One of the major criticisms of top management in universities in most African countries is arguably the isolation of both top management team and intellectuals from the real problems and issues of the real world and business of universities. This disconnect, often referred to as the Ivory tower syndrome, has become a source of concern. Based on experience, observations over the years on administrative practices of vice chancellors and an extensive review of the literature on the nature of the university, Ivory Tower Syndrome, and transformational leadership, ideas derived therefrom are analyzed and thereafter fine threads are synthesized in this study. The integrated ideas helped to highlight the factors responsible for the persistence of the Ivory Tower Syndrome in universities. How the characteristics of transformational leadership can be used to eliminate, or at least, reduce this isolation from the people - staff and students - at the bottom of the ladder with their problems which often lead to strikes and other crisis situations are discussed. Social connectedness is recommended as a strategy that should be imbedded in university governance in Nigeria.
The success or failure of any organization, nation, and the world over is often attributed to leadership. Leading, therefore, has come to be universally offered as a panacea for almost any social problem. Bolman and Deal (2003), for instance, pointed out that around the world, middle managers are often of the view that their organizations would thrive if only the chief executive provides real leadership. In addition, a widely accepted cannon holds that leadership is a very good thing that organizations need more of, at least, more of the right kind. This is because even good management is not leadership. It has come to be known that “managers do things right, and leaders do the right things” (Bennis and Naus, 1995: 21). And in complex organizations such as the university, what is required the more to avoid the ivory tower syndrome is leadership, the right type of leadership.
Leadership is a complex term to define. An anonymous writer says ‘leadership is like pornography, love or beauty that is hard to define but easy to recognize’. In spite of the popular usage and numerous studies and writings on the subject, there is yet to emerge a universally accepted definition, like most social sciences concepts (Downtown,1973). In fact, there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept and a search of the word in Google could get us over “479, 000,000 results, each definition as unique as an individual leader” (Daskal, 2016; Burns, 1978; Penn, 2020).
The term leadership comes from an Anglo-Saxon noun, lad, which means a course, a way, a path, and verb laedan which is to lead or mark, a sense of direction. From the etymology of the word, leadership may be defined simply as “one who shows others the way” (on a journey). This explanation, though simple, however, gives an insight into what leadership is all about. For the purpose of this paper, therefore, leadership is defined comprehensively as the process in which the chief executive of the university persuades, inspires and influences the attitudes, behavior and actions of others and directs their activities in such a manner that they work willingly, cooperatively and enthusiastically towards the accomplishment of goals, a new and improved position, and in fulfilling the mission and vision of the university. The key features of this definition are the recognition that successful leadership involves subordinates or followers who should be treated as humans, exerting influence and not necessarily authority. It also involves taking employees to not only where they want to go but a greater leader takes them to where they do not necessarily want to go, but ought to be (Carter, 2012) and focusing on the accomplishment of goals. It thus shows that leadership is not an end in itself but a means to an end and it involves unequal distribution of power between leaders and organization members.
There is a plethora of leadership theories and these have been grouped under various broad classifications by various authors (Bradley, 2020; Corporate Finance Institute, 2020; Cherry, 2019; Peretomode, 2012). The importance of leadership theories include “a stable focus for understanding what we experience, criteria for what is relevant, enable us to communicate effectively and thus help move into more complex relationships with other people’ (Olum, 2007: 16; Olum, 2005). Each of those theories serves as useful guide to action among leaders as their tenet provides wisdom that endures till today. The major leadership theories that will be briefly discussed are grouped as follows:
i. The Classical Theories of Leadership
ii. The Behavioural and Styles leadership theory
iii. The Situational Leadership theory
iv. The Contingency Leadership theory
v. Transactional Leadership theory and
vi. Transformational Leadership Theory
The classical theories of leadership
This category of theory was the earliest attempt at the systematic study of leadership. The first of these was the “Great Man” theory which began in the late eighteenth century. As the name suggests, the perspective neglected “women”, as it never thought women could be leaders and those referred to as leaders were born into the right family as members of royalty, aristocracy, head of industries, high ranking military officers and so on. It argued that great leaders will arise from the proper class when there is a great need. Personalities such as Nelson Mandela, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Sir Wiston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Napoleon Bonaparte, Indira Gandhi and others are considered as “great men” who arose as a result of the circumstance of the time and had impact on their nations and the world. The underlying assumption is that leaders are “born and not made”.
The “Great Man” theory was attributed to the 19th Century Scottish Philosopher and Commentator, Thomas Carlyle (1840. 1888). He postulated that “the history of the world is but the biography of “great men”, and Caplan (2005) pointed out that “It is often, indeed, once people accept you as a “great man”, it is easy to get them to do all sorts of things. Men will kill for you, bleed for you, and sit around doing nothing for you. These postulations including the Aristotle’s assertion in his book, Politics, Book I (1885) “from the hour of birth, some are marked out for subjection, some for rule” are some of the philosophical positions often used to support the Great Man theory of Leadership.
The trait theory was developed from the “Great Man” theory of leadership. It holds that leaders are born with certain inherent characteristics called traits in the right combinations. Some of the traits that have been identified through studies are, above average intelligence, initiative, personality traits such as alertness, integrity, originality and self-confidence. The classical approach has been criticized for its elitist and sexist view of leadership. Its failure to understand that “Great Man” were merely products of their social environment, its failure to take cognizance of the role of followers or “little men” in the history of great men, and the list of traits which were unending were considered as serious limitations (Grant et al., 2011). These criticisms notwithstanding, the strengths of the approach cannot be overlooked. As Yaverbaum and Sherman (2008) and Penn (2020) have rightly pointed out, that studying the characteristics, behaviours and knowledge and lives of famous royal, military or industrial leaders or great political leaders such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania may in fact provide you with some tools that help to develop your own leadership qualities, both inherent and learned.
Behavioral and styles leadership theory
This theory emerged as a result of a shift from the emphasis on Great Man and traits approaches to the actual actions and observable behaviours of leaders. It focused on what the effective leader does”, the right behaviors and styles. The behavioural approach sought the “One best” style of leadership that will be effective in all situations. This style could either be concern for tasks also referred to as initiating structure or concern for employees called consideration or people oriented. The dimensions’ studies by Ohio State University, University of Michigan and Blake and Mouton (1964)’s studies that built on the previous two studies which resulted in the development of the managerial grid are under this broad category of leadership theory. One of the major criticisms of this category of theories is that they only merely classified leaders without telling them how best to behave in order to be effective. Similarly, they identify a universal style suitable for all circumstances.
Situational leadership theory
This theory hypothesizes that there is no simple one right way to lead and for a leader to be effective, he/she must determine the situation they are facing and adopt appropriate style. It assumes that leadership styles are relatively flexible enough for the leader to move along the continuum, front and back, from autocratic to democratic or from task oriented to people oriented. In other words, effective leaders change their styles to fit the situation as different situations demand different styles of leadership and decision making. The Tannebaum and Schmidt’s leadership continuum model, the Reddin’s 3-D Theory of leadership, the Hersey and Blanchard’s Life Cycle theory of leadership and path-goal theory of leadership are four that belong to the category of situational leadership theory.
Contingency theory of leadership
This theory, like situational leadership theories, maintains that no leadership style is best under all circumstances. Unlike situational theory which stipulates that leadership is relatively flexible and therefore a leader can change from one style to another depending on the characteristics of the situation, contingency theory holds that leadership style is relatively inflexible. Therefore, the right approach should be to diagnose a situation and select a leader with the appropriate style to fit the situation, if he or she is to be effective. Three common contingency theories are Fieldler’s contingency theory of leadership effectiveness, Cognitive resource leadership and Strategic contingency theory.
Transactional leadership theory
This theory is referred to as management theory of leadership. The transactional leadership views leadership as mutual and reciprocal process of exchange between leaders and followers. This exchange needs not be money or materials; it could be anything and the more exchange two people have, the stronger the relationship (Babou, 2008).
Transactional leaders motivate followers by exchanging rewards for services rendered. If a person achieves his task then he/she can expect to be rewarded; but if he/she does something poorly or does not accomplish the task assigned, he/she will not be rewarded; he could expect to be punished. People are likely to follow leaders if they consider their rewards/incentives as fair and equitable in relation to what is required of them (Zigarelli, 2020). The transactional leadership emphasized external rewards to motivate employees (Maxwell, 1993; Howell and Costley, 2001). Burns (1978; 2003) argues that the transactional leader recognizes an existing need or potential demand in followers and seeks to exploit or satisfy them so as to engage the full person and followers. Transformational leadership would be discussed in details a bit later.
The objectives of this paper are to study:
i. The nature of universities and explain the Ivory Tower Syndrome
ii. Factors responsible for the ivory tower syndrome
iii. Explain transformational leadership
iv. How university leaders can demolish the ivory tower syndrome and adopting and applying the transformational leadership style.
This paper is not based on the usual scientific procedure. It is not a quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods research. Therefore, instruments were not used to collect data, research questions or hypotheses were not formulated, population, sample and sampling technique was not used, validity and reliability coefficient of instrument used was not determined and statistical techniques were not used to analyze data. As a result, there was no presentation of results and discussion and no recommendations were given. This is a positional and theoretical paper based on an eclectic approach - a combination of administrative experience, discussions in conferences and observations of the administrative practices of colleague vice chancellors that have been considered as good and effective leaders. The knowledge from these sources and ideas from the extensive review of the relevant literature on the ivory tower syndrome and transformational leadership were analyzed; they were thereafter synthesized and used to make a new and creative meaning in addressing the objectives of the paper.
The nature of the university
A university, small, medium or large; private, profit, non-for-profit or public, is considered a complex organization. By definition, an organization is a group of people deliberately brought together and organized to work to accomplish an overall common goal or set of goals. Complex organizations have many people, processes, strategies, basic rules and many diverse and autonomous but interrelated and interdependent components linked through many interconnections (Wikipedia, 2020; Hasenfeld, 2013). Such organizations are shaped by the interrelationships of the individuals within them and by the contexts of the environment in which they exist. They are designed to find solutions to problems. Complex organizations are so important that Hasenfeld (2013) considered them as fundamental building blocks of modern societies.
The university as a complex organization is, however, unique in a number of ways. For these features it has come to be referred to as an example of an organized anarchy (Cohen and March, 1974), loosely coupled system (Weick, 1976), a chaotic system or a garbage can (Cohen et al., 1972). Other general properties of the university that has earned it these descriptions include its problematic preferences as universities operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences, ambiguity in goals and objectives, fragmented professional teams, unclear technology and fluid participation of members. It is also characterized by fragmentation due to division by subject field and highly fragmented departmental structure, highly diffused decision making process and high resistance to change (Mainardes et al., 2011).
Further, Cohen and March (1974) and Becher and Kogan (1992) observed an excess of personal styles, a lack of precision in communication and institutional interaction between its internal and external environments among universities. Meyer (1982), in his findings, concluded that the main actions differentiating the university from regular companies are; the political nature that prevails in decisions taken, the demands of decentralized and fragmented structure, the difficulties of measuring the products resulting from organizational actions and lack of performance standards and commitments to results (Mainardes et al., 2011). Finally, in universities, the diversity of students demand a voice and want to be heard, and they have to be listened to, and their demands, sometimes, even unreasonable, influence decisions. It is for the above reasons that Baldridge (1980) described universities as complex institutions with fragmented professional teams that use a vast range of abilities to handle wide range of routine issues and problems.
The “Ivory Tower Syndrome” Explained
The origin of the term, “Ivory Tower”, is traceable to the book of knowledge – the Holy Bible. In the Song of Solomon, Chapter 7 verse 4, it is written, “Your neck is like a tower of Ivory”. This same term was later used in the sixteenth century as a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Wikipedia (2020), the same term was used from the nineteenth century to designate:
a world where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. As such, it usually carries pejorative connotations of a willful disconnect from everyday world; esoteric, over-specialized, even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension (p.1).
Wikipedia (2020) also expressed the point that it is a common knowledge today that the term, “Ivory Tower” is also used as a shorthand for academia or the university; an institution where specialists are deeply concerned with their disciplines and some simply accept that even the educated people cannot understand their lingua franca and therefore live in intellectual isolation. That is, being out of touch with the “real world or the rest of the world” or “becomes disconnected from the reality of the business” of the organization (Ahmed, 2007). From the above analysis, it can be argued that the term, ivory tower, is being used in two different ways;
a. In a positive sense to mean a citadel of learning and
b. In a negative sense to mean being out of touch with the “practicalities of the real world”.
According to Ahmed (2007: 3), being out of touch with the real world, or real problems or people within an organization, is a major problem with respect to leaders in Africa and most other developing countries. The situation in which top management becomes so disconnected and out of touch with the experiences and problems of those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, who actually get the work done, is what is called “the Ivory Tower Syndrome”. Thus, Ivory Tower Syndrome is used as a disparaging term to refer to elitist detachment from real issues or problems. It came to be commonly used in the twentieth century to refer to intellectuals in universities (Shapin, 2012). It has been pointed out, that when leaders get stuck in the isolated ivory tower syndrome, their decisions are beclouded as they lose focus and tend to cater to the issues and problems with other leaders and managers. The result is that decisions make them interfere with client service, and strategic decisions do not take into consideration every implication for clients and employees (www.optimumimpact.ord, 2014). There are inherent dangers in this state of affairs for an organization on its way to achieving effectiveness and efficiency. Terry (2013) lucidly explained what Ivory Tower is and its dangers when he hypothesized that:
Ivory tower syndrome is the biggest barrier to progress for any leader, because it’s essentially a huge disconnection – that is, the leader is spending too much time behind a desk, in front of a computer, in meetings with other tower inhabitants, in discussions with lawyers, bankers, club members, and investors, or working the business social circuits …. When the syndrome is in full flower, the leader is fully separated from the reality of the business – a truly dangerous place. Decisions get made on partial information or worse yet, based on hearsay (p.1).
The reason given by President Lincoln in September 1861 for example, for relieving General John C. Fremont of his Missouri command is a vivid illustration of a man who was stuck in his “Ivory Tower”. Lincoln has said of the General that,
“His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with” (Meyer, 2004).
There is no doubt that the Ivory tower syndrome is a real thing; it is quickly noticed by employees and makes leaders to “forget what life is like in the tranches” (www.ivyexec.com). Similarly, Morales (2019) reminded us that the Ivory tower” was a beast to be reckoned with.
Factors responsible for the ivory tower syndrome
There are a number of reasons that can be adduced for the existence of the ivory tower syndrome in complex organizations such as the university. These factors include the following:
1. The very complex nature of universities and complex organizations, particularly those with tall structures. This leads to filtering of information at every layer of the organization and gets distorted before reaching the top hierarchy of the organization.
2. Pressures and time demands on the chief executive and top management of the organization. Some of these pressures are self-imposed and others due to lack of good time management practices.
3. The leader not having access to information or having access only to already filtered information from employees or friends of a particular knitted association.
4. Concentration of decision making on self or the top management team.
5. Inappropriate use of communication and communication channels.
6. Under or over-supervision by management.
7. Lack of appropriate support for staff and lack of responsibility and accountability
8. The tendency of the chief executive to spend most time with other leaders or managers or his close associates in the organization and not with those at the bottom. Consequently, he soon gets out-of touch with the non-managers, those at the bottom of the organization, who work directly with the clients or customers.
9. The chief executive standing in the ‘Ivory Tower’ without getting out to reach out to the staff, going round the departments once in a while to find out what their concerns are, if any .
10. Decisions affecting employees are made without their input. Decisions are made from the boardroom. Emphasis is on top-down approach to management, and any staff who raises concern on the generality of staff and problems of the organization is looked upon as a trouble maker that must be silenced.
11. Handing procedures down as edicts (Ahmed, 2007; Wanless, 2012; Nelson, 2010; Ron, 2014; Peretomode, 2020) without opportunity for input or observations.
12. Keeping and relying on an inner circle – a small group of knowledgeable staff who keep the leader informed and advised but are just a pack of pathetic hypocrites (independent.co.uk, 2011).
13. Rigidity and inflexible leadership style followed with intimidation of employees.
Transformational leadership, unlike transactional, is based on the assumption that people will follow people who inspire them and that working collaboratively is better than individually (Burns, 1978; Bass, 1985, 1990). It is also referred to as relationship theory because it focuses on the relationship between leaders and their followers or subordinates. The term transformational leadership (TL) is now frequently used in everyday discussions in politics and organizations. First coined by J. V. Downton in 1973, the term was popularized by James Mcgregor Burns in his Putlizer Prize Winning book, Leadership, published in 1978. Later, Bass (1985), Bass and Avolio (1998) and other scholars extended and operationalized the term. Transformational Leadership (TL) is about change. TL leaders are said to be flexible and adaptable, often inspiring others to follow a shared vision, knowing that change is one of the only constants in the universe, and the leadership process is also based on a set of ethical values (Groves and LaRocca, 2011).
According to Burns (1978), TL is a process and practice by which a leader engages his followers in such a way that the leaders and followers raise one another to higher ideals and values of followers. And Bass (1985) identified three ways in which leaders transform followers:
(i) Increasing their awareness of task importance and value
(ii) Getting them to focus first on team and organizational goals rather than individual interests, and
(iii) Activating their higher order needs, as similarly expressed by Maslow (1943).
The major assumptions of transformational leadership are well articulated in Peretomode (2012) to include the following:
(i) People will follow a person who inspires them
(ii) Awareness of task importance motivates people
(iii) Working cooperatively and collaboratively is better than working individually, even with the best of energy
(iv) A person with vision and passion for the vision made can achieve greater things
(v) The way to get things done is by injecting enthusiasm and energy in the work place (Bass, 1985).
The four components of transformational leadership are; idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass, 1985; Bass and Avolio, 1998; Hoy and Mickel, 2005). However, it is the additive effects of pulling together these components (Figure 1) that enable a leader, the transformational leader, to reach a performance level which is beyond expectations (Northouse, 2007; Reger, 2010) as he “pulls” people with enthusiasm and energy and commitment to achieve set goals.
Seven major themes or patterns and connections have been identified to be associated with transformational leadership. These have been gleaned from the works of Pielstick (1998) and summarized thus:
1. Vision-ability. This is the ability to develop a shared vision that synthesizes the dream and aspirations of others and thus helping to create a sense of unity and community among employees.
2. Constantly communicating the shared vision to the different constituents so as to inspire, motivate and reinforce the vision among them.
3. Building relationships and value high quality collaboration.
4. Developing a supportive culture, recognizing accomplishments and fostering cooperation within and between groups.
5. Guiding implementation of the shared vision zealously to ensure success.
6. Exhibiting character – operating from principles of honesty, integrity, trust, fairness, equity, justice, dignity and respect for self and for others.
7. Achieving results.
How university administrators can demystify and eliminate the ivory tower syndrome through transformational leadership style
The Ivory Tower Syndrome is a common feature of most universities and other types of tertiary institutions in Nigeria and in most other developing countries today and unless the leader makes conscious effort to stay in touch with employees of the organisation, especially those in the lower cadre, he/she would be struck in the ivory tower. Demystifying the ivory tower syndrome therefore implies a leader paying genuine and conscious attention and allocating time to staying in touch with the employees. He/she must come down from the ‘ivory tower’ in order to remove this mystery/syndrome associated with most complex organizations.
Evidence abound that supports the proposition that transformational leadership is an effective form of leadership (Bass, 1985) and experience has shown that this leadership style is being used knowingly or unknowingly, to bring about an unprecedented transformation to the university in all aspects. These include innovative academic programmes, quality control mechanisms, new assessment methods, administrative reforms, infrastructural developments – roads, accommodation –staff, offices, accommodations, students and lecture halls. The process should be based on top-down and bottom – up approaches to get the inputs of the lower level. He should establish good working relationship with staff, the various unions, students, stakeholders, community and government agencies. Staff and students welfare should be paramount in his agenda.
The university’s top administrator should emphasize staff development and training and re-training, determining first their renewal needs and secondly their preferred development practices. It is when there is a congruence between development training needs and preferred development practices that the Chief Executive would be able to achieve this uncommon transformation because he would have been seen as having “come down from the “Ivory tower” to determine the staff development needs and inspire the people toward a shared vision and making informed decisions.
The Vice Chancellor should be able to demonstrate all the components of a transformational leader identified by Pielstick (1998) – visionability, communication of share vision, development of a supportive culture by involving those to be affected by and those who will implement the shared vision, guiding implementation of the shared vision, delegating responsibilities, exhibiting integrity and above all achieving desired results. The chief executive should possess a passionate and powerfully clear vision of what he wanted accomplished and be able to share that vision which becomes a shared vision by communicating it as clearly as possible to as many employees as he possibly could.
As a transformational leader, the Vice Chancellor should inspire hope among followers/employees and that vision of hope would fire up employees to join hand with him. The result would be the needed support and team work to achieve the transformation he needed the university to achieve during his/her tenure as the Vice Chancellor. By so doing, his/her monumental achievements would enable his/her tenure to be considered as the “golden age” of the university.
Besides, the Vice Chancellor should grow others; he should make many other leaders by building outstanding teams and outstanding team leaders. He should be able to achieve this by the free hand he gives to those whom he had delegated responsibilities, emphasizing the importance of team work and achievements of results. He should always maintain that once he has delegated responsibilities, the person should be given commensurate authority to enable the person achieve them. The application of the management principle of management-by-exception in his leadership pattern would help build confidence and sense of responsibility and accountability in staff.
Further, the Vice Chancellor should be a very good communicator. But more importantly, he must even be a greater and better listener. He should be willing to learn from his employees and even admit honest mistakes. The Chief Executive should also have an open door policy. He should be approachable and accessible to those at the lower hierarchy. His phone lines should be opened, even to students and lower level employees and should meet with the students and staff unions even if not regularly. He must be in touch and several of his actions should be based on bottom-up decision making approach, at least have their inputs on matters that would impact them and those who would participate in the implementation of critical decisions.
As the Chief executive, he must never be stuck at the Ivory Tower. He should regularly walk around the campuses/sites and be physically present with the employees. He should speak and joke with staff and students and listen to them. He should visit offices, units, faculties and departments not to closely supervise them but to hear their challenges, problems, threat and their initiatives or preferred solutions to problems or potential problems. This would pay off tremendously as he would be aware of potential problems and take proactive actions for the betterment and progress of the institution. Prevention, they say, is better than cure. Terry (2013) is also of the view that efforts must be made to establish communities of practice and community engagement networks (Bucleys and Toit, 2009; Hoyt and Hollister, 2020), as this would assist in bridging the gap and gulf between the top management and those employees at the lower hierarchy.
Finally, the Vice Chancellor on whose table ‘the buck stops’ should hold frequent management meetings, and sometimes expanded management meetings, in addition to monthly meetings of Senate to bring people on board on his vision, relevant current happenings and in translating this in these meetings. He should listen more and do not dominate the discussions. The result is that whenever he is away, officers of the University – the Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Directors and Head of Departments - know exactly what is to be done. As Syque (2010) will put it, because the “leader is a transformational leader, and connected with his staff, great things will happen. He and the led would often be on the same page as all their strategy will be focused to achieve maximum results with less oversight. Because he had articulated the target goal, everyone would understand the direction to move towards”. The above point is made more explicit when one considers the statement from an army officer in Afghanistan as quoted by Syque (2010):
A Chechen commander was killed in 2008. On his body was found a diary that compared fighting the U.S. with fighting Russians. He noted that when you take out the Russian leader, the unit stops and mills about, not sure of what to do next. But when you take out a U.S. leader, somebody always and quickly takes his place with no loss of momentum. A squad leader goes down; it may be a private that steps up to the plate before they can iron out the new chain of command. And the damn thing is that the private knows what the hell he is doing.
The above quotation should be the goal of good leadership, a leader who is not stuck in the ivory tower in a university, a leader who wants to overcome the ivory tower syndrome, a leader who is not isolated from the led or followers or employees. Shared vision, collective agenda, making more leaders, and developing common strategy are crucial in demystifying the ivory tower syndrome.