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Leadership Qualities and Traits in Higher Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Leadership
Wordcount: 1841 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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In How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization and Leadership, Robert Birnbaum shares five different types of institutions of higher education. Each type of institution is run differently from the others. Each institution calls for the leaders to have certain traits and qualities that allow for them to do their job in a way that allows for the institution to run smoothly and for problems to solved efficiently. The five types of institutions are collegial, bureaucratic, political, anarchical, and cybernetic. Prospective faculty and staff prefer one type over the others and would rather not work at one over the others.

Collegial Institution

 Birnbaum (1988) states, “collegiality is marked by a sense of mutual respect for the opinions of others, by agreement about the canons of good scholarship, and by a willingness to be judged by one’s peers.” In the collegial system, all of the members are said to be equal, which means that there is not a leader. The person that is “leader” is seen to be an agent of the community and they listen to the members stance on certain problems and opinions on how to resolve issues. The “agent” of the institution relies on expert (willingness to accept influence due to a person’s knowledge in a specific area) and referent (willing to accept influence due to how that person is thought of) power to exert their influence on the community. At the collegial institution, the higher the rank of a person in a group, the more that person will conform to the expectations of the group (Birnbaum, 1988). Conforming to the group’s norms will create trust, and if a leader decides to oppose the group and their values, trust can be lost. The members have an idea of what the expectations of a leader, and if the leader does not live up to those expectations, then they will lose their leader status. Because the leader of a collegial system is an agent of the bigger body, listening is a key trait. The leader must accept the values expressed without being judgmental or taking a moral stand against them. Treating errors as useful learning experiences that contribute to personal and institutional growth is also important. The members of the institution need to be able to accept that certain problems are not going to be fixed quickly and other issues will arise within the main problem. A leader should not put a group member down because they did something wrong, but it should become a teachable moment for the group as a whole.

Bureaucratic Institution

 The bureaucratic institution is a “type of organization designed to accomplish large-scale administrative tasks by systematically coordinating the work of many individuals” (Birnbaum, 1988). If a person at this type of institution wants to exercise control without being seen as having the right to do so, they can become alienated and people will refuse to comply with their orders. The president has pre-eminent power due to the hierarchy in the bureaucratic system. This hierarchy presumes that most of the process of determining goals/objectives and deciding how to achieve them will occur within the senior levels of administration (Birnbaum, 1988). A leader in this system should be a rational analyst. They should be able to come up with the most efficient means by which goals can be achieved. The leader should be a heroic leader. A heroic leader is “able to articulate noble values and goals, to solve the most complex problems, to energize and motivate people , and to direct an efficient and effective organization” (Birnbaum, 1988). The heroic leader accepts credit for institutional advances, but they can also be blamed for failures within the institution. An effective leader is able to delegate and empower others through delegation. Delegation gives others the opportunity to work through problems within the institution and allow them to come up with ways to advance the institution. Their problem- solving and ideas can either advance or hurt the institution, and the leader needs to be able to accept the credit or the blame for their actions.

Political Institution

 In a political system, “individuals or groups can interact by forming coalitions, bargaining, compromising, and reaching agreements that they believe to be their advantage” (Birnbaum, 1988). Within the political system, power is diffused rather than it being concentrated. Administrators get their power through their access to budget and personnel procedures and to sources of information. Faculty and other professionals have power that is related to their expertise in a specific area. The leader is able to identify the issues that are most important for political groups to work with and to find ways to incentivize involvement with the groups in order to elicit support. The political leader does not rule, but serves the community. They give high priority to learning about the concerns and attitudes of the community at the institution. They do not give much attention to data and analytical reports. Timing is important for this leader as their influence is shown to people when they are present when compromises are being effected and coalitions are in negotiation (Birnbaum, 1988). They focus on the values agreed upon and then create programs that match up with said values. Birnbaum (1988) spoke of flexible rigidity, which means that the leader is “willing to compromise on means, but unwilling to compromise on ends.” The leader will agree with ideas on how to get to the end product, but they will not change their ideas about that end product.

Anarchical Institution

 This institution may seem chaotic and unorganized, but it is organized chaos. Anarchical institutions are organized anarchy which means that there is structure, defined roles, and people usually  mind their own business or participate in business activities that concern them or that they may be passionate about. Leaders at these types of institutions usually rely on luck and, sometimes, the supernatural to bring an idea of order (Birnbaum, 1988). The president of the institution is the most influential person. Some traits that the leaders at anarchical institution need to have are forcefulness, responsibility, courage, and decency. Leaders also need to be realists, they need to have a knowledge of how the system works, and not just how they would like it to work. Leaders will identify and pay attention to a small number of important issues which they will either delegate or ignore other decisions. Anarchical leaders will let others take the credit, as long as their desired programs are implemented (Birnbaum, 1988). They like the idea of participation in groups by opponents in order to see the realistic picture and for a different perspective. Leaders must not assume that just because a program was approved, it will be implemented the next day or that it might not get shut down a few days after approval.

Cybernetic Institution

 Cybernetic institutions tend to run themselves, and upper-level administrators will intervene is there is a disruption in the institution. The main task of the leader is to keep the institutions “lawlessness within reasonable bounds” (Birnbaum, 1988). Birnbaum (1988) says that a leader at a cybernetic institution should be modest and have three rules, “if it’s working, keep doing it; if it’s not working, stop doing it; and if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.” The leader should not make dramatic changes to the institution changes are not necessary, especially because subsystem leaders will attempt to solve problems in their own areas. Because of this, the subsystem leaders do not take into consideration the impact that their decisions will have on other subunits. Much of the leaders time is spent finding and eliminating weaknesses and problems within the institutions. Even though these leaders will keep to themselves, there are two situations in which they will become more directive and intrusive: (1) when a crisis is created due to an external shock, and (2) when the leader decides that the system is not operating at and acceptable level of performance and there is no other way to change it. When things are going well for the institution, the leader carries out routine tasks and make minor adjustment and subtle changes when problems arise.

Most and Least Preferred

 While I like organization and order in an institution, I also like when institutions take into account all of the members ideas and values. The collegial system is probably the institution I prefer out of all five. While I do think there needs to be a leader at an institution, I believe that the leader should listen to the groups values and what they believe is best for the institution. Some leaders like to make decisions on their own and without taking everyone’s thoughts into considerations. Sometimes staff, faculty, and students will come up with ideas for their school, but they will be shut down without second thought because the leader does not want to implement their idea even if it could be a big help to the institution. I like leaders that do not put someone down because of a mistake they may have made. Failure is a part of life and our failures should be turned into learning experiences, which is what collegial leaders do because it leads to growth for everyone involved.

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 Choosing a system that I preferred least was a little more difficult as there are parts of each institution type that I agree and disagree with. Anarchical institutions are not complete chaos, but organized anarchy and while I mentioned that I like organization, organized anarchy allows people to do their own thing without bringing others into the equation. Higher education is about collaboration and if all areas on a campus are keeping to themselves, then I believe that not much will get done. If a leader has to rely on luck or the supernatural to bring some type of order to the institution, then it is not a place where I want to be. I also do not like the fact that the president is the most influential person on the campus. I believe that everyone should have a say in what happens on their campus. While I do like that leaders at anarchical institutions are realists, I think that it is important to be optimistic when it comes to implementing new ideas and programs into the institution. If someone is passionate about their idea, they should be able to bring that idea up the chain of command and find a way to implement it.


  • Birnbaum, R. (1988). How colleges work: The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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