Book by Michael Fullan & Geoff Scott
Review by: Beth Andrews
Office for Academic Advising Support
DePaul University

Higher education faces many challenges, both global and specific. The authors of Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education believe that in the coming decades much rides on how we develop leadership within all of higher education. Fullan and Scott want institutions to change from within using specific leadership capabilities. Hence, the topic “turnaround” leadership. 

In Turnaround Leadership Fullan and Scott lay out a new agenda for leadership, both in how we view leadership and how we act as leaders. They argue that higher education has not approached leadership in an effective way. They claim that their leadership agenda will actually raise the falling student degree completion rate and state that “[their] proposals, if implemented, will reverse this trend by making the learning experience of students more meaningful and valuable” (p. x). In their minds, “turnaround leadership is not just about balancing a complex portfolio. It is…about leaders fostering change-capable cultures” (p. 24). In essence, Fullan and Scott believe that their approach to leadership will make higher education more meaningful because leaders will focus on practical learning, or learning by doing.

Based on the authors’ own research and focus groups of administrators, Fullan and Scott describe the steps necessary to create turnaround leadership in our institutions. The steps begin with the assessment of institutional culture (is the institution “change averse” or “change capable?”), then moves to developing a new agenda (teaching staff and students who learn through doing) which emphasizes assessment and continuous implementation of improvements.  The authors then note that we must understand how turnaround leaders should act and use that knowledge to develop additional leaders. 

Although the book is a very detailed account of leadership, and the authors make a strong case for their view, it is a bird’s eye view of the academy and rarely gets into the practicality of implementing these changes. There is so much information packed into only 155 pages that the book is “information dense.” However, for academic advisors, there are parts of interest. 

The authors note that leaders of academic departments tend to “engage in ready, ready, ready” leadership instead of “ready, fire, aim” (p. 85). In other words institutions should be careful not to get stuck in the planning process instead of actually implementing a new program and testing how it works in a real environment. Ideally, Fullan and Scott want higher education departments to focus on practical application of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. This is why the authors stress that turnaround leadership “is about listening, linking, and leading (in that order) and about modeling, teaching, and learning” (p. 97). Advising departments can model this leadership for the institution and advisors can model it for their students.

In the end, while the authors put a lot of thought and development into their vision of leadership, this book is at a level that may be of little use to academic advisors. Turnaround Leadership is most applicable to those charged with running their departments. Hopefully, though, the book will start some serious discussion about the goals of leadership in higher education.

Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education. (2009). Book by Michael Fullan & Geoff Scott. Review by Beth Andrews. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 192 pp, $35.00 ISBN 978-0-470-47204-0
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