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Shared Leadership Key to Confronting Modern Higher Education Challenges, Paper Finds

May 10, 2017


​A volatile financial environment, greater accountability pressures, the need for new business models, new technologies and changing demographics are just some of the challenges facing higher education leaders in the 21st century. Successfully facing them, finds a new report released today by ACE, requires new forms of leadership, particularly the principles of collaborative or shared leadership.

The report, Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice, is co-authored by the University of Southern California’s Adrianna J. Kezar, professor for higher education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education, and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, a research associate at the Pullias Center.

It is the latest in the ACE Center for Policy Research and Strategy's Viewpoints: Voices from the Field, a series of independent papers authored by leading social science researchers designed to explore new and emergent concepts that help readers reframe or retool their thinking about higher education policy and practice.

Shared leadership is defined as moving away from the leader/follower binary, capitalizing on the importance of leaders throughout the organization—not just those in positions of authority—and creating an infrastructure that allows organizations to benefit from the leadership of multiple people. As opposed to shared governance, shared leadership is more flexible and identifies various individuals from across campus with relevant expertise, regardless of hierarchy. This allows multiple perspectives rather than those of a single decision-making body, such as only faculty or administration.

After reviewing and synthesizing the existing literature on shared leadership–in and outside of higher education–the authors found that shared leadership consistently emerges as a key factor for organizations that were best able to learn, innovate, perform and adapt to the types of external challenges confronting campuses.

The paper also argues that in order to reap the benefits of shared leadership, organizations should ensure that such leadership structures and processes are authentic and thoughtfully designed. Conditions that promote and sustain shared leadership include team empowerment, supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders, autonomy, shared purpose or goals, external coaching, accountability structures, interdependence, fairness of rewards and shared cognition.

In addition, the authors examined the significance of the research for leadership development, discuss challenges to this approach, and offer implications for practice on college and university campuses.

To see the full report, click here.

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