To paraphrase Charles Dickens (1859), for today’s academic environment, it seems both the best of times and the worst of times. Many academic programs in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) are now finding that demands for increasing productivity and excellent graduates are often coupled with diminishing resources with which to accomplish those goals. Clinic and program directors, chairs, and deans may find their leadership positions increasingly difficult, perhaps almost impossible. In this article, we propose that a different model of leadership may help find solutions for many of the “worst of times” we face in academe today.

Adaptive Leadership

A changing view and practice of leadership have been proposed by Heifetz and Linsky (2002), who argued that leadership should be seen as an activity, not a position of authority. This view has not only changed leaders and leadership practices, but it has also given rise to development opportunities for faculty and staff in our academic programs.

The concepts of adaptive leadership have challenged us in many ways. First, understanding the concepts requires repeated learning and discussion. To anchor our understanding of it, Heifetz and Linsky (2002) proposed that leadership occurs in a context of problems and challenges. We can no longer rely on the technical aspects of academic challenges to provide a quick fix; rather, we need to look for solutions that lie outside our current way of operating. We need to shift responsibility to our stakeholders, the faculty and staff (and even the students) in our programs, and to help them accept and develop the responsibility to find ways to thrive in a new environment.

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) further elucidated and provided examples for the four competencies of adaptive leadership. To be better able to reflect on our own attitudes and behavior before jumping into action, we need to be able to (a) diagnose the situation, (b) diagnose and manage ourselves, (c) mobilize the system by designing effective interventions, and (d) mobilize others by engaging, energizing, and inspiring them. We need to meet the challenge to determine at the system level and self-level what is really going on. This can be difficult to do when we are personally and emotionally involved. Again, at the system and self–levels, we need to be able to plan interventions (or experiments) and mobilize others to join us in those interventions so we are not working alone.

The College of Health Professions Leadership Academy at Wichita State University

The shift to adaptive leadership development for faculty and staff began 5 years ago for the CSD program in the College of Health Professions (CHP) at Wichita State University. Through a generous donation from a community member’s estate, the dean’s support and experiences with adaptive leadership, and a recommendation from the college faculty/staff committee, the CHP Leadership Academy was established, with Ro Scudder appointed as director. The development, curriculum, and experiments conducted by the Leadership Academy Fellows (faculty and staff) are described in an article by Scudder, Self, and Cohen (2010).

After a semester of reading, studying, and discussing the ideas and principles of adaptive leadership, Leadership Academy Fellows are challenged to develop an “intervention” that changes the usual way of doing things for the better. Fellows are encouraged to take smart risks, applying the principles of adaptive leadership, and design a leadership intervention. An example of an experiment/intervention is described by Trisha Self’s case example of her experiences as a Leadership Academy Fellow (Scudder et al., 2010). She began by investigating whether students in the CHP were prepared to use evidence-based practice (EBP) principles after graduation as part of an interdisciplinary allied health professional team. Rather than develop an action plan to collect information (a technical approach), Dr. Self sought new opportunities to interact with committees, small groups, and faculty in other departments. She admitted to often working outside of her comfort zone and not being always certain where the experiment was headed. She also acknowledged that developing an interdisciplinary EBP curriculum is a process that will continue to evolve, and she didn’t yet know the outcome. She does, however, believe that by engaging in adaptive work, EBP education will be reshaped to the benefit of CHP students, the Wichita health care community, and our patients.

Other examples of Leadership Fellows’ experiments include (a) a common interdisciplinary research course for the departments of Physician Assistant, Nursing, and CSD; (b) staff sharing among the Nursing and Medical Technology departments, Public Health Services, and Dean’s Office, where staff are able to work efficiently and effectively in various departments to cover absences  and other contingencies; and (c) a multidisciplinary project to eliminate the duplication of practicum contracts with outside health agencies.

The culture of leadership in the CHP has now spread beyond the Leadership Academy and the Fellows’ experiments. We have started having monthly Town Hall meetings where all faculty and staff members are welcome to express ideas for change. Smaller groups have formed among the Senior Fellows (those who have completed the yearlong study and experiments) to mentor current Fellows. Senior Fellows have also formed a book club to continue reading and discussing the concepts of adaptive leadership. The Dean’s Office and Student Services staff have initiated a program of self-study to explore ways they can change technical procedures to adaptive collaborations. Finally, another measure of the adaptive movement is that other colleges and offices at the university (College of Engineering, Business School, Admissions, and the Provost’s Office) are supporting their nominees to become Leadership Academy Fellows. The environment is charged with a new enthusiasm and, more important, new ways of operating to the benefit of many. We can indeed say that the culture of leadership is alive and growing at Wichita State University.


Dickens, C. (1859). A tale of two cities. London, England: Chapman & Hall.

Heifetz, R. L., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Heifetz, R. L., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Scudder, R., Self, T., & Cohen, P. A. (2010). The leadership academy: A new approach for changing times in communication sciences and disorders programs. Perspectives on Issues in Higher Education, 13, 32–37.