Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2014 United States, Proceedings of the 58th Meeting of ISSS, Washington DC, USA, July 2014

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Anne Powel Davis


The pluralistic and often competing goals of myriad constituents, the changing demographics of students, the uncertainty of funding, and the growing demands for accountability from stakeholders have increased the complexity of systems which community college leaders must manage.  Emerging from the recent literature on community colleges is a call for new models of leadership in the context of leading in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.  Systems thinking offers a means to help leaders respond to these growing organizational complexities and move leadership from a traditional bureaucratic model to a more adaptive model better suited for today's dynamic community colleges.  Despite a robust body of literature on systems thinking in myriad fields, there is comparatively scant evidence of systems thinking's application to organizational management or leadership per se in higher education and even less in community colleges.  Hence, a systematic review of literature on systems thinking and complexity theory and their application in higher education was bolstered with evidence from healthcare.  Findings reveal three reoccurring ways in which leaders apply systems thinking processes for improving organizational performance.  A conceptual model for systems thinking leadership is proposed in which the three processes, characterized as discovery, framing, and action, can be enacted either individually or sequentially for enhancing organizational performance.  The model draws upon boundary critique, critical systems thinking, systemic intervention, total systems intervention, systems dynamics, soft systems methodology, complexity theory and complex adaptive systems, yet uses language more readily identifiable and accessible to community college practitioners to encourage the use of these systemic practices. Systems Thinking Leadership, as proposed in this paper, provides a framework for community college leaders-presidents, chief academic officers, deans, department chairs, and faculty-to view their organization through a systems lens, and to enact and engage the adaptive and participatory practices of discovery, framing, and action for improving organizational performance.   

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