Don’t fly too low: How new institutions can avoid the Icarus deception

In Greek mythology, Icarus fatally disregards the advice of his father, soaring too high on his wings of wax and feathers and coming too close to the sun in his attempt to escape the island of Crete. The wax melts, the feathers float away, and Icarus plunges into the sea where he drowns.

The metaphorical value of this story, however, is not limited to Daedalus’ best known admonition to his son. There is a second warning that also can give us insight. In fact, both are fitting for a process taking place here in North Norway today.

A high flying merger

Two institutions — the University of Tromsø and Finnmark University College — have decided to merge into a single new university. To achieve this fusion, the Board of Directors of each institution had to approve a proposal advanced by their rectors (presidents).

Several board members were hesitant; the rectors’ skills of persuasion were challenged. They offered a vision of a new north built with the power that only unity can provide. With each new board meeting, the rhetoric, like Icarus, flew higher and higher.

Mayors, ministers and money were drawn into the picture. Apparitions of new programs, new students, and new jobs were seen.

It wasn’t long until the wax would begin to melt. When the time came for a vote at the university, all the representatives for the employees voted against the rector. Be that as it may, they’re only four of eleven votes, so the measure passed.

The conversation started coming down from its lofty heights almost immediately — and not a moment too soon if the wings were to keep working. And the descent continues: expectations are moderated and lowered. Questions about structures, timetables, and financing have opened up again.

This is where the second part of the story of Icarus comes into play.

Don’t get your feathers wet

The wings that Icarus’ father had made could be damaged in two ways. Melting wax and the concomitant scattering of the feathers was only one of the dangers.

Daedalus also warned his son not to fly too low. Getting too close to the water might feel safe, but it could make the feathers wet. They would get heavy and the wings would become impossible to flap. This, too, could lead him to drown.

To avoid flying too low during our merger, we should articulate clear expectations — and not only safe ones.


What are the results we can hope for? There must be some that we can see soon. We should find disconcerting the casual claims of our colleagues that the fusion won’t change their daily lives.

We have to expect more from the new university. We have to expect that this merger will somehow enable us to better deliver on our most fundamental promises to society. On August 1st, 2014, a year will have passed since the institutions merged. At that point, something — anything! — must be better as a result of the merger.

Maybe we’ll have some new educational offering that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Maybe we’ll have a better way of delivering courses to the people in our region. Maybe we’ll find some new interdisciplinary research area. Maybe we’ll even become pioneers in running a multi-campus institution.

There are many other candidates for areas in which we can be better one year after the merger. Find one you care about, and make it happen. Personally, I don’t know what project I’ll give my attention to, but I fear that if I don’t find something, I’ll be complicit.

The majorities of the two boards believe that the merger will see two good institutions become even better. That’s their answer to why.

How we can do this is the focus of our work now. If you’re part of either organization — especially if you’re in a leadership position — it’s in your hands. And when you realize it’s there, I have only one piece of advice for you: Don’t fly too low.

I revisited the story of Icarus recently, stimulated by a browse through Seth Godin‘s book The Icarus Deception. The second of Daedalus’ warnings is too often forgotten; we’re deceived into thinking the story of Icarus is a story only of hubris. It’s also a story of meekness or timidity. Or, as Godin puts it, It’s far more dangerous to fly too low than too high, because it feels safe to fly low. Because of Seth Godin’s book, this topic has received many interpretations lately; good examples can be seen at the TED blog, Economic Times, HuffPoBooks, FastCompany, Tom Catalini’s blog, IamBanksy, BrandChannel, (an outlier at) Nurturing Creativity, to name just a few.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Maleene de Ridder says:

    Hi Curt, thanks for sharing your story! My guess is that the employees were not in favor of the merger for two reasons:
    – they were not aware of the urgency yet, so not ready for a change. Robert Maurer calls this: being in the dark, whereas the rectors, principals etc already saw it clearly yet. Being in different phases of the change-cycle results in resistance and so their NO’s. It is a common phenomenon in changeprocesses and
    – secondly they were mot mesmerized by the WHY. Becoming better is standard practice for most people in the Academia….. A missed opportunity as an appealing WHY can be a powerful change-agent!
    I bet that if this WHY is changed in a more appealing version you will soon find your project too!
    Best, Maleene

    • Curt Rice says:

      Hi Maleene, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re hitting the nail on the head here. The urgency issue is fairly skewed, i.e. much more urgency for the smaller institution than for the bigger one, at least from the perspective of the employee representatives. But the “why” answer was the real problem. It simply never got articulated in a sufficiently compelling way and therefore the resistance. I thought it was less a negative position than a challenge to articulate a clear vision … But the decision has now been made, and the only question is what we can make of it!

  • Thanks for the hat-tip Curt. I wish you the best with the new structure that you’ll be working within 🙂

  • Denise Bush says:

    Hi Curt, I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to use the Icarus idea for starting a professional development session with my Executive team. We’ll be looking at leadership and management, before settling down to work out our strategic plan for the year ahead. This is a very succinct idea that relates to Directors sometimes settling for meeting their KPIs (flying too low) while not pushing on a bit higher. It’s also important for focusing on the why of what we do. Unless we are clear on that, we cannot work together successfully as a team.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Denise

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