I. Setting the Stage

Chapter 1. Learning the Culture and Setting Expectations

Dr. Ed Ray

Chapter Overview

Success for a new leader in any organization depends critically on the degree to which the existing culture of the institution is receptive to new leadership or not and the extent to which a new leader is a good match for the needs of the institution. To the extent possible, a new leader should try to understand the existing overall culture and subcultures of the institution to determine if he or she is a good fit for the community before arriving permanently on campus.

In comprehensive colleges and universities, chancellors and presidents often face very strong subcultures. Division I athletics staff sometimes come and go with no understanding of what the rest of the university is doing or what institutional policies and procedures they are following. Occasionally, medical school and health sciences colleagues have a bit of a Lazarus syndrome and honestly believe the institution would run better if they were in charge of everything. Colleagues in the professional schools and “hard” sciences may operate in a top-down command structure while colleagues in the humanities, arts, and social sciences favor participatory democracy. How does a chancellor or president get these areas to work with the chancellor or president and each other?

Sometimes the match is excellent. The path forward is clear to all concerned, and the new leader must learn the culture and the aspirations of his or her new colleagues to lead effectively. The new leader is in a stewardship role in the near term.

Sometimes a new leader will discover the need to revise plans and change the culture. In both instances, the new leader must assess if she or he is the right person for the job. There are instances in which the board wants quick and decisive action but no controversy. In such circumstances, a new leader has to take the time necessary to develop a viable plan for moving forward and identify allies and obstacles to change. Chapter-specific observations and questions might include the following:

  • Riding the wave when continuity is best.

Sometimes staying the course is best for an institution. How does a new leader make the judgment about the need for change and the pace of change?

  • Strategic planning and changing the culture.

Sometimes the need for significant change in personnel, practices, and plans is obvious to a new leader, and progress entails changing the culture too. How can one change the culture of an institution and how is the appropriate pace of change determined?

  • How does a chancellor or president get subcultures to work together to pursue long-term institutional objectives?

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A Handbook of Higher Education Leadership Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Ed Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.