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Career Advice

Collaborative leadership in higher education – it works

When we stop to consider the demands that leadership can involve, we are enabling each other to move forward, together.


Eight years ago, a small group of people from Carleton University got together to reconsider the future of leadership on their campus. They began with the question: “What does great leadership look like in practice and how can we create the conditions for more of it? As we had further conversations, it became clear that leadership is most effective when diverse populations of faculty and staff share their perspectives, collaborate on solutions and implement tangible actions to the benefit of our community. There we have it: Collaboration, collegiality and community. That’s the essence of great leadership and that’s the essence of universities. So why isn’t collaborative leadership happening more frequently?

Our initial goal of developing greater leadership abilities quickly evolved into unleashing the existing collaborative leadership capacity that already existed, and figuring out how to better utilize relationships across our campus. We recognized that acts of leadership were occurring at the university, but were mostly not recognized because they didn’t fit the traditional, individualistic, and heroic models of leadership. Leadership was seen as the responsibility of those in formal leader roles such as deans, directors, or people with positional authority. The concept of leadership as a contribution that anyone could make was not well understood, or seen as a potential organizational space that would thrive with faculty and staff working shoulder to shoulder.

At the time, faculty and staff often operated as two solitudes with little understanding of one another’s experiences or challenges. They were also unaware that they shared more in common than they might have considered. We needed to provide a space where faculty and staff could recognize and appreciate not only their own leadership potential, but also support the potential of others, experiment with new approaches, ways of thinking, and alongside all of this, get to know one another as people.

We tasked ourselves with the mission of creating more spaces for leadership to happen. These spaces would allow leadership to grow and answer critical leadership questions from the perspectives of the individual, the teams and groups we work within, as well as the university as a whole.

We set out to build Carleton Leader, a formalized leadership development that focuses on leadership as a collective practice, a space which can be occupied by anyone at the institution. Our model reflects some of the principles and philosophies we valued most from work implemented by the University of Sheffield. The Leader premise is that anyone, regardless of title or role can move into spaces that leverage their “impact and influence” at the institution and beyond. Through the creation of these forums for dialogue between faculty and staff across the institution, we essentially generated a “banquet hall” for leadership. People can move between tables in order to connect, challenge one another, truly listen and take risks. As conversations mature and issues are resolved, people have the capacity, choice, and agency to join new tables. There is a chair for every leader. Together, through their acts of leadership and inviting others to the table, faculty and staff at Carleton have filled the banquet hall to its capacity.

The program has been running for six years, and the leadership at Carleton is now more distributed and collegial than ever. Not only are participants 80 percent more confident in their roles as a result of their Leader experience, but 95 percent of them also feel that they have better networks and relationships across the university. They are coming up with new ideas on how to connect and collaborate with others, and they are taking the initiative to make it happen. From developing courses on making the student transition to employment easier to reengaging mid-career faculty in their research, they are finding ways to move the needle on some of what Kieth Grint would consider to be the institution’s most “wicked problems.”

In becoming better at identifying their contributions and the contributions of others, participants feel less alone; the weight of leadership is lighter and new paths forward are being charted. One faculty member has stated that “Carleton Leader helped me understand that leadership doesn’t require a title. That I, as a professor, don’t have to wait until I become chair to exercise leadership in my department. Leadership is something that I can exercise every day in the position that I occupy right now.” When given the opportunity to reflect on their opportunities, abilities, and capacity, Carleton Leaders are able to strategize, set goals, drive change, and embrace ambiguity with a tenacious resilience that allows them to move forward. When we stop to consider the demands that leadership can involve, we are enabling each other to move forward, together.

We’re at the beginning of a transformation. Carleton Leader continues to evolve as the development and growth of the initiative flourishes. We regularly bring participants back together as members of a community to continue their learning, further develop their relationships and inspire one another with what is possible when you work together.

While we may have more than 350 faculty and staff who have participated, it’s really about the compounded impact of this number. These 350 participants, have gone out beyond the barriers of their titles and roles to connect with others, take action, and engage in topics that are critical to the success of not only our institution but our community. We don’t need to develop more leadership, we just need to unleash it. Collaboration, collegiality and community. And at the end of the day, isn’t empowering communities what higher education is meant to be about?

Amanda Dobbie and Samah Sabra are the leadership development and professional development officers respectively at Carleton University. Carleton Leader is the university’s leadership development offering which combines faculty and staff in their engagement.

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  1. Sue Faubert / February 13, 2019 at 13:25

    Way to go Amanda and Samah you are so inspiring! Your leadership program is amazing!!!! It’s no wonder I love working at Carleton so very much! Because of your wonderful training, you have so many wonderful Leaders and so much collaboration. Thank you for taking on such fabulous roles.

  2. Heather Young-Leslie / February 19, 2019 at 12:00

    Congratulations Carleton! The collaborative leadership model is one particularly well adapted to universities, as institutions with a history of shared governance and a tendency to hire people who are predisposed to the concept of making a change, even if only in their own research fields. UAlberta has a similar collaborative leadership development program, which has also had impact here. I’m keen to learn more about the particularly thorny problem of ‘reengaging mid-career faculty in their research’. Perhaps in a follow-up article?