Leadership and innovation

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We in higher ed don’t want to fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over as the rest of the world changes around us!

Taking a look around the environment in higher education provides ample evidence that things are changing. As leaders who care about higher ed, we need to bring a full set of competencies to our work.  Todd mentioned last time that the final set of leadership competencies for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is focused on Leader as Innovator. (As a reminder, the first three were Leader of Self, Leader as Relationship Builder, and Leader as Manager.) So what makes innovation important enough to be included with this list?

What makes innovation so essential for leadership is that we can’t continue to do things in the same way, or even do things in a better, more effective version of the old way. We need to address what Harvard professor Ron Heifetz calls adaptive challenges.

Adaptive challenges require a response that’s different than normal managerial expertise. In a recent interview published by Creelman Research, Heifetz defines it this way:

The adaptive context is a situation that
demands a response outside your current
toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap
between aspirations and operational capacity
that cannot be closed by the expertise and
procedures currently in place.

Much of our work as leaders is about the other three competencies: being self-aware; nurturing the broad range of relationships that are necessary to be successful in higher ed; and wisely managing time, talent, and resources. These skills are critical. However, sometimes they need to be enhanced by an ability to adapt to new ways of doing business. Heifetz says that leaders facing adaptive challenges need to:

  • “Orchestrate” conflict in order to move things forward
  • Ask the tough questions and encourage discussion among all stakeholders
  • Take an experimental approach to problem solving that encourages creativity and learning from mistakes
  • Acknowledge that this is new territory – I don’t know the answer, and there isn’t an “expert” that can help us fix this quickly

This kind of innovative leadership – from all levels of the organization – will help us step out into the uncharted territory of higher education in the future.

Dee Anne Bonebright


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