Shared Leadership: How the Board-Chair Relationship Facilitates Organizational Change

By Gary Wagenheim and Katrina Rogers    //    Volume 28,  Number 2   //    March/April 2020

Higher Education is undergoing significant change due to technological change, globalization, and new economic realities. It is imperative for the board chair and president of an institution to understand their roles as intertwined more than ever and that they require an intentional alliance united in an explicit leadership philosophy. The lesson for chairs, presidents, and trustees is how to facilitate this development—through relationships, conversations, and training. The implication of such intentionality is to rethink structure and agendas rather than just plow through the content of meetings, but it also involves managing the process adroitly. This article examines how two leaders’ relationship facilitates a better understanding of their roles in leading organizational change at Fielding Graduate University.

Our Leadership Philosophy

Fielding Graduate University is a nonprofit private graduate university, founded more than 40 years ago by UCSB faculty and others who envisioned a radically different graduate educational model. They saw a need for both the infusion of doctoral-level skills into nonacademic professions, and they identified that there was a group of highly intelligent people who had been shut out of traditional graduate education. Today we would call this group adult learners. Focused on the social sciences, specifically psychology, educational leadership, and organization development, the university has grown from a radical idea into a regionally accredited institution with American Psychological Association accreditation for our research-based PhD clinical psychology program. Both the board chair and president came to Fielding inspired by the experimental and forward-thinking nature of the model; Gary first as student, then as donor and leader; Katrina initially as faculty and associate dean.

Prior to his academic career, Gary started, owned, and managed a chain of retail clothing stores for over 13 years that were subsequently sold to employees. Upon opening the second store, he quickly learned that no matter how good he was at buying and selling clothes, his future depended on how well others could do that job. Gary changed his focus from his development to their development and it became his guiding leadership philosophy—helping facilitate others’ development.

Tired and unsuccessful trying to gauge the right compensation and incentive for managers, he instead asked them to share their personal and business goals and he did the same. Together, they created mutual goals. Then he asked managers to propose their own unique compensation package that would help achieve mutual goals. Many wanted more flextime, help with continuing education, a bigger say in buying and selling, understanding the back-office of the stores, and incentive compensation for meeting targets. This resulted in good short-term gains in sales and profits and opening of more stores, and, more importantly, it developed knowledgeable, confident managers with a sense of ownership who later bought individual stores and operated them independently. It is the success from that experience and that same leadership philosophy that Gary brings into the classroom as a professor and to the board as chair. His success is measured by how well he helps others succeed.

From early career experiences, Katrina led faculty and staff from many different cultures with students from around the world. One of the early lessons learned was that decisions were made stronger through collective wisdom than individually in isolation. Breaking out of her ethnocentrism, she learned to ask for guidance and to seek solutions with others. It was hard at first, and sometimes still is, as she was socialized early to a command and control style of leadership. Being grounded in the discipline of political science required knowing theories of power, organizations, and decision-making, many of which emphasize the role of the individual leader and organizational followers to achieve certain goals.

Her philosophy has become that shared leadership is the frame-work that leads to better decision making. This style of leadership also has the advantage of obtaining the buy-in needed for implementation. Shared leadership has been defined as a process that is distributed among members of a team that leads each other to achieving group and organizational goals. A key component of shared leadership is that the process of influencing others is not just downward from leader to subordinate but also distributed among a set of individuals. Pearce and Conger have noted that each team member’s experience, knowledge, and capacity is valued in shared leadership and is used to respond to challenges and opportunities.¹ Katrina finds this concept both simple and elegant. It is true that organizations, even small ones, have become complex beasts. Thus, it is no longer realistic that any one person has all the knowledge and experience needed to solve complex problems.

Starting with her first academic leadership position and then in conservation, it was increasingly the case that the greatest successes occurred when groups of us worked on complex issues together. In one case, a group of scientists, concerned citizens, students, and businesspeople figured out how to protect an ancient ephemeral wetland in northern Arizona. No one of them could have done it without other expertise, yet there were clear leaders who had accountabilities, both singly and collectively. Similar to Gary’s observation that his success is based upon how well he can create the environment for others to succeed, both see that their perspectives are slightly different but compatible lenses on shared leadership.

Leading Organizational Change in Practice

The fast pace of today’s changing world is creating a dilemma in higher education, as in most industries, and the response of the board to the university is to meet speed with speed. The board is challenging the university to be more nimble, more action oriented, more efficient; they are asking about new technologies, the development of new programs, and the need to be innovative in creating and funding new initiatives.

When facing sectoral change, most managers, including university leaders, would tend to err on the side of proven action and forego the longer reflective process needed to generate alternative solutions. What happens is an increasingly more efficient execution of the same managerial actions regardless of whether the problem is routine or new. In the learning literature, this is referred to as single-loop learning—applying the same action in an automatic unreflective way that increases efficiency but doesn’t solve the underlying problem. What the chair and the board need to be trying to accomplish with the president is to be more reflective in change leadership where the organizational leadership engages in double-loop learning as conceptualized by Argyris and Schön.² That is, framing and reframing the issues and actions that questions underlying assumptions and constructing new realities to produce different outcomes. In this construct, it is reflective conversation and the strengthening of relational knowing that builds the capacity for organizational transformation.

Reflective Conversation

In demanding new and faster solutions to meet the challenges in higher education, it is important to be mindful that change requires something in increasingly short supply, time for reflection. Now paradoxically, the chair needs to recognize and support fast change efforts with the president and the board, and slow down the process to build in time for reflection. While it may not seem obvious, direct, or even fast, the chair facilitates the development of the president and the board by making time for reflection.

In the spirit of shared leadership, the president remains focused on extending the senior team’s capabilities. It is helpful for a president to ask reflective questions at the beginning of each week: What does the team need from the president for them to go do what they do best? How do we all play to our collective strengths every day?

How do we fail faster—that is, know when a strategy isn’t working and incorporate what we learn into our new strategies? What can we do this week to communicate our vision and strategy to others?

Relational Knowing

Relational knowing is both a way of being with others and a methodology of inquiry informed by active participation in the relationship and conversation using the full range of good communication skills, with a keen sensitivity and awareness of self and other. The idea is that in the relationships new knowing is co-created; knowing that is generative, synergistic, and innovative.

Relationships are more than a way of knowing at Fielding, they are a core value deeply embedded in our culture. The building of relationships is encouraged within and between all levels. It is at the heart of how faculty works with students; it is how the university works together.

While relationships take time and effort to build, they need to be built at the beginning before they are tested by challenging times, difficult decision, and crisis; built before they are needed for then it is too late to build anew. As board chair and president, our relationship is inextricable from our roles and tasks. The relationship is not separate it is integral to everything we do.

Implementing the Shared Leadership Philosophy

At Fielding, the board chair and president generally co-create a working agenda a few days in advance of a biweekly call. The vice chair also attends. The chair usually starts with a standing agenda: what’s new, what’s working, and, what’s not working, and then both add relevant topics, some generated automatically by the academic cycle while others arise from current or emergent conditions.

As one might expect the conversation is often filled with routine updates and questions about implementation of actions, “I met yesterday with the faculty, and we will begin review of the program next month,” while other times it evolves into an informal reflective coaching session. It is this reflective part of the conversation that provokes new thinking, new ideas, and new actions. The framing of the conversation needs to change from reporting news or updating on tasks to sharing the collective deeper assumptions about the facts. For example, the conversation, guided by reflective coaching questions, may dive into deeper assumptions: what were your concerns about the senate; were they realized; what surprised you; what actions worked; what did not work; and, what will you do different based on that experience moving forward? The role of the chair is to help change the conversation from a series of reporting statements to a series of questions and answers generating new meaning, creating new solutions.

A reflective conversation is created in this context where the intent is to frame and reframe issues to see new possibilities, new realities, and new alternative actions. It is also an opportunity where the difficult work of surfacing assumptions and illuminating blind spots fosters learning and change. What does it look like? A conversation built on a personal relationship that creates the trust necessary for openness and honesty professionally. Conversations are purposeful, action-oriented, and thoroughly enjoyable, and, most importantly, bring out the best in the chair and president in service of the university. A lesson for boards in electing a new chair is to consider the interpersonal compatibility with the president because their relationship is as important as their complementary skills, values, and experiences. For it is within this relationship, within the conversations, that change leadership can be fostered, nurtured, and grow.

How the Work Leads to Organizational Transformation

All institutions manage change; others engage in organizational transformation. We see right now that our institution needs to be transformed; partially this occurs by reinfusing our thinking and processes with the entrepreneurial spirits of our founders—something lost since those early days. Other elements that we know will facilitate transformation are honoring and facilitating the work of our talented faculty; using our strengths of agility and smallness to move faster in response to external challenges; and in thinking far ahead to position the institution for the future.

As Katrina is working with senior leadership and faculty to redesign the university’s organizational structure, programs, and processes to fulfill Fielding’s mission, Gary is working with the board to redesign the board to serve the university more effectively. It is within the context of shared leadership and relationships that both are managing change at different points in the same system.

On the board, it is important to work just as hard on our relationships as we do on our governance. We believe if we get the relationships right, we will get the governance right. We feel the aggregate of small changes is big change so that the sum of good individual relationships is a healthy well-functioning board culture.

Some small but important examples of how we build and maintain our relationships despite trustees living all over North America and around the world are that we start our three-day biannual meetings with a check-in using an old Fielding tradition of “news and goods.” This icebreaker activity provides an opportunity for each trustee to tell something new or good that happened in his or her life since we last met. It serves to reacquaint us with each other and to settle people back into their role on the board. When Katrina and Gary build the agenda, they schedule ample socializing time that starts with morning runs and walks together, includes longer breaks, and sharing of all meals. It is interesting how quickly those meals become working sessions. We often have evening social receptions around themes, e.g., introduction of our new inclusion council, inviting local faculty, students, former trustees, and alumni to join. It is a way for the board to connect to the larger Fielding community.

We recently hosted a board training and development workshop prior to our biannual meeting. We created ground rules for our meetings that help guide the board and committee conversations, and we changed the physical setup to café style round tables to encourage informal conversation. In concert with that, we encouraged committee chairs to modify how they conduct meetings. They are experimenting with framing discussions focused on our strategy and urgent concerns and stating expected outcomes. They are presenting only enough material to frame the issue then moving into a facilitator role promoting committee discussion. Our intention is this will create more airtime for exploring the topic and generating challenging questions for management to help direct them toward achieving their strategic plan in fulling the university’s mission.

The examples above concretize shared leadership philosophies, and they point to the importance of a flexible leadership style. A quote attributed to social psychologist Kurt Lewin, “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it,” applies to our work at Fielding and with this article. In our changing of the university and the board, we are coming to understand both better, and that knowledge is helping further the change process. On one hand, it might be inefficient to spend time coauthoring an article when we could better use the time leading the university and board, but on the other hand, our writing is a purposeful reflective sense-making activity that strengthens our understanding of the university, our roles, and our relationship for leading.

Gary Wagenheim, PhD, is the former board chair and current vice chair at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, and an adjunct professor of management and organization studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Katrina Rogers, PhD, is the president of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.


1. Craig L. Pearce and Jay A. Conger, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003).
2. Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974).

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