It has been a couple of months since I posted anything here about my life in academic administration. I had hoped to write more. One impediment has been time – the usual excuse about being too busy. But another has been self-censorship. I've suppressed every bloggable observation because when I go to write them down, they seem banal. So too the one in this post. But I'll push forward anyway because a few people offered appreciation for my first two posts, even though the observations in them seemed banal to me too.
Today's observation: thinking big is hard.
Like many (most?) faculty members, I've never looked too kindly on academic leaders who seem to fixate on "small things" – this year's budget, staffing problems in this or that office, or the crisis du jour playing out in the building. Just as I respect "big-thinking" scholars and teachers – people who use small points to illuminate large problems for their readers and students – I have always tended to expect this from top administrators.
A year and a quarter into my own administrative gig, I still like leaders who paint with broad strokes, but have more sympathy for those who seem to focus on the details.
Some reasons why leaders might "think small" are obvious. The typical leader's calendar is an ADD-inducing checkerboard of meetings and rushings to and fro, but thinking big demands sustained, uninterrupted reflection. Thinking big (and well) requires mastery of lots of different kinds of information, but information is often (no, usually) incomplete. And then there's the simple point that tomorrow is off in the distance, whereas today is right here.
These are all impediments to bigthink that leaders can, I imagine, learn to manage. In airport bookstores I see all of those shelves full of advice books for "highly effective people." I assume they offer helpful pointers.
But there are other things that pull toward the here and now – things that I really did not foresee before stepping into my administrative role. I'll mention three.
First, lots of the problems that academic administrators have to confront are "people problems." They concern the work, the careers, and often the feelings of the people you spend most of your time with. It could be faculty; it could be members of the staff; it could be students. I'm sure there are other categories of people I've left off that little list. But if you're at least a modestly conscientious person, one who cares about the wellbeing of those around you, you come to feel responsible for them and to them. Maybe you can come to feel too responsible. In any event, their issues and problems are real, and here, and now, as are the decisions you need to make that will affect them. This is a powerful draw to the realities of the current moment and away from long-term needs and future possibilities.
Second, thinking big is surprisingly cumbersome. I suppose that to the extent that I used to think about the agenda-generating aspect of leadership, I imagined it as primarily solitary: the leader takes in information, sifts it through filters of experience and wisdom, mixes in some creative thoughts of his own, and generates ideas and plans. But I am coming to see that at a university, hatching plans and bringing them to life is at least as much an enterprise of diplomacy and coalition-building as imagination. Much of the task lies in figuring out what other people or units want and where the opportunities are to hitch an idea or objective of your own onto those of others. It's daunting and can seem overwhelmingly complex.
The last thing I am noticing that pulls my focus toward the immediate is that thinking big is a little frightening. Rethinking things and imaging how people or an institution might do new things, or old things differently, takes a certain kind of courage. You have to be confident that you've got good answers to questions that others are asking (or avoiding). It might seem a little odd to note this, because good scholarship also takes a certain kind of fearlessness. To say "the law should do this rather than that" or "this historical event happened because of this rather than that" exposes you to being criticized or ignored. But it's all about you. Doing this in the context of an organization is about lots of people – very real people who walk the hallways alongside you. That's a big responsibility. Sometimes it just feels a whole lot easier to think about the performance reviews I have to write than the strategic plan I have to orchestrate.
I offer these observations not as justifications for thinking small – just as explanations. My admiration for those who do well at thinking big has only increased over the past last year. But so has my compassion for those who seem to spend more time thinking small.