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2013 August 19 - 12:00 am

POV: Leadership Matters in Creating A Culture of Learning

College presidents and other stakeholders spend a considerable amount of time contemplating leadership. What is it? How can leaders be effective? Are wise decisions the result of courageous leadership? Does limited progress reflect minimal leadership or lack of leadership? Organizations seem to function as they have been designed to do. So deliberate change requires capable leadership, and achieving desired outcomes necessitates decisive, strategic leadership. In forging an institutional culture of student success, the act of leading must become a priority if goals are to be realized.

Among my greatest passions as an educator is providing leadership for student success — that is, paving the way for students to achieve success through engagement and various levels of educational attainment. Community college leaders have an increasing awareness of our evolving mission, focused on both access and success. Creating, cultivating, and sustaining leadership for student success at all levels of the organization are important activities. There have been several opportunities to place student success at the heart of the leadership agenda at Triton College. Opportunities also have developed in my roles with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), affiliates and other educational and community organizations.

The Leadership Academy was established at Triton College in 2008 as a professional development opportunity for college staff to: 1) enhance leadership skills; 2) design and implement campus projects; 3) engage meaningful dialogue and staff interactions that promote the success of our students; and 4) contribute to a progressive, vibrant college community. Each year, the academy provides a new group selected from our faculty, administration, and staff members to learn firsthand about community college leadership through individual and group meetings with higher education leaders from peer institutions.

The purpose of developing leadership capacity among college personnel and nurturing a leadership focus at our institution is to ensure that we are building a strong foundation for the viability of the institution and success for all students. The president selects individuals from the various employee groups who are invited to participate in the academy. In the selection process, consideration is given to recommendations that may be submitted by staff. Though annual participation in the academy is selective, college staff members have many opportunities to engage in leadership roles in a wide range of campus initiatives.

The broad-based level of participation is essential to reaching our completion goal and effectively addressing the learning needs of students.

As Triton became actively and systematically engaged in student success work through Achieving the Dream in 2009, one of our initial strategies was creating “shared ownership” in helping students achieve their goals. It became clear that this strategy needed to be integral to professional development in leadership. Within the campus community, we are learning to embrace shared ownership, shared leadership, and shared responsibility as key aspects of a dynamic and collegial environment.

Another important strategy for student success and opportunity for strategic leadership may be found in the ongoing development of meaningful collaboration with K-16 partners. Triton has developed strong, long-standing partnerships with our public high schools, private high schools, K-8 schools and area universities. Programs such as the Math Summit, Early College Awareness, and the Annual STEM Fair are among the successful initiatives developed through these partnerships. The University Center was established a few years ago to extend a convenient option for Triton students and the surrounding community residents to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees on our campus. This partnership, made up of six universities, has not only facilitated academic achievement beyond the associate degree, but has also served to improve articulation and strengthen our relationship with four-year institutions. These partnerships require time commitment and nurturing to sustain and grow through innovation and change. It is important to dedicate the time needed to build these relationships for the benefit of our students.

The Leadership Academy and the University Center are not unique in concept. However, the structure and process that the college has implemented reflect components distinctive within our institutional context. These initiatives align well with recommendations contained within AACC’s 21st Century Commission report. The emergent leadership resulting from the initiatives is moving the college forward. Leadership Academy participants have assumed different leadership roles within the institution, and our educational partnerships have seen enhancements, expansion, and more faculty and staff engagement.

Expanding opportunities for leadership, and nurturing that leadership in alignment with institutional goals, are ongoing challenges. Shifting the mindset from positions of leadership to the role of leading (i.e., from leading “only-from-the-top” to leading “from-where-you-are”) will need to be placed front and center in order to move our institutions forward. Thus, it is critically important that leadership opportunities be fostered within our institutions and among the various professional associations of higher education.

Leadership at multiple levels of the organization is extremely important for the work of the college to ensure genuine collaboration — that is, not simply executing perfunctory responsibilities but putting an eye, ear, and hand toward shared goals. The value of college-wide leadership is significant. Leadership development can and should be provided formally and informally throughout the institution. Consistently creating opportunities to engage others in “the act of leading” toward a common goal perhaps becomes the most valuable outcome for leadership from the top.

Diverse backgrounds, experiences, organizational parameters and a range of other factors shape effective, responsible leadership. My own professional journey reflects many lessons of shared leadership strategy learned along the way, including:

  • Creating a culture of learning through leading;

  • Embracing the act of leading;

  • Shifting mindset and organizational processes for systemic transformation;

  • Valuing growth and progress in ways that address challenges with balance of purpose, determination, and grace;

  • Attending to emerging ideas that may stimulate positive change;

  • Expanding institutional capacity for innovation;

  • Moving good ideas to consensus, to strategy, to implementation;

  • Ensuring strong alignment of strategy with mission and vision; and

  • Initiating and sustaining active engagement among college leaders, faculty, staff, and constituencies within the community.

Providing relevant education and achieving educational attainment goals require continuous vigilance and active engagement. We must strengthen our efforts and build strategic relationships internally and externally that will contribute to our work and assist in advancing the institution through common understanding and a unified direction for our collective success.

Leadership, as an assumed function within organizations in pursuit of the vision, mission, and strategic goals, matters for all areas of the organization. Perhaps this is true, now more than ever, as we engage collaboratively in the many dimensions of work focused on quality learning and the success of a broadly diverse student population. A commitment to the development of human leadership potential is the path to addressing persistent challenges and becoming effective organizations.

For now and in the future, leadership in its many forms, at multiple levels, and during opportune times will need to embrace and embed innovation, creativity, and change to move our institutions forward from awareness to action. Community colleges will be positioned to thrive as we renew our commitment and inspire the change we wish to see.

Patricia Granados is the first female and first Hispanic to serve as president of Triton College. Appointed as president in 2001, she is also the longest-serving president of the college. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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