Lateral Leadership

naspa avp steering committee

Erik J. Kneubuehl, EdD | Associate Vice Chancellor at East Carolina University

March 28, 2019

Lateral Leadership is the concept of leading across functional areas, both inside and outside an organization. We often hear about leading up and down but the concept of leading across (lateral leadership) is not talked about as much within higher education, particularly when it comes to leading outside of your functional area, division, or institution. Eric Geiger’s blog (November 2, 2015) discusses lateral leadership and how he brakes it down into three simplified areas – communication, preparation, and implementation. It translates into organizational leadership, strategic thinking, and theory to practice.

When leading across and outside your area of responsibility, one must consider the concept of building a team. Carron’s (1980) theory on team cohesion identifies that as groups develop, individuals bring their personal and professional experiences and environmental conditions to the team. As teams form it is important to identify and share these experiences of members and especially important when those members are not part of your functional team. As the members come together, the next step is to figure out how this newly formed group will now be motivated. Carron theorizes that motivation on teams come in two forms – task and social. While elements of each are always found within individual members, the unit as a whole will identify more with one or the other. This concept of team cohesion is built on a foundation of honest and meaningful communication.

Geiger’s lateral leadership concept of preparation is best described as NOT building collaborations but rather coalitions. Collaborations are specific occurrences that center on a program or a single goal, while coalitions are when groups (two or more) are formed centered on a collective vision or common purpose. Strategically, it is the art of identifying individuals or areas where a coalition can be formed before you need it. Nothing is worse than speaking with someone for the first time concerning your need for help or resources. Building coalitions before you need them applies strategic thinking to preparation.

Finally, John Dewey in 1921 talked about the “doing” rather than the “knowing” as a concept, which is related to the idea of theory to practice. Geiger’s final area of lateral leadership - implementation, is rooted in the concept of theory to practice. The many concepts and ideas that come from teams and coalitions formed across functional areas and organizations are of no use if they can’t be operationalized. Lateral leaders must be able to drive not only the development of new ideas but also their implementation. The ability to drive agendas and set ideas into motion can be relatively easy when managing up or down but become more difficult as we manage across to peers and dissimilar functional areas.

My opinions on lateral leadership are derived from a recent presentation at NASPA in 2019, developed with my co-presenters, Dr. Rudy Molina from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Dr. Jeff Orgera from UC San Diego. Lateral leadership is not taught in grad school and is a vital skill that higher education professionals should seek out. Lateral leadership allows us to work, manage, and lead beyond our traditional borders. More than ever we must engage with new partners that will provide access to resources allowing us to develop inclusive and innovative communities on our campuses that will impact higher education’s varied constituencies.

Erik J. Kneubuehl, EdD | Associate Vice Chancellor at East Carolina University         

Blog image is from Eric Geiger’s Blog, November 2, 2015:


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