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Building Leadership Community

by Sean McDonald

Leaders in Higher Education walk a tightrope every day. 

Financial pressures have sustained while expectations and demands for return on investment have continued to increase. The pace of change has accelerated and will not stop.  Market conditions have spurred new innovation and competition at the edges, some of which might be considered unwelcome.

Meanwhile, as IT departments (and their budgets) shrink, expectations on them expand.  Technology is at the core of many institutions’ globally networked vision.  Technology’s constant evolution brings both opportunities and challenges in delivering instruction and conducting research.  IT needs to be both “always on” and “always on the cutting edge.”

In short, organizations are asked to both consolidate and innovate.  There has never been a stronger need for leaders who can lead through this change and take the industry to the next generation of teaching, learning, and innovation.

And yet, Gallup’s annual polls consistently reveal that 7 out of 10 employees are not engaged in their work. Employees feel frustrated and disconnected. 

What’s going on here?

The problem is not a lack of capable people.  In fact, they can be among the frustrated and disengaged. There is a perceived gap in an institution-wide ability to tap, engage, and connect their talent goldmine (and their ideas, enthusiasm, and impact) to tackle challenges head-on.

This issue is multi-faceted.  It is complicated by size, split attention, and silos:

  • Size – Due to the sheer size of most universities, many employees struggle to even identify peers across their institutions, never-mind connecting with them.
  • Split Attention– Employees are often heads down accomplishing tasks that require more time than they actually have, including dealing with interruptions and too many meetings. This all comes at the expense of larger, more pressing, strategic issues. 
  • Silos – Schools and administrative units often have different, and sometimes conflicting, processes and priorities.  Divisions, or “silos,” emerge. Often, the walls of silos are thick with cultural symbolism and political control.  Other times they can be as thin as floors in a building.

These challenges hinder employees’ ability to build relationships and ‘speak the same language.’ They’re often unaware of strategic priorities across the broader picture.  In some cases, leaders across campus get pulled in opposing directions, splintering the ability of individuals and organizations to focus and positively impact the university’s needed direction.  This explains why some feel these environments move too slowly and new challenge are often approached with old strategies. 

To overcome these challenges, and seize these new opportunities, leaders need to be able to exert influence across boundaries, navigate cultural and political waters, and think strategically, among other key leadership skills.  These skills do not necessarily come naturally to all staff.  Through the course of the MOR Leadership work, we have seen individuals and groups of people grow in awareness of these needs and step forward to take action. One of the first things people recognize is this will not be easy.  But it becomes a dedication to improving themselves and their organizations. And this often begins by bringing like-minded people together.

Building Leadership Communities

Leadership communities are a key component in MOR’s multi-modal leadership development programs. From day one in our programs, leaders come together, get challenged together, and build trust and relationships. Often participants wonder why they can feel more connected to a group of strangers after just two days than they can with groups they have known for years back in their organizations. These bonds and momentum are further cemented with weekly email discussions, regular coaching sessions, virtual conferences, and multiple face-to-face sessions. 

Armed with a supportive network and new skills, leaders often emerge from our programs with the enthusiasm to move mountains.  But they quickly find that most others are not ‘speaking their language.’  And it’s tough to move mountains from one’s own private island.   

So, many participants seek to recreate this concept of leadership community across their campus.  Each approach is unique.  Some communities are comprised of members of the entire distributed network.  The goal here is to connect people across the organization. They solicit, vet, and promote innovative ideas.  They break down barriers.  Other institutions have multiple communities of practice by area of specialty, supported by a leadership development committee. 

Truly, there is no cookie cutter solution. But there are several common threads.  Every community begins with a single belief: that by working collaboratively, we can better fulfill the mission of the university or organization.  These communities are never about advancing personal agendas.  

But perhaps the most important commonality is this:  each community begins with a single leader who saw a need (or unrealized potential), started a dialogue, and did something about it.   

In fact, if these communities had one mantra, it would be “lead from where you are.” Benefits of communities include:

  • Leaders create their own opportunity to learn and lead (that might not otherwise exist)
  • Uncovering opportunities to leverage investments and resources
  • The community often emerges as the “voice” that can inform governance. The relationship between the two groups accelerates the spread of information across the organization. The network provides a better understanding of the stresses and opportunities that employees across the organization face. 
  • Facilitation of communication across ‘silos.’ Communities cut across, up, and down organizations to break down silos and accelerate flow of information.
  • Gives emerging leaders an opportunity to contribute.  These opportunities result in engagement, strategic clarity, and increased employee retention.
  • The group provides senior leadership with the safe space to tap into great ideas – and to get feedback on their own.  This encourages and incubates innovation. 
  • When people need to get something done, they now know who to go to.
  • Employees realize that this is different; it’s not your everyday change initiative.  People realize that they have an opportunity to change – and the opportunity is for them
  • Ultimately, communities bring better alignment toward the university mission and vision.

Identifying Barriers – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Building a leadership community is not a defined approach and thus perhaps new to some.  As such, we often see fear, uncertainty, and doubt amongst some individuals across an organization.  In some environments, even just one opposing force can deeply threaten positive momentum:

  • For some, it is a perceived loss of power (for individuals or groups).
  • Others wonder what’s in it for them. 
  • There can be a concern about communication and controlling the message.
  • Still others had seen prior initiatives fail. 

There are skeptics abound.  Each one of these barriers requires a different approach to inoculate the objections. 

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt also exist among the leaders at the grass roots level as well.  These are the folks who see the oncoming challenges prior to the rest of us, or who sense distress from the edges. These are the folks who must speak up.  And yet … they often bite their tongue.  Risk is perceived when speaking up.  Many feel it is not their place, or they need to master a topic before they can raise concern, an idea, or a question. Doing so makes one vulnerable.  But leaders need to speak up and recognize that asking questions is powerful and not knowing the answers is okay.  

These barriers mount up and often feel insurmountable to many leaders when they return from a typical leadership development program.  They sense a leadership vacuum – they know it’s up to them – but they have no idea where to start.   It always feels easier to do today what we did yesterday.

Overcoming the barriers

We have encouraged and coached leaders at many levels within an organization to cultivate communities at their university. We have learned from them as well and identified some key take-aways to successfully get a community off the ground:  

  • Always make it about the U not YOU.  If people sense that you have a personal agenda, they will tune you out. 

o   Seek to understand your environment and identify gaps and challenges that, if addressed, create purposeful contributions

o   Begin with questions, not solutions.  Engage others in meaningful dialogue by asking thoughtful questions and actively listening

o   Synthesize the collective story

o   Set out to accomplish something that creates small wins, and look for opportunities to build momentum one win at a time.

o   Bring people together around the topics that are important to them and the wider context

  • Don’t rush the up-front part of the process. It takes time – and is extremely critical.  Don’t cut corners here.  Make connections. Listen. Be as inclusive as possible.  It’s all about opening up dialogue…What would a leadership and learning community look like at your institution, and how would it add value? Understand the needs and opportunities.
  • The evolution of “I to We” and “My to Ours” is very important.  Communities will not work through the force of one; they need the engagement of many…
  • It only takes one person to start the ball rolling.  And although we acknowledge it takes a wave of engagement to be successful here and sustain the impact, it just takes one leader to step up.    


Our hats are off to those many MOR alumni we have seen run against the tide to make needed change happen at their university.  MOR continues to stand in their corner however needed.  And for others asking now, where are we, where do we need to be? Are there others that may be asking this same thing, or have perspectives to add to the story?  Go seek them out, start the dialogue. Lead – right from where you are.  


Two initial case studies below for your reference.

PDF iconNYU-Case-Study-Building-Leadership-Community.pdf

PDF iconMSU-Case-Study-Building-Leadership-Community.pdf