“Thriving as a Higher Education Leader”


 

by Robert A. Scott

Leader

Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

The challenges to higher education have rarely been so difficult. Institutional leadership is being tested in ways many never imagined. The very notion of who is a leader is a critical question when leadership is required at every level and in every corner of the campus.

A leader may be elected or chosen for the role or may emerge almost spontaneously during a challenging situation. In any case, the leader is one who focuses on purpose, listens to ideas without judging their source, and shapes the agenda without imposing it. The characteristics of leadership include integrity, consistency, clarity, courage, and compassion. The late Peter Drucker distinguished ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ by saying that leadership is “doing the right thing” while management is “doing the thing right.”

My “hints” for leaders are just that. They are nuggets gleaned from 30 years as a college president and drawn from the “well” I filled with experiences from the years before and after serving in leadership positions.

Who is a leader?

When we think of leaders, we often think of those in the military, the federal or state government, and business and industry. In our case, we are focusing on leadership in higher education. There are some significant differences. Leaders in the military have military goals and tools. Their general goal is to win or to at least stabilize a situation. Leaders in government are those with a cause who must take advantage of public opinion and espouse principles and policies to advance an agenda during their proscribed term in office. Leaders in business have quantifiable goals to achieve, most often financial and often short-term.

Leaders in higher education, on the other hand, are responsible for mission-oriented organizations whose horizon is the long-term; they are chartered to educate students and serve the public good. This applies to deans and department heads as well as presidents and vice presidents.

Every leader, whether ongoing in the position or chosen on the spot, draws from their experiences when considering circumstances and requirements. All experiences can be relevant, whether from previous executive actions or from youth camp, school clubs, or sports. These experiences become part of our “well,” our memory bank, the experiences upon which we may draw lessons as new challenges confront us.

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The first steps in exercising leadership are to reflect upon the circumstances of the situation and the problem to be solved or the question to be answered. Next, we should ask others for their understanding of the context and dimensions of the challenge or question. Then, the leader must be willing to communicate fully and honestly with others about assumptions and alternative courses of action.

A leader is a storyteller: not a mythmaker, but a kind of troubadour who relates the past to the present and the present to the future, thinking of memory, moment, and movement. To do so, the leader must know the context, the condition, and the likely consequences of actions, including unintended consequences. Assumptions must be clarified. Solutions are sound only to the extent that the problem or challenge is understood.

The leader also should have a narrative that people can rally around, execute well through a team, and, on a college campus, help make the environment for teaching and learning better than it has been. To do this effectively, the leader must know who they are as an educator. The leader must listen but be careful not to believe everything; to be skeptical without being cynical. No institution can be all things to all people. A good philosophy is that we cannot teach everything, but we can help students develop the knowledge, skills, abilities, and values necessary to learn almost anything.

Execution

Leadership requires not only preparation but also execution, with a priority on effectiveness. The leader must aspire for high quality in relation to institutional mission and goals at every step. Selecting and nurturing people are the most important functions of a leader. It is important to know what makes each person “human,” and more than just a title, to foster teamwork and the development of new skills.

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A primary rule for a leader is, no surprises. This applies to one’s colleagues, the faculty senate, union leadership, the board of trustees: “no surprises.” With transparency, i.e., no surprises, the leader can engender the trust essential for the effective fulfillment of plans in support of mission.

Leaders must also remember that strategic planning should embrace every constituency on campus. It is not done with a small group or every other year. Strategic plans are about principles for decision-making, with an emphasis on flexibility, and priorities for action, with an emphasis on adaptability. The plan should be informed by those who are on the front lines of service to students and visitors as well as by academic officials.

In my capacity as a campus leader, I maintained an “open door” policy. I welcomed comments. In formal settings and informal gatherings, I would ask “What is going well?” and “What do you wish we had ‘fixed’ last week?” I was always gratified that I did.

In committee meetings, I tried never to allow anyone to remain silent. I would ask for comments. This applies to trustees as well as to deans or others. I never wanted anyone to walk away saying, “I wish I had said…” or “I wish I had been asked.” This is especially important on conference calls and Zoom meetings when a few participants can tend to dominate discussions. Never forget the others; ask for their comments.

This applies to the leader also. If specialists are using jargon, ask what they mean, and make sure that all the specialists have the same meaning.

Get out of your own way. Reply to every letter or call, even if it is to say that you are looking into the issue. A delay can result in another complaint about not listening.

Reflection

I found it useful to debrief singular events or crises, like student sit-ins of yore, a scandal, or controversial faculty votes, whether on our campus or another. I would ask the senior staff and others, as appropriate, “What can we learn from this?”

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A common question is, why do leaders fail? I think the most frequent reasons for presidential failure are related to insensitivity to various constituents and forgetting that it takes a team to lead. In years past, I would have added the President’s House and the role of the spouse or elaborate entertainment expenses as added problems. Today, I think the major reasons are lack of consultation, inadequate communications, insensitivity to campus realities, and unrealistic expectations by the Board of Trustees.

One of the most disastrous examples of presidential failure that I know involved a new leader who came to a campus community and decided, without listening or reading, that the culture was too informal and had to be changed. Cultures are very difficult to change. In my view, culture and tradition are the building blocks for future directions, which might in fact include change. But change itself, for its own sake, should never be the primary goal. This experience underscored the saying that character is destiny, culture is decisive.

A dilemma in higher education concerns the definition of productivity. Many answer that productivity is not possible: you can’t make the orchestra play faster. However, that is not the end of the story. Perhaps we can think of institutional productivity as related to results such as graduation rates relative to the alignment of mission, goals, assets, and results. In my experience, there is often a lack of alignment between mission and goals on the one hand and the use of resources, including rewards, and results on the other hand.

Conclusion

Everyone on campus, as well as trustees, alumni, neighbors, legislators, bankers and auditors, accrediting agencies and bond rating services, and foundations, want to know the quality of leadership exercised on behalf of the institution. Effective leadership inspires confidence and confidence can inspire support, something that is always necessary, but especially needed in these trying and challenging times.


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