Presidential opinion: Why leading in ambiguity is the new norm

Leaders of the future must move away from standardization and embrace personalization. We must move from an environment of consumers to “prosumers” in the United States.
Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
Dr. Robert E. Johnson is the president of Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

College and university presidents are now leading in a world of ambiguity. This brings new challenges and opportunities in higher education. Presidents who can adapt with agility in this ambiguous world will create the new normal for leaders and institutions of the future.

Indeed, today’s president must have a unique set of skills that enables them to lead in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world with a skillset and mindset willing to learn, unlearn and relearn. We are educating a generation of young people for jobs that do not exist to solve problems that have not been identified, utilizing technology yet to be created.

When we think about pre-COVID and post-COVID, leading in ambiguity is the new norm. Once upon a time, you could predict your organization’s future because of standardization when 80% of the work was predictable. What have we learned from COVID? We have had to change, be nimble, and be both collaborators and divergent thinkers to meet the needs of the present age.

Moving forward, as a higher-education leader or someone that aspires to lead, you have to be authentic, transparent, and continue to ask:

  • What’s next?
  • How do we prepare for the future?
  • How do we create an ecosystem within our organization so every employee can be agile and get the job done?
  • What do we need to learn, unlearn and relearn today?

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Anyone who thinks we will thrive by returning to the old way of doing things within higher education is wrong. Today, it is clear that about 70% or more of the university president’s job is working, managing and leading in ambiguity.  The pace of change with new technologies and modalities of teaching and learning requires presidents to adapt to this new reality or become obsolete.

Today’s president must embrace traditional and new modalities of communicating with various audiences, including how they interact with on-campus colleagues. After all, the workforce at universities often has five generations represented; the president must have the ability to have a multigenerational communication style.

While the well-being of students is crucial, the happiness of faculty, staff and administrators is equally essential to the growth and vibrancy of the institution. Today’s president must be authentic and have an “entrepreneurial mindset” to recognize and embrace new opportunities that will benefit their campus communities.

The industry is at an inflection point. As presidents, we must be agile learners and create an adaptive environment. We must evolve the academy to continue to be a crucible for creating and imparting knowledge.

Leaders of the future must move away from standardization and embrace personalization. We must move from an environment of consumers to “prosumers” in the United States. For consumers, we build a product or provide a service, and because we have done our market research, they come and buy it. For prosumers, students and employers are telling us what they want, and we must personalize our educational paradigm to meet their needs.

So, the challenge for leaders of the old—defined as the pre-pandemic era—to the leaders of the new is to come to the table with a skillset and mindset that is agile, nimble, and receptive to new ideas, utilizing data and artificial intelligence to become more effective and efficient.

What is the best background to be an effective college or university president today? It requires someone with financial acumen, an understanding of the enrollment paradigm and its solutions, student centrality, academic innovation for programs and an agile mind with the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn in a rapidly changing hyperconnected world.

The person striving to become a higher-education leader today must first and foremost be purpose- and mission-driven to educate the next generation of leaders with a skillset and mindset to transform the world.

Someone who simply wants the job for the title or prestige will most likely fail.


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