One of the great things about travel is that a person gets exposed to different media opportunities and (often) new perspectives that come with that. Today, I had delivered to my hotel a copy of the Ottawa Citizen, which featured a opinion piece by David Warren titled: “End Our Multiversities“. It was a very provocative, interesting piece. By interesting, I am not suggesting it was well-argued, historically accurate or reasonable, but it did make me think.
While Warren longs for the Middle Ages and grumbles about liberal education while (quite inaccurately) suggesting that all the world’s greatest universities are private, he brings up an issue that is relevant today for both public and private schools by seeking space for significant personal growth through education:
Now, do I propose that we go back to the Middle Ages? I would if we could, but since we can’t, I propose something more subtle: that we create the conditions in which significant intellectual and spiritual growth (as opposed to mere technological accumulation) would become possible again.
While I have little use for his recommendations or “analysis”, creating space for growth is important to consider and something I do agree with. Growth comes from change, adaptation and integration of new information (which is ironic, given Warren’s argument and desire to go back 500 years). Learning is, by its definition, designed around change, not stasis:
learning |ˈlərni ng |noun . the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught : these children experienced difficulties in learning |[as adj. ] an important learning process.• knowledge acquired in this way : I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters. [Oxford English Dictionary]
Education on the other hand, is less dynamic than learning, but still evolves to meet the demands of society, the market, and the educational institutions themselves. This is not perfect, it is not rational, or based solely on evidence or experience, and sometimes it works well in spite of that. Thus, to be effective at education and learning, the system must be designed to be agile and support change.
Craig Newell, before his untimely death [pdf], wrote about this need for adaptation by comparing the classroom to a complex adaptive system [PDF]. He argues that:
Complex systems are self-organizing and self-maintaining, but many also have the ability to adapt in changing environments. Complicated systems transfer and transmit energy and information; complex systems have the ability to transform. (p.7)
This is where I agree with Warren’s frustration with universities. Transformation is a very difficult thing to achieve and I am not certain that the modern university is doing a good enough job of fostering transformation in itself or its students. One of the main reasons is that education, like healthcare, has become institutionalized to the point of being bureaucratic (as in, being designed to support themselves before their intended audience).
With shrinking or static budgets, coupled with rising pressure to meet admissions targets, expand programs, while maintaining quality, universities are being forced to transform. The question remains as to whether this transformation will be accompanied with strategies to support the personal, healthy transformation-through-learning that education is supposed to provide, or whether it will fall to protecting the bureaucracy.
One of the serious challenges to this will be time. As mentioned in previous posts, time is becoming a serious challenge to our ability to learn and adapt. Time offers us opportunity to consider different options and relax, rather than do things based on stress. If we don’t provide the time to learn, our systems will transform by force of momentum, rather than conscious direction. Thus, if we are to create bigger classes, more requirements, greater professionalization, and less reflection time, momentum rather than contemplative inquiry will lead decisions. That will also create a less adaptive organization through adherence to path dependencies that will become more entrenched within the system. The dominant design [pdf] of a system created to support itself, rather than adaptation and creativity, will ultimately fail our students, our faculty and our society by limiting the innovation potential that comes complexity.
If that happens, then we will be going back to the Middle Ages, when everyone who went to school was the same, the lessons were limited to single subjects of interest only to the elite, and all the students were men. David Warren might be thrilled.
What makes a leader effective vs. harmful?
Robert Sternberg, one of the prolific and widely cited psychologists in history, spoke to this issue at the annual convention of the Canadian Psychological Association being held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Sternberg is the originator of the WICS model of leadership, which involves: Wisdom, Intelligence, Creativity, Synthesized.
In his 2007 review paper on the WICS, Sternberg describes the WICS this way:
to the model, effective leadership is a synthesis of
wisdom, creativity, and intelligence (WICS). It is in large
part a decision about how to marshal and deploy these
resources. One needs creativity to generate ideas, academic
(analytical) intelligence to evaluate whether the
ideas are good, practical intelligence to implement the
ideas and persuade others of their worth, and wisdom to
balance the interests of all stakeholders and to ensure that
the actions of the leader seek a common good.
What makes this model unique is that it combines individual characteristics with a sense of purpose for a “common good” and, in both cases, emphasizes individual agency. Sternberg knows of what he speaks and writes. Among his more than 1400 academic publications are large bodies of work that focus on human creativity, wisdom and learning, and intelligence. His Triarchic Theory of Intelligence has, along with the work of fellow psychologist Howard Gardner, transformed our understanding of human capability and broadened the focus away from the very narrow, culturally constrained, vision of intelligence that dominated much of the psychology literature in the 20th century.
People choose to be leaders
Sternberg views leadership as a choice, not something you’re not born with. It is also something that relies heavily on creativity, something that is inherently a personal and a social quality. The WICS, in its basic form is educational and transformative (my words not his). By linking creativity, perceptual and cognitive abilities, experience and synthesis, a systems-sensitive model of leadership is proposed via the WICS.
Other models can be criticized for their de-emphasis on time (past accomplishment) and over-emphasis on information and analytics to the detriment of wisdom. Intelligence, while inferred, can be viewed superficially as something fit for ‘natural’ leaders, thus reducing the role that personal choice plays in leadership. Creativity, also inferred, is another feature of leadership models that is often overlooked in favour of charisma. Most importantly, Sternberg’s model rests on the ability of leaders to do their work in the service of humanity and is careful to distinguish good leaders from bad ones; those that inspire sustainable good works rather than promote the opposite. It is for that reason that a Nelson Mandela is worth studying more than an Adolf Hitler.
Although the WICS is not new, the need to bring it back into focus and inspire people to lead and to nurture the four qualities within it are needed more than ever. A simple survey of the unfolding crises on the Korean Peninsula, off the coast of Gaza, and in the Gulf of Mexico one can see the need for better, wiser, intelligent and creative leaders.
The past few days I’ve had the privilige to speak to future healthcare leaders in the Health Organization Management Program at the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. With every conversation I had with faculty, students, and researchers I was reminded of the value of diversity and the challenge that structure poses to encouraging the best aspects of diversity to emerge.
The positive side of diversity is that bringing together people from different backgrounds to bear down on a topic of shared interest in study (and practice) is an energizing experience. Last night I had the pleasure to speak to students who were getting their MBA’s with a healthcare focus. This group included pharmacists (and former deans), current physicians, training physicians, nurses, and even those who already had Masters degrees in other subjects like Public Administration. It was, by the standards of a usual healthcare education course, a pretty diverse audience. And as so often happens when diverse, engaged people come together, interesting conversation and learning happens.
The class was on systems thinking and its application to health care and public health and it provoked a series of discussions about how we too often structure our systems — particularly those in higher education and healthcare — to reduce the very diversity that leads to insights and engagement (the kind of thing we had last night). Because of issues of convenience, efficiency, and power (sharing or retaining) we often reject concepts that diverge from the norm, despite evidence or argument that they might succeed. An idea becomes habit and then soon is entrenched in what Jaron Lanier calls, ‘lock-in’. It becomes something we no longer question or we cease to challenge because it seems too hard to challenge.
A great example we discussed was the modern hospital. Hosptials are designed to reduce diversity in variation and service, create environments that support consistent ‘best practices’, and create a critical mass of service providers that is also efficient. While those ideas have some merit, they also embody an absence of systems thinking in their design at a fundamental level. Consider the very idea of putting all these people who are immunocompromised and often contagious together in one building. How wise is that?
Designing hospitals — or systems — like this suffers from a locked-in mindset that says healthcare needs to be delivered in large institutions for some of the reasons mentioned. It is so entrenched, that we don’t even consider that there could be many other ways to do this. Maybe some of those alternatives are more humane, safer and efficient. We don’t know, until we consider new ways of thinking and reclaim the diversity in the thinking that guides the structures we create.