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Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University

Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University

Image by Vadym Pustukh via Unsplash

Essayist William Gibson recently reminded us, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”  The same sentiment is reflected by the Institute for the Future in discussions of leadership in a world characterized by explosive connectivity and disruption and describes literacies for leading in a “VUCA” world: Volatile/Uncertain/Complex/Ambiguous. The Institute further observes that in the next ten years, leadership will be more distributed and that rock star leaders will be more rare.

Contemporary university leadership is not immune from these trends. The late Harvard business professor, Clayton Christensen, pioneered the concept of disruptive innovation, including its influence on universities in the book written with Henry Eyring,  The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. In it, they declared that change is inevitable for the vast majority of universities, and will require reshaping their “institutional DNA” that left alone leaves them ripe for disruptive innovation. Doing so will also require rethinking leadership traits.

Many more volumes address characteristics of effective leadership. Within engaged universities, community partnerships increasingly govern academic priorities. Nowhere is this more true than in Land-grant institutions with Extension Service members who live and work across state landscapes and who directly engage community members in defining and addressing issues. Thus, leadership is less defined by position and power, and increasingly shared across the institution. Our view of effective leadership is increasingly defined by teams that cut across missions, units and geography.

Matching Community engagement with university-wide expertise requires management nimbleness consistent with local conditions.  Micromanaging from the top may seem to reduce institutional risks and enhance standardized reporting but can create disconnections with community voices and miss opportunities for community-based transdisciplinary engagement.  Working locally in teams necessitates devolution of management risks to the community.

Some tools are emerging to support this team leadership model. Google’s Project Aristotle studied teams of 3 to 50 people across the organization and world and identified five necessary qualities of effectiveness.

1.  Psychological Safety Team members feel safe in taking risks

2.  DependabilityMembers are able to rely on each other to complete required tasks 

3. Structure and Clarity-Each individual on the team has a specific role, understands his or her long and short-term goals, and sees how it contributes to the team’s overall objectives

4.  Meaning-Personal fulfillment derived from the person’s role or the team’s overall

5. Impact-Members of the team feel their work is making a difference

Like shared governance advocated by some universities, we believe that inclusive teams involving academics across the missions, student/learners, and community members will poise such institutions for internal positive disruption of the type envisioned by Christensen and Eyring.

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About the Extension Foundation

The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and membership funding. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the content are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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