In Times of Extreme Change the Subtle Forces of Fusion Leadership Offer a Path to Purpose


This is the first part of a two-part series in The Bulletin by Joanna Iwata on the topic of fusion leadership, a method for managing and leading organizations based on fusion, or joining together, rather than fission (separation), that seeks to bring together whole individuals to accomplish mutual goals based on shared vision and values. The articles are based on the 1998 book Fusion Leadership: Unlocking The Subtle Forces That Change People and Organizations, by Richard L. Daft, professor of management and director of the Center for Change Leadership at Vanderbilt University, and Robert H. Lengel, associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas—San Antonio. 

“When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, or being generative. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.” 

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline 

As we consider the different challenges affecting our campuses in response to what is occurring not only nationally, but internationally, and even more so due to the COVID-19 situation, it is probably safe to say that we are all more keenly aware of both the short- and long-term implications of operating from a “new norm” on our campuses in managing and leading teams in both resourceful and pro-active ways. That awareness matters. 

Whether dealing with campus closures, local or state edicts which require us to be at and work from home, the financial and economic implications that affect bottom lines, or the recent cancellation of our professional association conferences across the country that in the past had allowed us to connect, network, and share our best practices in energizing ways, how leadership roles on our campuses are redefined matters. 

More importantly, as we face new challenges and opportunities to address on our campuses, it’s appropriate to be reminded of the seminal work by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel, authors of Fusion Leadership: Unlocking The Subtle Forces That Change People and Organizations, in which they address how to effectively leverage from six subtle forces that have a direct bearing on any organizational effectiveness. Those forces — mindfulness, vision, heart, communication, integrity, and courage — matter. 

For a moment, imagine a workplace where personal ownership and commitment thrive among an assortment of different teams?  Where independent thinking, personal creativity, and having an open mind in how we respond to the challenges and opportunities is cultivated. A place where all are committed to a higher purpose toward which people work.  Where caring and compassion support the positive feelings that underlie all working relationships. 

Let this imagining begin with a working definition of fusion.  What images immediately come to mind to you?  On the flip side, when you hear the word fission, are the images the same or different?  Daft and Lengel describe fusion as the “joining together” of the six subtle forces of leadership, whereas fission connotes the opposite effect of the “splitting apart, separating” that can occur when we are unable to lead effectively.  In reflecting on this notion of fusion and fission further it’s appropriate to share a few examples that illustrate this juxtaposition.  

First, it is important to acknowledge the reality that fission-based forces around us can dismantle our personal efficacy and the efficacy of the teams around us, if we allow it to. Daft and Lengel illustrate how fission-based leadership can create a highly controlled, top down, “Do as I say” environment, or a status quo, “this is the way we have always done this here,” workplace that can in the end demoralize a workforce. With that, fission-based leadership presents different choices that should be considered when examining how best to creatively infuse and operationalize it within institutions, teams, and campus partners. 

Through professional experiences at the University of Vermont, Wake Forest University, East Carolina University, Mills College, and California State University–Monterey Bay (where I work today), leveraging from the best practices outlined by Daft and Lengel allowed for individual and organizational opportunities to reinvent programs, operations, and services, while fortifying organizational infrastructures that supported the best practices of “imagineers” on campuses that led to the transformation of existing norms. 

Mindfulness and Vision 

While at the University of Vermont I had the benefit of working with visionary leaders not only in student affairs but with others working in the office of university president Lattie Coor, who understood and supported the vision of building campus and local community partnerships to enhance programs that included those offered through the Center for Cultural Pluralism. While funding for projects was not an issue at the time, building the collaborations across campus with academic departments and student organizations in order to develop and host things like a monthly ethnic heritage series to heighten cultural awareness was a “first.” 

Through a mindful outreach effort to invite faculty from different departments to play an integral role in the event planning, while recognizing their expertise and connections, the ethnic heritage series became a platform for hosting important dialogues that included establishment of other new initiatives like a social justice speakers’ series and cultural performances. Having never been offered on campus before, these events began drawing standing room only crowds. 

These same practices of implementing mindfulness and vision were integral to expanding this programming into the local community of Burlington, Vermont. An annual ethnic heritage fair grew five-fold in a single year to over 500 participants after the Center for Cultural Pluralism made an effort to identify individuals and organizations from the local community and from across the state – a showcase of artists and speakers; performances by faculty and student groups – that couldn’t have been accomplished without a foundation for planning built upon mindfulness and vision. 

Communication and Integrity 

It is when one is challenged with difficult issues, like staffing situations, or working through the underfunding of programs, services, and operations, or any other of the myriad of challenges that might arise on any given day, that the time to communicate vision to your organization can never be more important. The best way to communicate vision, through personal experiences, has been to do so by courageously modelling the way; communicating clearly and by acting with integrity. 

One example involved taking on the role of director at Wake Forest University’s Benson University Center at Wake Forest University after the sudden mid-semester departure of the previous director. A virtual hornet’s nest, with internal issues affecting professional staff, a dire situation negatively affecting team morale and productivity. It became obvious that the first and foremost priority was to attend to and address the obvious angst and despair of the staff who would be making direct reports. If not, there would not be a fully functioning team to work with. Taking the time to understand the history of an organization can be imperative to establishing credibility and for understanding context when approaching transitional periods. No two employees are the same, yet the ideal is to have each play an important component in a high performing team. Understanding each team members’ aspirations, self perceptions, fears, goals, and skills allows one to become a stronger and more mindful advocate for both the individual and team 

Interventions and mediations began first with professional staff, followed by student employees who had also been affected. During this period of about three months a “right-sizing” process was communicated and undertaken within the organization. This process naturally gave some staff an opportunity to reconsider their own place within the organization, to stay or leave, which allowed the organization to move forward in rebuilding focus and reimagining what efforts were to be undertaken. This eventually opened a new chapter in the operation of the center and afforded an opportunity to reinvent campus programs, services, and operations, and to create and sustain a series of new initiatives like a successful concert series, a live talk show program called 

Discovery Series, holiday festivals, and even new revenue generating activities that included a new copy center, a campus pub, and a fitness center. In the end, it was integrity in the context of team operations that led how internal communication was exercised over time in addressing important and critical quality of life issues for both individual team members, the organization, and the community at large.  

At East Carolina University an opportunity presented itself when it became evident that while there were seven different teams within student affairs, they had literally remained islands unto themselves, having rarely worked collaboratively together. This stand-alone teams would eventually become one successful student involvement team, but arriving at the goal required a process of mitigating false perceptions, improving communication, and coalescing rather than separating skills and roles 

These teams — adult/commuter affairs, student activities, leadership programs, performing arts series, student media, student transit, and orientation – were soon brought together through monthly all-staff meetings designed in a shared leadership model with rotating leadership among different team members, a process that drove enhanced communications, and that included ongoing professional development activities centered on the roles of the different teams. What was originally conceived as a five-year strategic plan was operationalized in less than three years, and represented development of a team that organized activities and events like bringing nationally recognized speakers and performers to campus, building new co-sponsorships with different academic programs and student organizations, and successfully advocating for additional funding support for the student involvement team from student government.  

After 9/11 occurred an outreach effort to support campus social justice efforts began to include campus ministries, veterans, and other groups. Efforts were also made to enhance standing programs like a family weekend and Partners In Campus Life. Following a series of focus group studies conducted by the university’s business school students a collaboration with technology professionals led to the implementation of a new event announcement system that helped the organization develop a consistent communications plan that was in touch with 20,000 students through livestreaming and a campus cable network.  

In less than three years through the leveraging of best practices that included the implementation of the communication and integrity subtle forces, the student involvement team members were purposefully anticipating, acting, and adapting programs, services, and events by working together. And it wasn’t just the subtle forces of communication and integrity that served as aids, there was also a synergy that comes naturally with mindfulness and vision. Combined, these four subtle forces influenced student leadership that drove a large investment from student government to support student involvement team, academic deans contributed significant funding to support a social justice series, and a new campus announcement system, based on student surveys, became the primary method for which students were made aware of campus activities. 

Heart and Courage 

It is safe to say that when you can tap into the two Fusion Leadership forces of heart and courage and then implement them with the other four, you can create a robust and dynamic learning enterprise. With this formula opportunities can be increased for teams, programs, services, and operations to become successful and resilient, to gain recognition and respect within the campus community, and to elevate students to their greatest potential. 

While a dean of students at Mills College and now, as senior coordinator of governance and operations for Associated Students at California State University–Monterey Bay, formidable internal and external challenges in meeting the needs of it) to attend to the

diverse needs of  have led to recognizing the value of how one can operate from heart and courage. This will serve as the topic in the second part of this series and hopefully be illustrative to the transformative power the subtle forces can have upon teams that work closely together.  

To close, consider the following questions as they might relate to the six subtle forces of Fusion Leadership: 

  • What occurs during a process where breakdowns trigger breakthroughs? 
  • Are teams at their best when they are emotionally invested in a change process that furthers a collective dream and a new bottom line?
  • How do you use leadership, mentoring, and coaching to motivate, encourage, and support teams to take educated risks? 
  • When through our leadership, we can motivate our teams to take (educated) risks that is encouraged and supported through our mentoring and coaching? 

While the subtle forces that support the Fusion Leadership Model may sound familiar, one integral key is how language is used to embed these principles into a team’s best practices that can then empower that sought after “higher purpose toward which people work.” Once embedded, these subtle forces can cut through and go beyond the panic and uncertainty that can surround us in these current times. 

An Exercise – Your Reflections

Identify what three things you do best and what three things you are challenged by the most.

The Six Dimensions (Reflections)

  • Maintains an open mind.
  • Sets aside opinions.
  • Asks questions.
  • Challenges assumptions.
  • Sees whole and parts.
  • Encourages multiple approaches.
  • Listens.
  • Discerns other’s needs.
  • Cultivates face-to-face contact.
  • Celebrates completed tasks.
  • Floods information across boundaries.
  • Creates the future.
  • Inspires people.
  • Thinks big, does the impossible.
  • Focuses on values, yearnings.
  • Lives by hope and personal experience.
  • Follows a higher purpose.
  • Seeks to serve.
  • Supports failure as a way to grown and learn.
  • Acts on faith and trust
  • Accepts support from others.
  • Stays emotionally connected with people and work.
  • Looks for hidden potentials.
  • Be collaborative, interdependent.
  • Pays attention to ideas and people with emotional power.
  • Shares information, power, resources.
  • Meets unstated needs.
  • Affirms, builds, mentors others.
  • Empowers others, faith in others.
  • Deepens insight into self.
  • Inspires trust.

SOURCE: Richard L. Daft & Robert H. Lengel, Fusion Leadership


  • Joanna Iwata

    Joanna Iwata has served as senior coordinator for governance and operations since 2013 at California State University–Monterey Bay as part of a career in student affairs that has spanned over 35 years. A longtime ACUI volunteer, Iwata served on the Region I Conference Planning Team, as director of Region V, as Region I inclusivity coordinator, and on the ACUI Diversity Council. In 2018 she was the recipient of the Region I Don & Noel Hinde Distinguished Service Award. She holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Southern California and a master of arts from the University of the Pacific. She regularly presents workshops on inclusive excellence, leadership, and management, and has published articles on change management and transformational leadership.

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