Flexible Leader Relationships at the Center for Bioethics and Health Law

During my time at the Center for Bioethics and Health Law, I have been able to observe the ways that work is structured and directed, as well as how the organization makes decisions. Unlike other places that I have worked or been able to observe, the Center does not operate with a clear hierarchy due to the interdisciplinary work that it performs at the University of Pittsburgh. While this flexible style does offer the benefit of allowing autonomy and leadership opportunities to its employees, it also has the downside of causing the Center to sometimes struggle to carry out ideas due to logistical issues. The Center is mainly populated by faculty members of the University of Pittsburgh who also work in other departments and groups. Even the Director of the Center, Dr. Lisa Parker, is a professor at the Graduate School of Public Health. As a result of all of the members of the organization coming from different schools, departments, and levels, the Center cannot establish a clear hierarchy for its employees. Instead, work is structured around various, now virtual, groups and teams. The members of these different teams collaborate with each other based on their own personal expertise, to accomplish the organization of conferences, lecture series, and other academic engagement opportunities. One such team that I have been able to observe is the Undergraduate Humanities Response to COVID-19 Mission Group, which is a team of undergraduate faculty attempting to plan ways to continue projects and develop new coursework that focuses on the impact of the Coronavirus. Having been able to attend some of their Zoom meetings, I have observed that there is no set leader for the group. Instead, each faculty member acts as a specialized leader for the items in which they can offer expertise. For example, the head of the Religious Studies Department is in charge of the outreach work to the heads of other departments because he has regular contact with that group anyways. As a result of this decentralized structure of the Center, much of the work is carried out independently and autonomously by individual people or individual teams. There is no enforced policy on how work must be created or carried out. While Dr. Parker as the Director has final say on the programs and products that the Center puts out, she takes a hands-off approach, preferring to allow those with the expertise needed to carry out their projects do so.

This self-directed, decentralized approach to organizational leadership has both benefits and downsides. The greatest benefit is that creative expression and new ideas are open and welcome within the Center. The only limiter for members is their practical ability to organize and carry out their idea. This is where the downside starts to show itself. Because the Center is interdisciplinary and part of a larger group, the University of Pittsburgh, coordinating and consolidating the necessary resources to carry out projects is difficult. Budgeting concerns must be balanced between multiple departments or organizations, and intense levels of communication must be maintained for success. Earlier this Summer, Dr. Parker, the director herself, was unable to have a Summer class on Bioethics simply because nobody emailed her back. In these ways, the decentralization and autonomous work of the Center both offers the benefit of open dialogue and flexible work, but also creates challenges in the operational aspects of the organization.