benevolent leadership or spreading the love?
although i did some time as an m.i.s. manager after college, i had little administrative experience prior to becoming a department chair. now i'm thinking a bit harder about how departments and organizations prosper. social scientists tend to dismiss biz-pop writing on such subjects, but i seem to get a little something out of even the trashiest airport business books. in truth, i get a lot out of writers such as jim collins, even if they simply help me name a process or style that i've thought about before.
in my opinion, even the lesser biz books often hold clever testable ideas -- along with a few tortured cliches and metaphors, of course. still, the evidentiary base is often unconvincing to social scientists. in fact, "going beyond the data" is almost a defining characteristic of the genre (the penultimate chapter of such books is sometimes even titled going beyond the data). still, i'd guess that the people who write management books probably know about as much about their subject as the people who write sociology and criminology books know about their subjects. and c'mon, who are we to complain about jargon or cliches in other fields?
all this throat-clearing is simply to note that i came across the concept of benevolent leadership in james citrin and richard smith's 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers (if you want the short version of the book, you might just have some fun with the extraordinary executive quiz). the basic idea is that good leaders focus intently on making the people around them successful. my grad students would recognize the concept as spreading the love. it is a simple point, of course, but one especially well-suited to academic departments.
jim collins uses similar language in describing level-5 leaders. they don't trip over their own egos, but channel their ambitions into the institution and its people. this is tougher than it sounds, because it sometimes means ceding authority, taking the hit when things go wrong, and failing to get credit when things go right. the latter point is problematic for most academics, who would like to be cited, frequently and publicly, for any idea they might have thought about maybe having someday.
as for spreading the love, students and colleagues should trust that you are looking out for them and genuinely celebrating their successes (or, forgive me, feeling the love). under such conditions, they will be more likely to take the sort of risks that will bring them and their departments greater success. here's a citrin and smith blurb that resonates with my sense of the better sociology departments:
It’s easy to know when a benevolent leader is in charge. Information and authority flow freely. Honesty abounds. People feel free to question authority without retribution. Creativity reigns. Each member of the team feels just as accountable to one another as to the leader... they all create an environment of open communication, honesty and confidence, delegating both minor and critical tasks. Moreover, they demonstrate how the success of the team directly benefits each team member.
of course, no faculty member is ever really "in charge" of an academic department and all share a collective responsibility for maintaining department culture. moreover, chairs had darn well better be benevolent leaders, since most will serve a short term and then rotate back into the regular faculty. still, i'd like to learn more about the concept and try to find out what sociologists of work and organizations think of it. people sometimes look at me funny when i talk about spreading the love, much less feeling it. "benevolence" seems to get similar ideas across with fewer connotations.