Navigating the future

Lao tzu 2

Of a good leader, who talks little,

When his work is done, his task fulfilled

They will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

–Lao Tzu (6th Century B.C.)

Our world in higher education is changing rapidly due to influences that include changing student demographics, changing technology, defunding of public higher education at the state and federal levels, and ever increasing levels of complexity in the workforce development needs of our state. Within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, our chancellor charged three workgroups last year with addressing these challenges and setting  direction for:

  • The education of the future
  • The workforce of the future
  •  The system of the future (our network of 31 colleges and universities throughout the state)

The workgroups developed a set of recommendations called Charting the Future and all faculty, staff, and administrators have been asked to read it and provide feedback this fall. Charting the Future includes strategies to help us function more as a coordinated system, rather than a set of 31 autonomous institutions. It has a strong emphasis on working towards common objectives that are shared by all institutions. As I’ve been reading the set of recommendations, I’ve been asking myself: “what skill set will this require of our leaders in higher education?”

To accomplish the recommendations in Charting the Future, I think our leaders will need to be skilled at sharing leadership responsibilities and building partnerships across multiple institutions. They’ll need to be good at creating vision and engaging people in the process, so that they can be a part of it and can own it. They’ll need to value and leverage diversity and the richness it brings to our institutions. And in a time of increasing ambiguity, leaders will really need to be able to create structure where there is none.

In his book, Nobody in Charge (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), Harlan Cleveland states that he believes that there are four major attributes the leader of the future will need to have:

  • Energy to work hard, long hours. Future leaders will need to go the extra mile to study and learn cutting edge technology and information that will be needed to make good decisions.
  • Managing through consensus. With a wide range of people in charge of various aspects of the enterprise, future leaders will need the ability to include them all in the decision-making process.
  • Facing ambiguity with enthusiasm. Leaders of the future will need a personal disposition that is enthused, rather than daunted by choices and options. They will need to thrive on ambiguity to be successful.
  • Ability to guide rather than taking the reins solely in their own hands. They will need to be adept at influencing direction without necessarily mandating it.

I think Cleveland is spot on in his assessment. When you think about the challenges ahead in your environment, what skill sets do you think leaders will need to successfully navigate the future?

Anita Rios

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