3 Levels of Leadership for a Curricular Approach

Leading higher education is incredibly challenging with external attacks, dramatically increasing student needs, and challenges to adequately staff and resource offices and departments. Leading a curricular approach amidst all the existing challenges is daunting AND within those challenges are opportunities to articulate purpose and value, more effectively engage students, and better align actions and resources with aspirations.

I’ve worked with almost 100 campuses as they develop their curricular approach to learning beyond the classroom. I also support a cohort of about 15 campuses each year with the ongoing development of their curricular approach. As a consultant, I am often learning more than I am sharing. I see these three levels of leadership needed to launch and sustain a shift to a curricular approach successfully.

1. Symbolic Leadership

A symbolic leader is a champion for the curricular approach. This is often the Director of a departmental approach or the Vice President of a divisional approach. This leader champions regularly and often. They must champion the focus on student learning, the value of learning beyond the classroom, and their particular curricular approach (learning aims, strategies, etc.). This leader advocates for this approach within student affairs and with student affairs and academic partners.

2. Strategic Leadership

A strategic leader runs air traffic control for the curricular approach. This is often an individual or small group who understands the curricular approach at the most macro level and can set agendas, assign tasks, and hold others accountable to keep the curricular approach moving forward across the organization.

This strategic leadership coordinates how others are developing the curricular approach. Strategic leaders are not developing the curricular approach directly, as that can undermine the collective buy-in of everyone in the organization. When this happens, the curricular approach can become “the committee’s” curricular approach rather than “ours.” This is why this leadership is often provided by an individual or a very small group (committee of 3) to keep the most folks available to work developing the components of the curricular approach. This strategic leadership needs a solid understanding of the curricular approach, an ability to manage many different logistics (projects, tasks, timelines, follow-up), and the authority to hold others accountable.

Leaders at this level must be patient and persistent and know when each is needed. Strategic leaders recognize resistance and meet it with nuanced responses. Here are three types of resistance and some of the more helpful responses.

  • don’t wanna => accountability
  • wanna, but don’t know how => teach them
  • wanna, know how, but cannot find the time => patience or persistence

3. Functional Leadership

Functional leaders take responsibility for the curricular approach’s day-to-day and weekly progress of Educational Plan design, implementation, and assessment. This is often an individual at the departmental level primarily responsible for internal leadership and direction (director, associate director, senior director, etc.). This person assigns small groups to work on particular tasks (these three folks working on these facilitation guides, two folks working on those facilitation guides, two of you to summarize the assessment results, etc.). Functional leadership creates regular time to focus and work on the curricular approach. Functional leaders might devote time to curricular approaches in each staff meeting, set aside Friday afternoons, schedule regular retreat days, or combinations.

Total Engagement

Leadership at these three levels fosters total engagement where everyone in the organization is committed to and engaged in developing your curricular approach. You see total engagement when individuals in the organization are directly developing different components, providing feedback on other components, trusting the components other colleagues have developed, and providing feedback all along the way about how the curricular approach can even better serve students.

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