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The Necessity of Creative Leadership In Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | The Necessity of Creative Leadership In Higher Education
Creative leadership can put CE divisions—and higher education institutions more broadly—in a position to innovate, serve key constituents and grow.

Creative leadership is essential for higher education institutions to remain relevant and responsive into the future, and there are three components to this. First, is seeing a problem’s true constraints. Second, would be seeing a well-fitting solution. The third is executing that solution. In other words, creative leaders first identify a hole in the world and note its shape. They then find a solution that fits that hole and put it into place.

Creativity comes from seeing. The better you see, the more your next move stands out. Leaders need better sight – taking in the whole picture, not just the parts. It’s about getting a sense of the whole environment, where every piece, place and person is involved. Above all, seeing everything as it actually is. That is the most difficult part. We are often blinded by our own training and experiences that have led us to see the world in certain ways. As a result, we miss things that do not fit that grid. Our past experiences of people led us to form relational grids.  We then perceive people through those grids, whether we intend to or not, our emotions can lead us to distort aspects of the present. They can even blind us or prompt us to choose not to see certain things.

Seeing the reality of people’s situations is essential for success. Especially in this current turbulent time in education. More than ever, education leaders must see the populations they seek to serve. Their circumstances, their ability to engage in education, their emotional states, and more. Those characteristics form a significant amount of the “true problem constraints” in education. Look at the “creative” solutions we see today. Those solutions stem from leaders who are able to see the big picture of their target audience.

Personally, I would drop the adjective “creative” from leadership. In my view, creative leadership is not a different strain of leadership. It is leadership. “Making something where there used to be nothing”, which is my definition of “creative”, is what leadership is about. However, my concern is that people hear “creative” as “coming up with something clever.” That definition destroys the whole idea of leadership. Aspiring to “come up with something clever” can often lead to “less creative” solutions. The pressure to live up to the label “creative” can serve to stifle true creativity. So, I hesitate for people to place the “creative” label upon themselves. Unrealistic pressure to be clever usually follows.

If anything, the label “creative” is best applied by observers, not by the leader themselves. The observers who view a solution as creative are those who, I would argue, do not see the situation the same way. The solution comes from outside their frame of reference. It exceeds their scope of experience or skill. In fact, they might not see the problem at all, and as a result the solution seems to come out of thin air.


Creative Leadership as a Competency for Continuing Education Leaders

Education is such a broad field, and changes happen faster than ever. No wonder the challenges increase for continuing education leaders. We are in the position of saying, “Let us learn about how people everywhere will learn for the rest of their lives. And then we will serve them. Go!”

In light of this, continuing education leaders must see anew and afresh. We must shed our old paradigms and prior assumptions and receive each situation for what it is. And we must do it over and over again That is the only way we can serve. As soon as we fail to see well, we lose our ability to generate solutions for those who need education.

Continuing education divisions must see to stay connected to people throughout their lives. The same is true for institutions. In every season of life and career, people need and want to feel seen. Especially with regard to how they will learn. They want that leader who displays creative leadership earn the opportunity to serve. That leader receives the desires, needs, unique circumstances, and emotions of the people. That leader communicates the sense of feeling seen. Individuals and populations feel seen and respond with trust and buy-in. That is how continuing education divisions stay successful.

Employing creative leadership can strengthen CE’s ties with institutional partners in three ways;

Ground-Level Insight

Creative leaders can help others see what is happening “at ground level.” What is going on in the lives of the target populations? Creative leaders can be a source of rich information. They can provide details and nuances about the target population to solve that question. As a result, other leaders can see the true shape of the problems they seek to solve.

Program Translation

Creative leaders have the ability to assist in program translation, helping to bridge the gap between academic programs and real-life situations. They can test various program concepts against their knowledge about the target audience. These leaders can influence the academic arm of the institution to help ensure programs are relevant to the target audiences. With their help, programs can meet the target audience’s unique situation.


Creative leaders can provide a prototyping ground for educational solutions.  Employing the process of seeing the problem which then leads to executing multiple different solutions allows for this. Continuing education thus becomes the testing ground. Connecting the institution’s offerings to populations now has a field for experimentation. This can open up new avenues of innovation for the institution. Additionally, the institution receives information that can shape the design of future solutions.

Creative leadership can also make a significant impact on the value CE divisions can bring to external partners, like employers and community organizations. Imagine a leader seeing the shape of the problem external partners face. And then executes a well-fitting solution to solve it, sharing the solution with the partners. How could those partners not respond but with gratitude and affinity? There is a real gift of validation that creative leaders can give to external partners by seeing things as they are, with no judgment and no modification. That is how continuing education leaders can build bridges with external partners.

Additionally, the prototyping process also benefits external partners. A creative leader committed to seeing the big picture provides external partners confidence. Partners know that the leader will be respectful of their situation. Responsive to changing conditions and service-oriented in seeking to fulfill specific needs. This process also allows partners to engage with a lower barrier of entry. They don’t fear buying into something large and getting stuck with it. They know that the institution will not stop with a single solution, their specific needs will be re-evaluated and that the institution commits to creating new solutions that fill those holes. That knowledge creates great trust on the partner’s part. And trust allows those partnerships to flourish over the long term.


Three Keys to Leveraging Creative Leadership Across the Institution

Being able to see the true shape of problems is an essential trait for every education leader. It leads to better solutions at every level of the institution. Yet the truth is that everyone who works in education is in the business of serving other people. So every leader must be able to see other people and their circumstances. How can your institution solve their needs? This leads to greater humanization of your audience, which will in turn lead your institution to greater service. Institutions thrive when they provide greater humanization and greater service.

I encourage everyone who wants to see better to pursue the following:

1. Spend regular time with those you want to serve

 Get to know them. Learn about their situations. Find out about their particular challenges and life circumstances. Doing so will help you better understand the problems they face.

2. Expand your horizons

 See more and with different eyes. Expose yourself to material from outside your discipline. Spend time with experts in different fields to learn how they see and think. By doing this, you will expand your toolkit and give you more to draw on in creating solutions.

3. Grow in humility

 This is the most important of them all. I mentioned at the outset that we prevent ourselves from seeing in so many ways. Our mental grids, relational patterns, cultural background, our dispositions toward particular people or things and our unwillingness to see or acknowledge certain truths. These and more can keep us from seeing what is. Aim to be humble. To receive things as they are rather than as we want them to be. Aim to get better and better at that. The more humble you are as a leader, the better you will see, and the better you will be able to serve.

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