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Musings on Collaborative Leadership

Effective adult education administrators realize the importance of forging partnerships with other organizations to better meet students’ needs. For example, characteristics of a strong adult education-college partnership include relationships with appropriate people in the college who can advocate for and deliver services to adult students. These partnerships take time to develop and are characterized by a high degree of coordination of services (Gittleman, 2005).

Partnerships by their very nature imply collaboration. Collaborative leadership focuses on the skills, qualities and knowledge needed to successfully cross organizational boundaries and achieve results through resources outside one’s control. It is a leadership style particularly useful for operational managers who lead in the “middle zone” across organizational boundaries with multiple peers and direct reports. What qualities does one need to cultivate to be this type of leader? Madeleine Carter, writing for the Center for Effective Public Policy as part of research project funded by the United States Department of Justice and State Justice Institute, defines five qualities of a collaborative leader:
  1. Willingness to take risks
  2. Eager listeners
  3. Passion for the cause
  4. Optimistic about the future
  5. Able to share knowledge, power and credit
Program administrators need to cultivate these qualities as they cultivate partnerships and as they work with teachers and other staff to develop program goals, curriculum and materials, and professional development plans. It is a balancing act that needs to align the program with the needs and goals of adult learners, external partners, and funders. In addition, adult educators often need to insert themselves strategically into a work group or process in order to be a part of emerging partnerships. This may require one to develop a sixth quality: assertiveness.

By its very nature, collaboration tends toward disorder at times. It is therefore challenging and unpredictable. One cannot always predict the specific outcomes with the trial-and-error, experientially driven nature of collaboration. The ability to produce important, concrete programmatic outcomes through collaborative strategies is the mark on an outstanding educational administrator.

In consideration of the needs of program administrators, World Education provides professional development on educational leadership for adult educators. An additional way to support program administrators’ efforts to build outstanding and effective programs will be available in 2013 when the National College Transition Network launches two online courses on innovative leadership. Course topics will include: building engagement across organizational boundaries and functions, selecting and mentoring effective instructors and staff, leading marketing and recruiting efforts, developing partnerships; helping to mobilize funding sources, and assessing operational capacity. Stay tuned.


Ellen Hewett is the Director of the National College Transition Network at World Education, Inc. As a former college educator, she designed leadership development programs for non-traditional undergraduate and graduate students.

This article was published in the August 2012 World Education/U.S. newsletter. Go to our newsletter archive to view the rest of the current newsletter as well as earlier newsletters. Sign up to receive future newsletters here.