Rework on Rock Stars: Academe, are you listening?

Software entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are the co-authors of Rework (2010), a pithy book about management and leadership. Inspired by the Seth Godin School of Succinctness (in fact, Godin blurbs the book), it’s a collection of several dozen short mini-chapters devoted to managing and working with people and creating positive work environments.

Chasing rock stars

Fried and Hansson urge organizations to skip the pursuit of a handful of “rock stars.” Instead, companies should work hard on creating a “rock star environment” that unleashes the best that everyone has to offer. They note that “there’s a ton of untapped potential trapped under lame policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies.” Eliminate that and other bad stuff and “you’ll find that people are waiting to do great work.”

Academe’s devotion to star chasing

If only the higher education industry could heed these words! All too often, the obsession with hiring rock star faculty overcomes any notions of building a rock star work environment.

Academe is in the midst of an era positively consumed by matters of institutional reputation and prestige. As such, many colleges and universities break open their piggy banks to recruit and hire “superstar” faculty who, they believe, will take them to greater heights. Any sense of logic or fairness concerning salaries and perks goes way out of kilter, creating valid resentment among others not so favored.

Inevitably, some of the supposed rock stars bring a rock star ‘tude while falling short of rock star performance. Too bad these schools haven’t learned the lessons of the National Basketball Association, whose franchises throw piles of money at young men who act like they belong in the Hall of Fame before they’ve even made their first all star team.

In reality, academe is filled with smart, hardworking people who teach well, contribute quality scholarship in their field, and render service to their institutions and the public. The true, genuine superstars, however, are few and far between. Academic institutions, trapped in their own culture of hype and prestige, frequently overlook this basic truth.

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