October 28, 2005

Professors as Thought Leaders

My article in Inside Higher Ed on the idea of the "Humanities Lab" has received such insightful comments -- I've really enjoyed reading them. The first comment referenced John P. Kotter, a retired Harvard professor:

In the March 1999 issues of Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter penned a classic, “What Effective General Managers Really Do” that, in spite of what business textbooks were advocating, suggested that “... seemingly wasteful activities like chatting in hallways and having impromptu meetings are, in fact, quite efficient.” Kotter goes on to emphasize that “flexible agendas and broad networks of relationships” enable opportunity and accomplishment “... through a large and diverse set of people despite having little direct control over most of them.”
This prompted me to read more from Kotter. I became fascinated with his distinction between managers and leaders. In Leaders Talk Leadership: Top Executives Speak Their Minds, he states that "Leadership is, most fundamentally, about change." He goes on to say:

Most often, leadership creates a picture of the future or a vision or some sense of strategy, a primary strategy for achieving that vision, of making sure enough people understand it and buy into it and then creating the conditions that motivate them to act.


Although the idea of the professor being a thought leader is not a new one, it is interesting to look at what Kotter suggests a person needs in order to be a great leader:

Great leaders have the capacity to communicate broad notions about purpose and direction so that people not only hear and understand, but connect on some deeper, emotional level as well. Emotionally related skills associated with helping people tap into their sources of energy and helping them to break through boundaries are also very important for great leaders.


This suggests to me that the successful academic will have excellent communication skills and also a high "Emotional Intelligence" (or EQ, as it is often called), which has been defined by Robert K. Cooper in EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organizations as

The ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence.

So, to sum up my ramblings, I'm making a case that

  • In order to be a great scholar, you need to be a thought leader
  • In order to be a thought leader, you need excellent communication skills
  • In order to communicate effectively, you need to have excellent Emotional Intelligence

Luckily, each of these qualities can be learned. Watch other highly effective academics, read about effective communication skills and EQ, get feedback from others, and get help if needed. You have a right to have your greatness come out and be seen.


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