I recently received an email from a good friend and colleague who had attended a panel discussion where he was asked to comment on Digital Leadership. His judgment was that Digital Leadership does not exist—it is a myth (his word). His take on the term is that it is one of many fuzzy (my word) buzzwords that permeate higher education today. He further opined that the term is “another colleague try[ing] to carve out a new niche by playing semantics.”
I couldn’t agree more with this perspective. But I think that it may be too kind. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a substantial body of literature rife with definitions of leadership (a quick Google search will reveal at least 100), types (autocratic, facilitative, strategic, etc.), and approaches (push or pull, for instance). In addition, leadership is often differentiated by profession. What it takes to lead in the financial world must somehow be fundamentally different from what works in higher education. Or not. But that’s for another post.
In higher education we find a number of faux distinctions, like public vs. private, not-for-profit vs. for profit, and now “digital” leaders. Really? I will take my colleague’s complaint a bit further. “Digital” is just one of the latest examples of pretending that leadership is fundamentally different in different sectors of higher ed (and elsewhere). The truth is that the fundamentals of higher education do not change by sector. The same is true for leadership. My justification for this position is simple. Over a 40-year career I have served as an instructor and administrator in public, private, not-for-profit, for profit, and online institutions. What makes a good leader is not variable. It involves adapting basic leadership skills to the environment.
So what does all this have to do with digital leadership in higher education? Simply this: Higher education continues to ignore the reality that society has evolved significantly in the past couple hundred years. America has transformed from an agrarian society to industrial, and now to a knowledge-base (read: digital). In America, higher education is largely viewed as the same old thing that we done for centuries, but now with some kind of online, virtual, “digital” bric a brac that has to be added on.
The higher education community seeks ways to cajole and entice faculty and administrators to accept the reality that surrounds them; namely, that our society is not just technologically enhanced—it is technologically INFUSED. We all expect that other service industries (yes, higher education is a service), like banks or retail, will perform seamlessly across modes. Yet higher education continues to struggle with issues that other segments of society have long ago mastered.
One way to avoid having to deal with the issue of technology in higher education is to invent a new category. We are told that we need separate on line colleges within institutions, special faculty and administration, and, of course, different expectations and definitions of student success. All of this is unnecessary and runs counter to how the rest of society is advancing technologically. Higher education needs one simple definition for how it functions, one set of inputs, processes, and outputs. And this includes leadership. If leaders in higher education are not digitally competent, then they are simply not competent leaders. “Digital Leadership” is not just a superfluous term that looks sexy on a conference agenda. It is a way to hide the fact that higher education is woefully behind the curve in serving the American public.