The Dangers of Being Extraordinary: Matt Reed on Transformational Leadership

This Inside Higher Ed blogger offers a self-limiting take on visionary leadership.

Matt Reed, Community College Dean and Cultural Studies scholar, argues that “superstars come and go…. On the rare occasions when a superstar is genuine, the main issue is succession: what happens when the superstar moves on?”

He seems to believe that charisma is at the heart of transformative leadership, and that transformational leaders develop “a cohort of superstars” as opposed to developing a “sustainable — which means adaptable — system in which ordinary mortals can do good work.”

His point would be well taken if charisma was in fact the greatest quality of a transformational leader. He talks about the limited resources at universities and colleges, the drama of having to say “no,” and the need to build a context where faculty and staff can “do their best work, given the constraints that actually exist.” These challenges are real, and his interpretation of the transformational leader theories cannot meet them.

He says he would rather create an effective team through ordinary coalitions than be –or seek —  “the Great Leader whose vision will redeem us all,” with the risk of letting “one person’s blind spots doom the whole.”

OK, I can see that a harried dean might react with some cynicism to the enthusiastic call for visionary transformation! There are few systems more entrenched and exhausting than contemporary colleges and universities, torn between not-for-profit and business models of administration. But transformational leadership isn’t about superstars, superheros or one-note visionaries.

Transforming leaders can’t skip the hard stuff, and charisma doesn’t take a vision much further than speechifying. Team building, re-framing goals, and even saying “no” in order to maintain stability while building new possibility are skills and practices required for transformation.

Educational institutions are in the throes of change, not only because of the non-profit/profit conflict but also because the ways we teach and learn are changing. Transformation is happening; transformational leadership is needed to empower and inspire the “intelligent, independent minded people” who make up the faculty and staff Reed respects so much.

James McGregor Burns writes, “the ultimate test of creative leadership lies not only in having a new idea but in bringing it to life, accomplishing the real-world change it promises. To do so, the would-be leader must reach out to others for help. But would-be followers will respond only if the new frame articulated by creative leadership speaks directly to them, to their underlying wants, discontents, and hopes.

“They, too, as Sederberg noted, must “experience something of an explanatory collapse.” They, too, must know the “aha!” moment of realization, grasp the urgency of the need for change, see its possibility, and envision its direction. They are transformed in a way closely parallel to the earlier experience of the emergent leader. But transforming leadership mobilizes only those who are, if latently, ready to be mobilized, and then only if the frame is true to their wants.”( Transforming Leadership, 2004 (pp. 168-169). Grove Press. Kindle Edition.)

No Great Man, Only Great Collaborations

In fact, transformational leadership theory developed in reaction against the “great man” approach to leadership, as a call for visionary leaders to move beyond ego and rhetoric, and into service and action. What better community to galvanize visionary transformation than the well-educated, passionate faculty and staff at colleges and universities?

Oh yes, faltering budgets, low pay, long hours and unreasonable expectations make it difficult — in every field, but certainly in the burned-out and disempowered cliques of academe. That’s a given. And that’s why leaders like Matt Reed need to read a little deeper in the transformational leadership literature — because the only real transformation for leaders and followers comes from someone like him — willing to be practical and collaborative.

All that’s needed to make him a transformational leader is a vision to re-frame and re-energize the work they do, with creativity and collective action.

As Burns writes: ” At their best, creative thought and action engender, for leaders and followers together, the conviction that the reality of their situation is not, in the words of the great Brazilian educator and theorist of liberation Paulo Freire, “a closed world from which there is no exit,” but “a limiting situation which they can transform,” a mobilizing and empowering faith in the collaborative struggle for real change. (Transforming Leadership (p. 169). 2004, Grove Press. Kindle Edition.)

Want a helpful resource? Check out The Transforming Leader, edited by Carol Pearson. (BK, 2012)




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