Monday, June 12, 2017


The Melancholy Dean

Ms. Mentor has her niche and I have mine, but her column on portrayals of deans in literature was too much fan to pass up.  Apparently, a recent spate of literature has characters killing their deans, who often go unmourned.  Ms. Mentor notes that deans are “squeezed and budget-cutted [sic] from above, harangued and belittled from below,” which is about right.  But their relative invisibility offers a useful perspective on a larger truth.

Most management books are written from the perspective of the CEO or the founder.  They assume that your job is to make the big decisions and to hold other people accountable for executing those decisions.  That’s a pretty simplistic view of how decisions are made, especially in academe, but it has a kernel of truth, at least in the corporate world.  (In my observation, boards of trustees often take much larger roles at nonprofits than the literature tends to assume, constraining even the CEO’s autonomy.  But that’s another post.)  

But that’s not what most managers are.  Most managers are closer to deans than to presidents.  They’re in the middle.  They can try to nudge upwards, and sometimes that works, but they don’t set the overall direction.  And while they can facilitate good implementation, it’s not like they can bark commands and demand obedience.  That’s simply not how this works.  They have some room to move, but far less than most management literature assumes.  And it’s not unusual that they find themselves tasked with carrying out policies with which they personally disagree.  When success in a position relies largely on “soft power,” having to carry out positions with which you personally disagree can be a real strain.

Obviously, if the disagreements become too large or frequent, the right move is to step out of the role.  But that’s the exception.  More commonly, there’s a vague sense of “I wouldn’t have done it that way” that falls well short of a crisis of conscience, but can be enough to sap motivation.  That’s especially true when budgets are tightening and adverse decisions are made for you.

There are great books waiting to be written on the dilemmas of middle management.  (I like to think my own book on the subject is pretty good, come to think of it…)  Maintaining your own credibility while nudging people to comply with policies about which you have reservations yourself is a tricky maneuver.  The proper literary mode for a character like that is probably tragedy.  

From the perspective of the middle, a clear sense of “why” is crucial.  It’s much easier to work with a policy, even one you don’t love, if you understand the reason it exists.  That puts a burden on central leadership to be clear about the why, and to make some sort of plausible connection between means and ends.  The connection will have to be at a high level, leaving the details to folks closer to them, but the storyline has to be clear.  In the absence of a narrative, people will make up their own.  And their own will reflect other agendas.

Most of the time, loathing of deans is misplaced.  They stand as symbols of The Administration on one side, while being suspected of being collaborators on the other.  Most of the time, they’re neither.  They’re somewhere between translators and coaches.  But almost nobody who hasn’t done the job knows that.  

I tip my cap to the deans out there, melancholy or not.  They don’t deserve to be cast as villains.  Tragic heroes, on the other hand... 

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