Summer 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP1

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Leadership for the Next Age

The next age will require new solutions, based on new ways of thinking. Gone is the mechanical, technical approach to leadership. Leaders must then be able to transcend conflict. Without quality, another education provider will take Extension's place.

Jerold W. Apps
National Coordinator, National Extension
Leadership Development Program
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Madison, Wisconsin
Email address:

Depending on who you listen to, we're either entering a post-industrial era, a post-modern era, an information age, or the new age. Rather than try to defend any of these labels, I simply call the emerging era, "the next age." The next age is reflected in IBM cutbacks, General Motors reorganization, layoffs at Boeing and McDonald Douglas, and the passing of the Sears catalog. It will continue to profoundly challenge our society and its institutions, including higher education and the Cooperative Extension Service.

Organizations Adrift

Many organizations are adrift, not able to adjust to change and challenge, and in a state of shock as yet another set of problems comes into view. Some leaders, including those in Extension, feel like they're on a railroad track, trying to move along, with a freight train bearing down on them. They don't know if they should jump off the track, try to run faster, or hope that the train will run out of fuel, slow down, or maybe, through some act of the Almighty, simply vanish into thin air. This next age isn't several hundred miles down the track and over the mountain. For most of us, it's right around the bend, if not already overtaking us.

The next age is more than the restructuring of institutions. It also includes a bundle of paradoxes. For instance, the attitudes of hope and despair are often found together. The next age offers us hope in new technologies to improve communities, combat disease, increase access to information, and assure an adequate world food supply. It also fills us with growing despair about environmental problems, crime, substance abuse, urban decay, the underclass of people who can't afford life's essentials, and political turmoil in the world.

Mitroff writes, "On every front of our existence, the problems the United States faces today cannot even be properly defined, let alone solved in terms of the old prevailing solutions. In short, the old solutions just don't work anymore."1 Many of today's leaders, including our Extension leaders, still try to solve the present and emerging problems and meet the challenges of the time with old solutions. The next age will require new solutions, based on new ways of thinking. And, the new ways of thinking will also serve as a foundation for new approaches to leadership.

New Ways of Thinking

An old way of thinking is to assume all thought and activity is linear-that one starts at a defined beginning and then proceeds step-by-step to some, usually predefined, conclusion. Most, if not all, Extension program planning is linear. An emerging way of thinking includes both linear and non-linear approaches. Extension programmers will need to jump into a project not knowing whether they have found the beginning or not. They'll respond to a problem and not spend a lot of time worrying about doing needs analysis and other linear work. At other times, the linear approach will be most appropriate.

The old way of thinking values growth. If the organization isn't expanding, employing more people, and increasing the budget, it's not succeeding. We assume that "bigger is better," when, in reality, more sometimes means less. For example, more money spent on controlling crime may result in less money for preventing it. In Extension, more money spent on new faculty may mean less money to support people already in place. New thinking values sustainability over growth and is concerned with qualitative issues such as human development, quality of life, protection of the environment, and diversity.

Emerging ways of thinking will cause us to take a new view of competition, examine the differences between efficient and effective, question specialization, broadly define knowledge to include multiple perspectives, and realize that change isn't constant. Change itself is changing. It's increasingly unpredictable and, as a result, next to impossible to prepare for.2

Leadership for the Next Age

What kinds of leaders does the Extension System need as the next age comes upon us? We need leaders who:

  • Know what they believe and value. As these leaders make decisions, face problems, and come to crossroads in their work, their beliefs and values, undergirded by a spiritual core, will be the beacons that guide them. Gone is the mechanical, technical approach to leadership embodied in some of the recent leadership strategies.

  • Live with paradox. Some of the paradoxes leaders for the next age must face include: taking charge by letting go, gaining power by giving it away, and leading and following at the same time.

  • Are risk-takers. Risk-taking means failing from time to time even though failure isn't well accepted in our society. We can't afford leaders with fear of failure.

  • Are students of context. Extension leaders must learn well the structure, politics, history, values and beliefs, and the environment in which their organization exists to succeed. Leadership strategies that work well in one context may not work at all in another.

  • Inspire. During the turmoil of budget troubles and organizational change, inspiration is often in short supply. Our leaders must be capable of encouraging, supporting, and enlivening those with whom they work.

  • Renew. Our leaders must be lifelong learners, and encourage others to become lifelong learners as well. But I'm not speaking here of traditional learning. The key learning necessary for survival in the postmodern age is the discovery kind of learning. As Walter Truett Anderson explains, this type of learning "is not so much the constant filling in of a picture as an ongoing process of reality-construction in which it frequently becomes necessary to step out of the picture, and sometimes to drop the old picture entirely."3

  • Empower. Leaders for the next age must share power, as well as recognize and enlist the power that already exists in people of different cultures, ethnic groups, and in various geographical locations.

  • Build bridges, among people and among ideas. Leaders must consciously bring together people of diverse backgrounds and experiences, who often have conflicting ideas. Leaders must then be able to transcend conflict and encourage the emergence of new ideas that are often different from and better than the ideas originally presented.

  • Challenge. Leaders must constantly challenge ideas, structures, assumptions, and beliefs. They can't be willing to accept "givens" without examination and analysis.

  • Embrace ambiguity. As the world becomes less predictable, leaders must be able to work in situations where they're not clear about what they're seeing and hearing, and where they are, and where they're going.

  • Applaud serendipity. Leaders must be constantly alert to what's happening to take advantage of unexpected outcomes. Dogged reliance on a detailed plan of action may be questioned. Leaders must be flexible, looking beyond the carefully developed plan, sometimes even working without a plan.

  • Encourage artistry. Leaders must realize that decision making must be a combination of logic and intuition, of objectivity with subjectivity, of science with artistry.

  • Appreciate humor. We take ourselves too seriously, and we sometimes take our contexts too seriously. As leadership lightens up, the organization can loosen up.

  • Collaborate. Leaders must point the way in helping Extension truly collaborate with other educational providers, both inside and outside the university. Many in our current leadership have been taught to compete for the budget, the right to do certain things, or credit for results-rather than cooperate.

  • Are guided by quality. Good enough isn't good enough. Extension's standard must always be to do the very best it's capable of doing. No excuses. Without quality, another education provider will take Extension's place.

The Challenge

Can the Extension System meet the challenge of next-age leadership? Can our administrators and faculty find within themselves flexibility to change? From county offices to national leadership, we must nurture new ways of thinking that result in new approaches to doing. Otherwise, Extension will find its place in history as a "last" organization.


1. Ian Mitroff, Break-Away Thinking (New York: John Wiley, 1988).

2. C. Handy, The Age of Unreason (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1989) and P. B. Vaill, Managing as a Performing Art (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989).

3. W. T. Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used To Be (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).