The Monster Under the Bed: Academic Leadership and Professional Formation

David Schleich, PhD

After 40 years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.

Benjamin Bloom

One dean described the role of naturopathic program head as “a bit thankless at times.” As with many of that dean’s colleagues, this academic leader came from the “content” side of our teaching and research mission. Most often, our academic leaders have emerged from an ND program, perhaps initially headed for clinical work. In addition to believing that their work has not always been acknowledged or appreciated at times, another common report is that that they perceived themselves to be neither well prepared to assume their new roles in administration nor, over time, able to find time or support to build management and leadership skills through continuing education or formal training. There is so much to do all the time that the luxury of being trained and sustained in an academic role at the same time is elusive. Particularly, professional training in instructional leadership, management skills, community building, and vision has been a bumpy road. Without doubt, these men and women are central to professional formation, and we have to take care of them.

As a backdrop to this high-priority situation, the senior managers who hired them historically have had a small pool from which to choose. It is understandable that, like their counterparts in public higher education, they have had to assume that much of the necessary administrative knowledge about how the higher education institution itself works was implicit or tacit, absorbed somehow by the doing. In any case, there is a monster under the bed in the operation and future growth of our academic mission in naturopathic medical education. Our academic leaders are in short supply, and those who do express interest in long-term academic management indicate unclear expectations for their role and its associated authority, responsibility, and accountability. The pressures of their roles weigh heavily on their priorities and energy (Allison, 1993).

The corporate world has some advice. We know, though, that there are cultural differences between the corporate boardroom and the naturopathic college boardroom. There is a rich literature about management and leadership practices in the corporate sector from which we can learn. Rosse and Levin (2003), for example, zero in on significant differences between the two sectors in hiring procedures. Another area where academic and corporate focuses differ is in succession planning. Although little research has occurred in recent years related to succession planning in the world of higher education ( news, 2002), Fortune 500 companies spend a surprising amount of money on just that priority, not only in terms of chief executive officers but also on a wide spectrum of middle management roles that make companies and institutions tick along smoothly.

As we face this challenge of making sure we have enough NDs in the pipeline to be academic leaders, not only for our existing programs but also for those we need to build, it is increasingly important for us to enhance our skills in recruitment and on-the-job training for academic leadership roles to serve the needs of naturopathic professional formation. The status quo is that we rely heavily on clinicians to become administrators, often without parallel or related training and experience in educational administration or institutional development.

The literature about academic leadership suggests that it can take more than two years for a new chair or dean to become successful in his or her role. Yet during that ramp-up time, our Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges schools and institutions have not had the resources so far to create a formal framework for action around academic leadership training. Among other elements, it would need to be a widely shared program with leadership development as a focus for sharing and understanding needs and issues beyond any individual campus. There are opportunities for priority setting and knowledge sharing.However, it would not be difficult to establish a more consistent and frequent arena for our managers. At a time when they report a quiet anxiety about the vulnerability of their careers within institutions that are challenged from every direction (enrollment, accreditation, cash flow, human resource development, and academic excellence) and when our expectations of them are intense and unrelenting, such a support framework would be invaluable.

Leadership literature is all over the landscape on this complex issue. Whether the topic is the generating and careful creation of a strong pool of academic leaders or how to integrate our academic managers into a “medical academic career path” model, a sense of urgency exists about the matter. There are also conflicting views about where to find such leaders. For example, some believe that leaders are born and not “trained” and that expectation of a strong pool of leadership candidates in the naturopathic medical landscape is an overwhelming challenge. However, others believe differently. On closer inspection of recent work in this field, there surfaces a least common denominator of consensus that leadership can be taught. Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge and The Jossey-Bass Academic Administrator’s Guide to Exemplary Leadership), for example, insist that the notion that leaders are born is probably a myth. Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) adds fuel to this contention by challenging the idea that leadership is a “natural ability” more than a learned skill. Those trained in curriculum design may recall the statement by Benjamin Bloom that “anyone can learn anything given the proper conditions” (1985). At the end of the day, it may well be best that we set aside resources in our base budgets to provide training for our leaders.

The literature suggests that a leadership tool kit for the naturopathic colleges would have to include at the very least the following skill sets built around four broad categories:

  • Instructional leadership
  • Management skills
  • Community building
  • Vision

These, in turn, imply the following specifics:

  • Knowledge of the history and structure of higher education institutions, regulatory frameworks, and location in civil society
  • Knowledge of the place of “natural medicine” in the health sciences curriculum frameworks in higher education
  • Knowledge of the role of professional formation in the curriculum and program design of the academic leader’s mandate
  • Ability to develop, refine, administer, and manage a budget
  • Human resource management skills (including human resources best practices, state or provincial and federal employment law, regulations, and practices)
  • Advancement, development, and public relations skills
  • Strong content link to one or more of the disciplines of naturopathic medical education

The single most important skill the effective naturopathic academic leader has to have is the ability to provide instructional leadership. This skill involves much more than the experience of having been a teacher. It entails strong curriculum design skills, measurement and evaluation abilities, and faculty evaluation and development savvy, among others. However, our deans have less than adequate time to oversee all these elements of instructional leadership in any sustained way. Devoting time and energy to improving the quality of teaching and learning is challenging and often fraught with frustration. Not only is the specific content changing all the time, but there is also the question of keeping the nature cure roots of the profession alive alongside new modalities, techniques, and theories. This evolving academic content is a foundation stone for professional formation, too. Questions arise constantly about what to include and what to exclude and in what proportions.

Management skills are another essential competency area. Our deans and chairs must be conversant with college financial operations, departmental budgeting, and capital investment decisions at the same time as they handle, on a daily basis, medical staff governance duties and physician practice requirements to maintain a best possible supervisory medical team for the students and the college’s classrooms and teaching clinic. In addition, there must be a continuous focus on elevating performance through improved communication and team management. At the end of the day, success is measured in terms of the gains made by students in learning and the quality of patient care.

These same management skills fold in balancing the needs of students, faculty, patients, accreditors, government agencies, and numerous suppliers. While the traditional focus of management skill has always been on slowly transforming curricula, budgets, buildings, and facilities, increasingly our academic managers have to stay in tune with the needs of their community and to communicate effectively. This entails community building. Our educational leaders build relationships with people inside, and external to, the school’s internal network. The traditional leadership approach of top-down decision making is not sustainable in the more collegial distribution of power and sources of motivation essential to building the profession. Therefore, our academic leaders must not only be able to understand the college board’s point of view alongside that of the provost and the president but also be able to work with those colleagues and with frontline faculty toward the pursuit of a common vision.

Indeed, the notion of “vision” is as fundamental to academic leadership success as fiscal management these days. Our deans and chairs must be able to articulate a clear vision of where they see the program going but do so within the gestalt of professional formation. That is, how is the profession evolving in his or her state or region? What issues confront graduates who are headed for jurisdictions where limited practice is the case? What challenges are afoot around scope, restricted acts, and articulation pathways with other postsecondary institutions? The academic leader has to conjugate all these complex variables into a daily action plan and an annual strategic plan and stir the lot in the budget cauldron.

Given all of these requirements for educational leadership positions in the naturopathic medical education settings of this second decade of a new century, the need to make attractive career pathways for our prospective managers is definitely present. As naturopathic medicine moves with care and confidence into a landscape of so-called integrative medicine and as detractors and opportunists threaten to dilute and hijack the precious modalities that NDs have protected for decades, our naturopathic medical education system cannot just wait for leaders to appear. We need to structure leadership jobs and begin preparing individuals who are skilled and committed. If we resolve that leaders can be made and that they are not just born to the task, our work is all the more urgent.

Conducting inclusive searches and welcoming new leaders into our naturopathic programs and institutions can, as initiating activities, be complemented with mentoring by more senior members so that the chances for mutual enrichment that come from collaborative activities are made systemic. Successful chairs and deans can tap into unifying visions and exercise interpersonal skills necessary to bring about the vision of a growing, increasingly effective profession (Stein and Caruso, 1993). Both chairs and deans have the sometimes daunting task of conducting choirs of soloists, making out of an aggregate of individualists possessing competing interests an effective department and a strong school building a confident profession. As Bennett (1990) explained almost two decades ago, the vision only works when the leaders know what they are doing every Monday morning.

Buckner and Slavenski (1994) tell us how to make sure leadership succession works. However, our challenge is greater than even that. We not only have to be on the lookout for new people for the growing opportunities before us, but we also have to keep the good people we have during this time of enormous stress and contrary imperatives (Marchese, 1989). This kind of planning for the leadership of our profession’s educational arm needs to be intricately linked to the strategic business plan of each school and “designed to respond to evolving organizational needs” (Clunies, 2011 [citing Borwick, 1991; Buckner & Slavenski, 1994; Hall & Seibert, 1991; Kesner, 1989; National Academy of Public Administration, 1992; Rhodes, 1988; Rothwell, 1994; Walker, 1980]). The future and the present require introspection now (Jugenheimer, 1993; Kauffman, 1993; Stein & Caruso, 1993). There are many models out there we can learn from (Clunies, Taylor, & Shriane, 2003). Because there is more at risk than issues of cost, morale, and risk as we choose our academic leaders, it behooves us to “nurture internal talent” because “academic change takes time and continuity of leadership to effect” (Marchese, 1989).

We need well-developed competencies and objective assessment of our leaders, both already on staff and prospective (Eastman, 1995). As marketplace pressures mount, “colleges and universities will increasingly need to also plan more prospectively” (Rosse & Levin, 2003). Spoor recommends “developing competency profiles based on an estimate of what positions in the organizations will look like in one, three, and five years” (1993, p. 4). Rothwell also discusses “methods for projecting requirements of future key positions, such as conducting future-oriented job analysis and determining the associated competencies required for success.” (1994). Historically, as Rosse and Levin pointed out recently, “this has not been an area of strength for academia, especially when it comes to identifying and developing leaders among faculty” (2003).

We need to figure out early and often how to provide developmental opportunities that will prepare our leaders for the rapidly transforming demands of our traditional deans and chairs (Beatty, Schneier, & McAvoy, 1987; Executive Knowledgeworks, 1988; Hansen & Wexler, 1988; Moore, 1986). Rothwell suggests that “for each succession candidate there should be an individual development plan (IDP), which outlines planned activities that will help narrow the gap between what individuals can already do and what they should do to meet future work requirements of one or more positions”(1994).

Citing Kramer (1990), Mahler and Gaines (1983), and Walker (1980), Clunies (2011) instructs us that “such IDPs should be tailored to the unique needs of each candidate and should focus on three major categories: work experiences and assignments, coaching, and educational courses and seminars.”

David_Schleich_Headshot-248x300David Schleich, PhD is president and CEO of NCNM, former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Other previous posts have included appointments as vice pres-ident academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd) and the University of Toronto (PhD)


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