The Straw Man (or Woman) for Higher Ed Executive Roles

Philosophies and strategies about management and operations in higher education have emerged over the years.  Service to our institutions as members of committees, task groups, and teams is common among those in faculty positions and higher education staff; however, embracing group work is uncommon.  We balk at the idea of serving in yet another group that meets often but accomplishes little. 

Based on my experiences in university positions and as the leader of many university committees or task groups, “People are more likely to critique than to create.”  [This viewpoint is similar to the Straw Man Concept used in business.]  University careers develop, advance, and persist for those who exhibit personal leadership skills and the ability to lead groups.  The straw man concept implies that the committee, group, or team leader must not approach an assignment empty handed.  The leader must prepare for the task by laying a foundation (e.g. research on the assignment, strategies, or best practices) for the team’s discussion, decision-making, and action.  The leader that approaches the task having given it no prior thought or preparation is contributing to the perceived drudgery of group work.  Few, if any, committee members will bring a developed idea to the group (i.e. create); however, many will offer opinions (i.e. critique) about why a developed idea presented by the group leader will not work.  It is incumbent on the leader to lead first by laying a foundation.

The straw man concept has potential relevance to those who aspire to upper-level university positions.  Use of this technique exemplifies collegiality, leadership, effectiveness, and productivity.  All are requisite characteristics for faculty and administrative advancement, and therefore should be among criteria used during college and university hiring and promotion processes.  The leader’s initiative is displayed in the straw man approach to group work , which also contributes to group efficiency by minimizing group interaction, focusing discussion, elevating individual and group stature, and contributing to institutional effectiveness, to name a few.

A group leader must understand, however, that the straw man concept is structurally and theoretically weak, and a rigorous massage will occur as the group creates its final work.  The concept’s purpose is to instigate or promote discussion and creation.  The leader’s investment of the initial foundation must not impede the development of the final product. 

D. A. Buchanan is a 30+-year higher education administrator and a member of the educational leadership graduate faculty of a historically black university in the southeast United States.

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