.

Indeed, the scholar leader will welcome the range and intensity of public criticism as an indicator of higher education's success, a pleasure measure of constructive moment? If there has been any distinctive policy development in American higher education in the latter half of the 20th century more important and more visible than the emergence of accountability interests, it would surely be enhanced access. If we have done our work well, this increased access to college and university education will have produced more minds equipped for and inclined toward critical thinking. Did we not believe that our graduates might also think critically about their intellectual homes?

As we have noted, the magnificent investment in American higher education over the last half of the 20th century has been accompanied by an emerging and tensioned dialogue on higher education mission, quality, and governance . . .a growing expectation for accountability. The motives and methods of civic and collegiate accountability interests are sometime contentious and adversarial. And understandably so. Improvement versus stewardship, enhancement versus compliance, trust versus evidence, faith versus fact, process versus results, service versus marketplace . . .there are two cultures at work here.

It has been said that under carefully controlled conditions, human beings will behave as they pretty please. A variant of this law is that in the face of incontrovertible evidence, human beings will believe what they wish. It is wise, therefore, to understand that even if we love the system, even if we have carefully crafted an accountability system, that system may still not negate the attitudes of political officers who do not value higher education and may not compensate for shallow standards, courage deficits, and insensitive conscience among some faculty and administrators. Beyond our technical systems for quality assurance and accountability, moral outrage is an essential and effective complement. And that idea certainly seems consonant with the theme of this gathering.

There is, within the two-culture view of accountability, an inclination to assign blame, for civic and collegiate parties to stand off in grand detachment and to throw verbal rocks at one another, even though each party lives in a house with great expanse of glass. The scholar leader will strive to develop a partnership conversation, in which collegiate colleagues and civic friends abandon the posture of blame and advance to a position of shared responsibility. Such a partnership will confront several uncomfortable truths as a necessary precondition for forging pathways to the future.

The first truth is that within the academy, intellectual narrowness and academic prejudice, professional jealousy and personal animosities, infantile emotional and interpersonal intelligence may become enemies of civility, truth, and accountability and that some academics may not have the capacity to sever their own self interests in the difficult decisions required for developing new strategic visions for a program or a campus. The second truth is that public officials, especially in times of cost containment, want attention to mission focus and resource stewardship but are often unwilling to examine those large dollar programs that were politically birthed in recent years. Since new law schools, new vet schools, new medical schools, and new campuses are political hot potatoes it is easier to eliminate politically less sensitive but small potato programs. These are cosmetic and adaptive works that offer the satisfaction of public action and the advantage of little political disturbance. . .but also offer little cost savings.

And then there is the beguiling truth of the perennial American response to any problem-that of reorganization. For some campuses and some states, reorganization may indeed offer the promise of significant cost savings. For others, reorganization will offer the political and psychic satisfaction of moving the furniture but produce little cost savings.

The scholar leader in higher education will strive for a social architecture of partnership and responsibility, calling colleagues and civic/political friends to a conversation in which dissent and disputation, criticism and contention are expected outcomes of conviction and constructive expressions of our inclination to curiosity, which is perhaps the most fundamental value of the educated mind. Those leaders will exemplify and encourage candor and courage, patience and persistence and will labor to integrate academic, civic, and political interests. The scholar leader will invite those holding our colleges and universities in trust to forsake the petty pleasures of nursing past hurts and assigning blame and call them to a partnership responsibility in framing a renewed system of higher education for the 21st century.

Copyright E. GRADY BOGUE

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Last updated: July 10, 1998