How shared leadership has worked at 3 universities and how it can help your college

A cross-department embrace of decision-making can boost trust and cohesion on campus while breaking down silos.
By: | March 14, 2022
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At the beginning of 2020, the University of Richmond was hit with three separate instances of hateful racial messages targeting students, which sparked outrage across campus and fueled “We Want Justice” chants at a basketball game days later.

While former President Ronald Crutcher did what most university leaders do – denounced the acts and promised change in a message to the community – it’s what the rest of the leaders at Richmond did that provided a huge amount of healing. Thanks to a distributed leadership model it was piloting at the time around diversity, equity and inclusion, its entire team forged solutions that helped build back trust, not just one leader.

“Because we were piloting this messy model, we brought all those folks together, and what senior leadership was planning got completely dismantled by this group,” said Amy Howard, Senior Administrative Officer for Equity and Community at Richmond. “They said, don’t do that … definitely don’t do that. We ended up somewhere that our campus has never been before. Having those different perspectives created a different kind of message.”

What it led to was a massive community forum with hundreds of people where neither Crutcher nor any of the vice presidents spoke. Instead, they let beloved staff and faculty drive the conversation.

“It was powerful, and it was painful,” Howard said. “That led to listening sessions for different members of our distributed leadership model that met with student groups for weeks. It demonstrated to all people who are participating, that everyone has a unique and important perspective and expertise to bring to the table. When we can get outside of our defined roles and the normative hierarchy that higher education stupidly creates, we can do better work together and we can come to a better outcome. We can also build community and trust.”

Howard and leaders from other universities shared their positive experiences of teamwork across divisions at the American Association of Colleges and Universities annual meeting. The session, “Shared Leadership in Higher Education, a Collective Approach to Solving our Toughest Challenges,” was moderated by the University of Southern California’s Elizabeth Holcombe and Adrianna Kezar and Indiana University-South Bend’s Susan Elrod, three of the authors of a book on the shared leadership ideal. Institutions have seen the benefits, especially during the tumultuous past two years around the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice issues and safety strategies, which have required more than one leader to handle those crises.

“We are still set up as often siloed organizations where shared leadership can be very difficult,” Kezar said. “The pandemic has helped us to appreciate how we need to be working together collectively, to address really complex challenges. We have decades of research from other sectors about how shared leadership is one of the best ways to help move forward transformational changes.”

A working model

What shared leadership does is involve multiple stakeholders across campus, often including faculty, staff and student leaders in important discussions. In a well-developed model, Kezar said authority often gives way to expertise. They aren’t simply teams or committees but rather a function of bringing together individuals across many departments. “It’s really looking at who has knowledge that’s critical to the issue at hand, she said. “It involves much more collaboration across the organization.”

There are myriad benefits of that system, Holcombe said, including “increased satisfaction, stronger cohesion, increased trust, better integration socially, and better approaches to problem-solving and performance, including financial.”


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But as Kezar mentioned, not every institution leader is as open as some others and there are numerous silos to knock down. Those in command have to be willing to take a step back to make it work and give way to those who really understand how to solve complex programs. There are also serious time considerations because this implementation involves so many stakeholders.

“It took more time, it took more trust, it took more meetings, it took more vulnerability,” Howard said. “It takes humility for a senior leader to be able to say, ‘Maybe I don’t have the best idea this time.’ ”

Different visions for success

Portland State University decided having a single-leader vision just didn’t make sense across its College of Arts and Sciences and its 26 departments, especially if that leader got sick or left the college. So instead of one dean calling all the shots, it has relied on three associate deans and a coach from within, Fletcher Beaudoin, to share the planning and react to change.

“We said this model of the heroic dean isn’t really working,” he said. “We saw this churn. It’s challenging to innovate and move big things forward. So, how do we design a team-based approach that can build more resilience and also set up a foundation for transition? Our team developed principles, so if one team member was gone, you go back to those principles. Because we have three people thinking creatively about the different parts of the university, it’s a unified approach.”

Humboldt State University adopted a shared approach for place-based communities across disparate academic and student affairs divisions to improve first-year STEM student retention and saw great results. Utilizing faculty and student leaders across those areas “helped break down silos,” said professor Matt Johnson. “The faculty began to really understand the student experience better. The co-leadership model morphed into more distributed approaches. We now have learning communities for every single incoming STEM student in our universities.”

Fellow professor Amy Sprowles said the benefits of a shared environment at Humboldt showed “it’s about relationship-building. It’s about listening to other people. It’s not even necessarily about having the best idea but having the time to talk through them.”

Howard said any shared leadership model starts with trust and communication. “This is about changing the culture of our institutions. We’re trying to teach our students these skills to go out in the world to do, but we don’t structure our organizations to actually do the things that we’re trying to train students to do in the world. So communicating what we’re doing is the secret sauce to culture change in the shared work that we’re all trying to do.”

In a shared approach, Beaudoin said having a coach is critical because that person only cares about the strengths and health of a team and can help bring all factions together to be more powerful, more thoughtful and more cohesive. “This idea of ending up in a different place than you expected is such a critical component,” he said. “We’re so often trained, especially when we’re leaders, to come in with the solution, but those solutions are not always clear. How do we create the space and structures for emergence?”