Leadership Theory and the Community College

One of the most well-known professional development parables is the story of a rookie lumberjack who is a phenom when first let loose in the forest. Many trees fall but as the days add up, the new lumberjack cuts fewer and fewer trees. Frustrations mount and our lumberjack considers quitting. Only when a seasoned colleague asks about keeping one’s saw sharp (the neophyte hadn’t considered this) does the rookie realizes that success requires more than effort and the direction application of work. It is also requires information and smarts. Want to stay effective? Sharpen your saw!

Reading and reflection is a reliable way to achieve this. Good books can offer insight and perspectives that we might not develop on our own. After so many months of working remotely and wondering about leadership, I recently re-read a professional development book worthy of your consideration: Leadership Theory and the Community College: Applying Theory to Practice. It gives an interesting take on how to think about what we do, why we do it, and what we might considering trying to make us more effective in the community college world (and other arenas, too). Reviewing was also an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed since first reading the book in 2013.

The authors are Carlos Nevarez, Director and Professor of the Educational Leadership Program at California State University, J Luke Wood, a professor at San Diego State University, and Rose Penrose, a long-time teacher and administrator. The trio did something unusual in the work, crafting a systemic look at theory, practice and reflection. The book does not argue for one path towards a more effective academic leadership. Instead, it presents eleven different theoretical models. The authors give an overview of each theory, a case study to explore how the theory might be applied, and a self-study series of questions so that the reader might see how the theory applies, or not, to their own priorities and ways of leading. In addition, the authors make suggestions for improvement and share additional resources for follow-up reading and study. It’s a surprisingly effective way to explain a theory, engage the reader, and raise interesting questions about the relationship of theory and practice. It’s also an easy read, brief and to the point.

The eleven models of leadership include bureaucratic leadership, democratic leadership, path-goal leadership, situational leadership, ethical leadership, leader-member exchange theory, political leadership, systems leadership, transformational leadership, symbolic leadership, and transformative leadership. It was interesting to see how I scored myself eight years ago. For example, democratic and transformative rate much higher for me now than bureaucratic and path-goal. Also, as I have a used copy, my curiosity was piqued by the book’s prior owner. I can’t quite fathom their ratings.

Thinking about the differences in my scores (which were not dramatic), I believe that today I am more attuned to the capacity of my college. It also seems to me that our understanding of leadership has most definitely been changed by working in an environment when we are rarely together physically. Our communication today is mediated by screens and emails. The context in which we teach, learn, work and share is different. We are all wrestling with adjustments to serving in this new “not so normal normal.” It is a very good reminder: leadership is always situational.

Knowing all of these models, in an of itself, is not particularly useful, perhaps save for time at the seminar table. It is helpful, though, in understanding how you and your colleagues may be framing leadership. It’s also helpful to have on hand when things do not turn out as planned. That means finding time and space to reflect, consider, and see what we can do to be more effective. Nevarez, Wood and Penrose offer an effective and reliable tool to keep us a little bit sharper.

David Potash

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