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Leadership comes with Conflict

I just completed reading Reframing Academic Leadership, a text part of my Administration in Higher Education course. The text speaks to academic leaders and the vast challenges they face in their roles.

“Academic leaders are under tremendous pressure to change and to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset in order to keep pace with rapidly evolving conditions.” (Bolman & Gallos, 2011 p. 6).

I appreciated the context the authors put the book in, asking the reader to “Read it thoughtfully, yet playfully” (p. 14).
As the title refers, the authors spell out how leaders can reframe in academics. “Reframing is the deliberate process of looking at a situation carefully and from multiple perspectives, choosing to be more mindful about the sensemaking process by examining alternative views and explanations” (p. 23).
The bulk of the text depicted examples of four reframing views: structural, political, relational and symbolic. In summary, leaders need to employ components of each of these to be successful.
The information that struck me was toward the end, in the section managing conflict. All lines of work have conflict, but higher education feeds a conflict that both moves the organization along as well as stifles it. Higher education leaders are then faced to be in the mix of it, everyday. They must becoming managers of conflict.
Education and conflict seems at opposition with each other. We are here for the students right? Conflict should only arise when challenging a student in a course, leadership position or judicial hearing. But it is not so.

If only conflict was as cute as these two cubs fighting

Conflict runs deep on a college campus, in the student union, department conference room and classroom hallway. Administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, the list goes on and on.
The authors reminded us that, “colleges and university are akin to jungles: vibrant ecosystems that house a variety of species or groups, each with its own specific characteristics, capabilities, interests, needs and lifestyles,” (p. 71).
Those that are called to and move up into leadership positions on college campuses have very challenging positions. Many times they are not well liked. In addition to managing conflict, they must let go of what others think of them.

“An administrative role is the wrong place to look for love, and critiques will not always express their views in a nuanced or reasonable way” (p. 135).

In this jungle, the authors Bolman and Gallos encouraged leaders dealing with conflict to do two things:

  • Cool the Flame
  • Turn up the Heat

In other words they must keep a pulse on the campus (political) flame, knowing when to put on the pressure or when to cool things down.
The text was a reminder that in leadership you do not get a choice in conflict. Whether you have the skills built in naturally or run at the first sight, leadership comes with conflict. It takes courage. It takes self-examination.
A leaders’ ability to manage conflict is pivotal. “It is a crucible that tests and gives birth to great leadership” (p. 130). Where higher education leaders fall short is when they struggle with facing conflict. Conflict management skills however are not a typical workshop topic or leadership preparation course. So how do leaders learn to manage conflict effectively?
The methods we use to manage conflict may have roots in how we were raised, taught by mentors/managers or even mass media. Maybe you learned tactics from Calvin and Hobbes like the image below.

But Calvin’s tactics will not work in academic leadership, even though from the descriptions in the book about faculty outbursts, it may look similiar.
The authors offer the following suggestions of academic leaders who best manage conflict (p. 139)

  1. Change your own actions first
  2. Focus on learning, rather than avoidance or fixing others
  3. See the big picture clearly


I really enjoyed the example in the book for #3, to see the big picture clearly. It was an image of the balcony and the dance floor. Many times administrators want to be in the action (dance floor) because there is excitement and is sometimes even fun.
With all the commotion though, the clarity of situations are not so clear. So, they need to move away (they must also go up to the balcony) to ask questions like:
What’s really going on here?
What’s really important?
What’s me in this?
What are others?
What can be done differently?
Are you caught up on the dance floor? Is it time to find a balcony for greater perspective?
I believe the analogy of the dance floor and the balcony are representative of many scenarios in our lives. From managing conflict to making big life decisions. We need a balance in life and in leadership. Learn to manage conflict, before the conflict starts to manage you.
Bolman, L. G. & Gallos J. V. (2011). Reframing Academic Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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