Q: I work at a university in a smaller department. We have a dean and associate dean who have markedly different leadership styles. The dean is quite laissez-faire, while the assistant dean is command-and-control. The dean says "go ahead" on an idea and the assistant later says "no." This has resulted in faculty and staff being quite confused and discouraged. Do you have any advice for working with these two styles?
A: As a former academic, I know this story all too well. What you have described as "working with two conflicting leadership styles" may require a different framing story—how we view a situation or the story we tell ourselves.
The new story I would suggest is "How can I get my idea approved." My experience suggests that there are two choices here. Both involve working with the system rather than remaining "confused and discouraged."
Your first choice involves soliciting the support of your Chairperson for your ideas. Department chairs routinely have more contact and connection with deans and associate deans and, as your ally and advocate, may be able to frame your idea differently so that it is viewed as beneficial to the greater good of the department or college.
The second approach (the one I believe to be more fruitful long-term) is to get to know your associate dean's story. What you describe as conflicting leadership styles is more a systemic issue: the Dean playing the role of the "good cop" to the Associate Dean that has been hired to be the "deal-breaker"-the one that raises the red flags on new ideas or approaches. So, Challenge the Process!
As a specialist in adult communication and storytelling, I have developed a framework that considers My Story, Your Story, and Our Story. To Challenge the Process, you will need to suspend your story to find out your Associate Dean's story. Find out what motivates and inspires and frame your ideas in those terms. Discover what data he or she selects and what assumptions and conclusions are drawn. Find out what is likely to generate a no response and what might garner a yes. As you listen, you can begin crafting the Our Story-a blending together of your story as well as the Assistant Dean's. This means you have to build a relationship. And when you do this, you just might find that you are modeling the way for your colleagues.
Art Cross, Ph.D., a former academic in the field of adult communication, now heads Cross Learning Associates, a consulting practice that focuses on Leadership (based on the principles of The Leadership Challenge), Art of Dialogue, Storytelling, and Journaling. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.