Leadership Studies Ed.D. Dissertations

Leading in the Middle: Conversations and Dialogic Leadership in Higher Education

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)


Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Paul Johnson (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Jean Gerard (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Patrick Pauken (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Judy Jackson May (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Thomas Stuckey (Committee Member)


Higher education leaders face many challenges and uncertainties that require people to interact and work together for the common good. Unfortunately, many of these interactions involve people thinking alone, defending own views, and functioning in a telling mode. Conversely, when meaningful dialogue occurs, people become engaged in ways that enhance awareness and understanding. This phenomenological study focuses on the experience of the mid-level academic leader who bridges the desires of faculty and the needs of administrators, while aiming to build a culture within the department that engages people in collegial ways. This study helps address the gap in higher education mid-level leadership research identifying the value of a dialogic way of leading that emphasizes listening, respecting, and a genuine valuing of people, building on the premise that dialogic leadership promotes collaboration and collegiality (Easley, 2008).

Data were collected through in-depth interviews of eight mid-level leaders at a small, private, liberal arts university, resulting in the four emergent themes of (1) conversational landscape: engaging important conversations, (2) creating the environment: valuing people, (3) dialogic leadership: listening and respect, foundational qualities, and (4) mid-level leadership: more than paperwork, leadership matters; and an overarching statement of the mid-level leader experience. Without explicitly naming the importance of a dialogic way of leading, the overarching statement for this study identified these mid-level academic leaders as engaging in meaningful conversations and important issues when they felt listened to, respected, and valued. Although not always getting it right, they humbly attempted to lead in a way that genuinely respected and valued people, as they listened to all voices—not just those who supported their way of thinking—asked questions in search of deeper levels of understanding, embraced difference and ambiguity of not knowing where things would end up, and suspended their own ideas and certainties to allow room for collective wisdom to emerge for the common good. The findings of this study suggest that dialogic leadership requires a valuing of people—where there is careful listening, respect for others, space for voices to be genuine, and suspension of one’s own biases, perceptions, and certainties.