Why Women Excel as Transformation Campus Leaders

“You don’t improve if you don’t change”

Leaders fuel higher education’s response to change. Some leadership styles fuel positive transformation while others work best for maintenance. In these days of accelerating change, schools thrive best with transformational leaders.

Women’s skills fit this need especially well, according to Dr. Linda Wysong Becker, VP for student services at Union College in Lincoln NE. “Women have a distinct advantage as leaders,” she said at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Leadership Conference in Lincoln last October.

Her doctoral research in 1999-2000 correlated leadership styles with institutional effectiveness. Though she didn’t set out to study women’s leadership styles, in her research the styles that correlate with effec-tiveness showed up most among women.

Becker received a PhD in higher education administration in 2000 from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her career path has included jobs as an elementary school principal, youth pastor, director of quality improvement in healthcare and director of HR at a university. She is also the mother of two grown children—who really taught her about leadership!

Transactional leadership

Becker’s interest grew from working for many different types of leaders. Some helped with change while others didn’t. “You don’t improve if you don’t change,” she said.

She identified styles with the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) by Bernard M. Bass and Bruce J. Avolio. Leaders typically combine more than one of the behaviors on the MLQ, mostly transactional or transformational.

Transactional leadership, once the norm, rewards or punishes followers in exchange for specified actions:

Contingent reward, or “Let’s make a deal.” This leader sets clear expectations and makes rewards conditional on meeting them. Contingent reward leadership often gets the planned results, but the most it can do is maintain the status quo.

Management by exception, or putting out fires. The leader may notice an exceptional employee or just show up when things go wrong. Active managers by exception seek out problems and take action to correct them. Passive ones wait till the fire blazes before trying to put it out.

Laissez-faire, or hands off. Avoidance or absence isn’t transactional or transformational. It isn’t leadership at all.

Contingent reward behaviors are more effective than management by exception or laissez-faire. Stating clear expectations is one part of effective management.

Transformational leadership

Transactional leaders get only what they ask for, at best. Only transformational behaviors can inspire others to go above and beyond. Transformational behaviors include:

Idealized influence . Symbolizing the vision of the college, this leader shows commitment, persis-tence and confidence in mission. She’s a role model who is consistent (not arbitrary) and shares risks with her followers, building respect, admiration and trust.

Inspirational motivation . She draws others into the vision, motivating them with a strong sense of purpose. She builds team spirit and involvement in work that has meaning and challenge. As her followers pursue a common goal, they achieve more than they ever thought possible.

Intellectual stimulation . She encourages others to ask questions, reframe assumptions and think outside the box. She challenges their imaginations to come up with creative solutions. She holds a safe space for taking risks, with no public criticism of mistakes.

Individualized consideration . This leader is a coach and mentor. She builds two-way communica-tion. She genuinely cares about her followers and recognizes their differing needs. Connecting with them personally, she encourages their continual growth and development.

Leadership behaviors on the MLQ also include some defined by organizational outcomes. Extra effort is behavior that encourages followers to increase their output. Effectiveness includes such behaviors as leading a meeting or planning well. Satisfaction refers to the leader’s pleasure in meeting her followers’ needs.

Past studies suggest that when leaders use all these transformational behaviors plus contingent rewards, productivity and morale go up. Absenteeism and turnover go down. Organizations become more effective.

Style and effectiveness Becker did her research at 13 colleges and universities—ranging from community colleges to research universities—with strong reputations for continuous improvement, using the Malcolm Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence in education:

  1. Leadership
  2. Information and analysis
  3. Strategic and operational planning
  4. Human resource development and management
  5. Educational and business process management
  6. School performance results
  7. Student focus and student and stakeholder satisfaction

She visited all but one campus in person and interviewed a total of 90 administrators. She left them a handwritten survey to complete, the MLQ to assess their leadership behaviors and the Baldrige criteria to rate school effectiveness. She also asked each of the 90 for names of nine peers, and she followed up with three to get an outside view of the leader and college.

Tallying the resulting mountain of data, she looked at factors from school size and years in a quality improvement program to gender and how self-ratings compared to ratings by peers. Transactional be-haviors on the MLQ correlated strongly with leadership and other organizational effectiveness on the Baldrige criteria. Extra effort, effectiveness and satisfaction ran high on the MLQ.

That confirmed her hypothesis about the kind of leadership that goes with excellence at schools com-mitted to change. What she didn’t expect was the significant gender difference among leaders. “Women showed more transformational skills than men,” she told WIHE.

Women’s strengths

Women stood out in transformational behaviors, particularly individualized consideration. “Women as leaders are able to recognize individual differences,” she told WIHE.

Far more than men, women leaders notice how the needs, concerns and communication styles of one follower differ from those of another.

One likely reason is women’s greater attention to relationships, while men are more task-oriented. A second: “Women tend to be more able to multi-task,” she told WIHE. Leaders have to multi-task if they want to treat each individual as unique.

“Women are excelling especially in small organizations because of their multitasking, relational skills,” she said. One reason women’s leadership prospects will grow is that young people are looking for more individualized consideration in their jobs than their parents or grandparents did.

Women also stood out in intellectual stimulation—encouraging followers to think outside the box—and transformational behaviors overall. Transformational behaviors are essential in a time of so much change.

Organizational change

It’s trite but true that change is the only constant. Change takes many forms: external and internal, organizational and individual, fast and slow, intentional and unavoidable. Changes may result from a change in the economy, law, power or societal norms.

First order change is the visible, external transition. Two colleges merge and adopt a new name. Widespread first order change occurred when women’s colleges opened to men and vice versa.

Second order change is the deeper transformation that follows in beliefs, values and procedures. A structural change might go into effect on July 1 but people’s hearts may not connect to that date. The switch from unisex education gradually brings second order changes in the ways students and faculty think. Organizational change may involve:

  • New technologies
  • Major shifts
  • Reengineered processes
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Restructuring of units
  • Significant innovations

Organizational change can be planned and scheduled on the calendar. Individual changes are another matter. Some personal changes are superficial, others heartfelt.

Personal change happens at different rates for different individuals. Leaders can’t control personal change, nor can they afford to neglect it during any transition.

In recent years, technology, knowledge and ideas have succeeded millennia of agriculture and centuries of industry as the basis of economic activity. This dramatic change helped level the economic playing field for women.

Information technology, new forms of transportation and communication and the exploding body of knowledge make change faster today than ever, as described in terms like total quality management, reengineering, restructuring, turnarounds and mergers and acquisitions.

Nontraditional leaders

Organizations of the future will need a different type of leader from the lockstep ones of the industrial era. They’ll:

  • Be adaptable, not rigid.
  • Require radical change, not gradual improvement.
  • Need a learning infrastructure.
  • Have internal and external networks, resembling an organism more than a machine.
  • Be held together by bonds of mission rather than structure.
  • Have a culture of high trust.
  • Constantly reinvent themselves.

Leading the transition to this new kind of organization will take adventurers, explorers and trailblazers. These nontraditional leaders will lead by intuition. They will decentralize power and involve a rich mix of different people, on and off campus.

They will be leaders who love change and create a change-loving culture. They’ll have vision and passion, linking imagination with strategy. They’ll foster creative collaboration.

Relationships will be central. Why? During change it’s more important than ever for people to trust their leaders. Relationships must be strong and compelling. Collaborations are vital. The vision must capture people’s hearts, linking personal missions to the common vision.

Women’s edge

“Women should be much more effective in leading change. The people who have these skills are more able to transform an organization,” Becker told WIHE. More than men, women tend to:

  • Think collaboratively, not competitively
  • Brainstorm and see various options
  • Multitask easily
  • Use an inclusive style
  • Share ideas and decisions
  • Attend to relationships and feelings
  • Adapt to altered circumstances

The shift to a knowledge economy offers women more opportunities to use their transformational strengths.

Women who are most adept at change have certain traits in common. Most had secure childhoods. They keep things in perspective and put a positive spin on setbacks. They combine high intellectual energy with an almost-obsessive sense of mission. They understand that self-knowledge leads to the realistic self-confidence that underlies the ability to lead and influence others.

Women need to develop and share their gifts and motivate other women to do so—by using women’s transformational skills, not by imitating male leaders of the past. Women need to support one another and anyone who leads positive change.

“Women have a very important contribution to make, and we need to encourage each other to do that. They should feel empowered to use those skills that come very naturally to them,” Becker told WIHE

Dr. Linda Wysong Becker, libecker@ucollege.edu or 402.486.2507.

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