Higher Learning Commission

2015 Collection of Papers

The Benefits of Generative Leadership in Community Colleges

Jill Channing

A search for the term “community college” on an education database brings up articles about second chances, support of adult learners, parolees’ attendance, mental health issues, student persistence, minority students, undocumented students, labor conditions for employees, developmental education, economic environments, transfer concerns, leadership crises, and the ever-popular and overused phrase “student success.” Community colleges are unique institutions. They serve millions of students every year, meeting diverse needs of local communities. These institutions are charged with ameliorating a plethora of social and economic challenges with funding sources that decrease every year. People who work at community colleges feel the tensions that arise from being so many things to so many people. So what should, or can, community college faculty members, staff members, and administrators do to address these challenges? This paper describes how faculty, staff, and administrators can work toward a generative model for learning, teaching, organizing, and leading to effectively meet the dynamic demands of students—as well as other stakeholders—and to provide a framework for personal and college-wide growth through learning and innovation.

What Is Generative Leadership?

What is generative leadership and who are generative leaders? Klimek, Ritzenhein and Sullivan (2008, 2) define this type of leadership as “an approach to leading within organizations—any organization, from your family to your school or a large corporation—that recognizes and taps the collective intelligence and energy within an organization to generate productive growth and effective solutions.” Generative leaders are not simply found among the ranks of administrators. Anyone within an organization has the potential to lead, learn, teach, think, organize, and collaborate using generative principles in practice. Although “generative leadership defies reduction to a simple how-to formula” (Klimek, Ritzenhein, and Sullivan 2008, 3), following are some examples, starting points, and strategies to overcome challenges to such an approach.

A generative leader raises questions internally and aloud that examine one’s own, the organization’s, and the group’s assumptions: “Generative learning is the type of organizational learning that emphasizes systematic thinking, a willingness to question the supposed limits of an issue, to think creatively outside the assumed constraints and continuous experimentation” (Klimek, Ritzenhein and Sullivan 2008, 14; see also Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros 2003). The generative leader asks us to reconsider what we have taken for granted but also asks us to go one step further by asking all stakeholders to use their combined energy and creativity to seek alternatives and prospects for the future. When a person, no matter his or her position, questions the status quo, there will be opposition from others who benefit from the status quo or who are simply reluctant to change their ways of doing and thinking, even if they, too, could benefit from making changes. Inertia is a powerful force—and one not to be underestimated. The generative leader seeks opportunities to tap the creativity and intelligence of even those who are reticent to take innovative action to tackle complex problems.

In addition, the generative leader recognizes that organizations are dynamic, living systems, and, to create new constructs and possibilities, this leader puts into action collaborative decision-making and idea-generating models, recognizing that every individual is an integral element to the living system. Central to this endeavor is creating environments where innovation is not only encouraged but is seen as a driving factor in everything one does at the institution. For an educational organization, meaningful learning is the focus of innovation.

Although these ideas sound good on paper, one may ask about their applicability because many institutions tend to be reactive and present-centered rather than proactive and present- and future-centered. An established culture at any organization has a significant amount of influence on those who work, interact with, and learn there. For example, seasoned educators are used to “flavor of the month” fads of education, and many have a this-too-shall-pass attitude regarding what they see as “new trends.” In addition, it is true that fads come and go, but few really “latch on” due to internal and external constraints as well as turnover in leadership and other staffing areas.

Those who believe generative leadership is a passing trend are correct if there is not a real commitment to creating positive change that will not only make colleges better learning institutions, but also better places at which to work. Important to the work of generativity is creating a shared vision of the school’s purpose and the direction for the college’s future. This creates a sense of identity for the institution. So many community colleges have the same worn-out mission statements about preparing students for future careers in a global world. Yes, this is a part of our mission, but we should also ask questions about how these mission statements will shape our identities internally and externally as presented to the outside world. Mission statements should include the dynamicity of our institutions and how they prepare students, because resilience is essential to success in our current and future economic, social, and political climates. Living systems such as colleges and people must be able to respond appropriately to change because it is constant. This is not an argument for simple reactionary processes but rather forward-thinking preparation for change. How can we do this when changes are often unpredictable? Creating environments that facilitate innovative processes demonstrates an institution’s commitment to forward-thinking action.

Challenges to Generativity and Recommendations

Some may ask about the resources needed to create this vision of a generative learning environment. These commitments do take resources, but more than funding, such commitments require the resilience of leaders to face challenges and to use the collective intelligence and creativity of those with whom they work to create real changes that make differences for student learning and employee growth and development. What does this mean for leaders who are in positions of authority? According to Klimek, Ritzenhein and Sullivan (2008, 48), “They let go of some control (not authority) in order to achieve creativity, collaboration, collective intelligence, and new pathways for action.” These leaders must explore how contextual factors can inhibit innovation and deep learning and then seek solutions that do not simply adapt to the current system, but rather re-envision systems and processes vis-à-vis collaboration and an active exchange of information at all levels.

Sometimes community colleges try to do so many things that they have difficulty doing any one thing well. Often, especially at small colleges, employees wear so many hats that it is difficult for them to find the time to communicate with each other, as well as to reflect on their practices and the theories inherent in them, and to exercise their creative energy to think through challenges and to innovate instead of simply adapt. According to Tracy Edwards (2007, 1):

Creative solutions often become mired in adaptive ways of thinking and dialoguing, resulting in the production of only incremental improvements within the current organizational paradigm. These coping strategies are usually grounded in well-established institutional knowledge or historical traditions and methodologies. The generative process requires the acquisition and application of other input fostered through new learning and different perspectives, effectively offering group members new tools for their toolkits in considering alternative possibilities.

One of the challenges for leaders in authoritative positions is to foster the development of new tools. This, unfortunately, takes time. Substantial change in an institution’s culture can happen, even in structured ways, but it cannot happen overnight. Communication is an important tool and is not a one-way street. Importantly, we all must actually listen to what others have to say and not simply pause to think about how to respond. In our communication, we should strive to be positive yet also insightful. Active speaking and listening will help us to develop the strong relationships needed to transform the status quo. Everyone involved at the institution must use communication as a tool to lead toward the desired culture where using learning to better lives is valued.

It is important to note that the largest hindrances to generativity in community colleges are cultures that resist changes and that insist on keeping existing structures in place even when those structures prove to be ineffective. Change is difficult for people. Even when organizations attempt what are called “disruptive” changes to the status quo, often they return to the previous structures draped in a thin veil of the initial change. For example, a college could attempt to create a culture of greater collaboration, shared governance, and collective ownership of college initiatives. In its attempt to create this culture, the college creates new committees to increase communication and to share decision-making responsibilities with faculty and staff members. If faculty and staff members are not convinced of this work’s significance, they may not take an active role on their committees, limiting the productivity and effectiveness of teams. These employees may expect others to take on the responsibilities because this was the status quo for such a long period of time. However, with the right framing of the situation and with professional development to support the shift in culture, the college could improve its chances of making lasting changes. Specifically, leaders must think carefully about what they say and how they say it. In addition, as places of learning, community colleges must invest in their human resources (employees) in significant ways by providing them with opportunities for personal and professional growth. Education yields results.

Community colleges must replace cultures of isolation with cultures of collaboration. In academe, silos are commonplace. People work with blinders on, often disregarding or being ignorant of what other areas do. These attitudes cause misunderstandings and hamper colleges from achieving their most important mission: helping students to learn. To make disruptive changes that would encourage collectivity, a college could ask employees to spend half of a day or an entire day with another employee working in another area of the college. If the institution wishes to undergo positive transformational change, the “us versus them” within the college is not sustainable. From the custodian to the academic advisor to the adjunct professor to the academic dean to the president of the college, everyone should be focused on improving student learning and working together to do so.

Community colleges with generative cultures focus on student learning. This is not to say that teaching is not important, only that it is seen as a vehicle to student learning. Generative leaders use brain science to inform teaching practices that increase meaningful learning. For instance, brain science tells us of the importance of creating environments in which students can experience relaxed alertness: “Relaxed signals a supportive social context that provides physical and emotional safety. Alertness signals anticipation and active awareness” (Klimnek, Ritzenhein and Sullivan 2008, 43). Brain science also teaches that we must be immersed in complex learning experiences to remember, analyze and synthesize material and concepts. Active learning engages us physically, emotionally and/or intellectually: “The generative leader strives to design experiences that activate multiple brain/mind pathways and immerse adults in deep conversations, reflection, and learning. They understand that these experiences foster the creativity and productivity that are crucial to their school’s [and students’] future” (Klimek, Ritzenhein and Sullivan 2008, 44). These conversations, reflections and systematic practice of recall (strategies encouraging memory) should be structured as active processes. Learners’ previous knowledge should be tapped and built upon. Adult learners come to us with experiences that can enrich not only their learning but also that of the entire classroom.

Colleges, students, faculty members and staff members often take on more than they are able to accomplish; in other words, they tend to set inappropriate goals. Colleges engage in what is known as horizontal mission creep, in which they take an additive approach to developing programs. Generative leaders would not be averse to adding programs to meet their community’s needs; however, they would also look at programs that could be made more effective or are obsolete and, thus, may need to be revamped or discarded. Also, community colleges must find niches for themselves. We try to be everything to everyone, which sometimes compromises quality. It would be better to do several things well than many things poorly. This is challenging when “in the new normal, community colleges are expected to do more and better with less” (Sydow and Alfred 2013, 118). When developing strategic plans, generative leaders lead toward a future in which quality is paramount, not simply covering as much ground as possible.


Generative leadership has many implications for today’s community colleges. These institutions need to reinvent themselves to help those who work for them and those who learn at them reach their potentials. Setting realistic, yet high, expectations; using brain science and research to inform decisions; creating environments conducive to creative experimentations by all constituents; questioning the status quo and seeking alternatives to it; and pushing the limits of what we believe possible produces results. However, we all must have courage and commit to put time, energy and brain power into these endeavors. Leaders in authority must model continuous learning and, indeed, be the lead learners at their colleges, not simply figure heads with titles.


Cooperrider, D., D. Whitney, and J. M. Stavros. 2003. Appreciative inquiry handbook. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Edwards, T. 2007. Shaping organizational futures through generative leadership. Leadership Abstracts 20 (2): 1–4.

Klimek, K. J., E. Ritzenhein, and K. D. Sullivan. 2008. Generative leadership: Shaping new futures for today’s schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sydow, S., and R. Alfred. 2013. Re-visioning community colleges. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.




About the Author

Jill Channing is Associate Dean at Kankakee Community College in Kankakee, Illinois.

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