Transformational Academic Leadership

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I was talking to a friend recently, while out walking the dog in the slush, and a university leader of our mutual acquaintance came up. And it had been such a nice, if soggy, walk until then!

Regardless of the number of screeds published railing against the neoliberal, corporate university, one distinction between corporate and academic organizations that remains intact–much to academia’s detriment, I contend–is the fact that managers in academia receive no training. Your dean or department head is unlikely to have taken courses or been trained in how to manage people or how to lead organizations. I don’t think that a department or faculty should be run like a corporation or other business, but I think it’s essential that the men and women who fill management roles in the hierarchical organization that is the university or college understand and know what kind of influence and power they wield, or can wield, and how to use it wisely.

What makes for a good academic leader and manager isn’t terribly difficult to understand or implement, once we recognize that these factors are hugely important when it comes to issues like recruitment and retention (of faculty and students), research and teaching performance (on and off campus), and job satisfaction and productivity.

Simply put, leading an academic organization starts with the same fundamentals as taking leadership initiative in your own career does. Here are four components of a successful (and transformational) academic leader!

  1. Vision is important. 

You don’t need to call it a vision statement, but your unit (department, faculty, committee, whatever) should have a succinct statement that sums up your strategic priorities. Ideally, this vision statement should be reached via consensus. WHOAH! you say and come at me with memes of trying to wrangle cats or some such. ARGH, I respond. Part of the purpose of defining the vision of your unit is to establish those things upon which you can find consensus. A vision for your unit’s teaching or scholarship or service or enrollment numbers or outreach or whatever is larger than any one individual’s agenda. If someone on your “team” doesn’t understand that, this exercise will make that clear and, if you’re lucky, isolate them from the warm fuzzies the rest of you will be enjoying and thus entice them to see the light. Snark aside, having a good facilitator help your unit get to this vision can mitigate devil’s advocacy and “me first” narratives that sidetrack productive conversations.

  1. Enable those who work with you to succeed under that vision

A big part of administrative leadership is fostering and nurturing the conditions under which people on your team succeed. If you have a shared vision of where you’re going, how can you best support staff and colleagues to do their best work in pursuit of that vision? Depending on who is on your team, this may require encouragement and mentoring or more formal structures to support success. If one person in your unit is a star and everyone else is just getting by, you have a great opportunity to test out your leadership skills and create a “team” environment where everyone is empowered to succeed. Though most academics tend to act like independent contractors or Greta “I just want to be left alone” Garbo, this isn’t a recipe for academic success. Find out what your group members think they need in terms of supports to succeed under your shared vision and what you and the institution can do to help them get there.

  1. Model success

Make sure people know what success looks like in your department or unit. Opaque retention and promotion standards, secret committee meetings, and the like do not actually foster achievement. They foster anxiety and stress, both contra-indications for success in teaching, research, or service. If your department or university prides itself on putting people through the wringer, for shame. The pressure cooker environment creates an atmosphere of fear, where people are afraid to innovate, to suggest and contribute, for fear of being ridiculed or shut down. This is not where people want to work, nor where they do good work. A good leader can and should model the encouragement, collaboration, critical thinking, and recognition that are hallmarks of healthy organizations.

  1. Celebrate success

One of the gravest sins committed by the administrator my friend was griping about is their complete lack of interest in the great things that are going on in their larger unit. When a faculty member won a big award. . . crickets. Even when big grants came in, this administrator missed the opportunity to do a little internal PR and celebrate their people’s success in the available fora. Newsletters, e-mail announcements, campus newspapers and radio are easy avenues for leaders to express their recognition and gratitude of excellent work. When colleagues contribute to a joint effort, name them. Elevate other people’s successes!

If you know a leader who follows these tenets, give them a public high five or shout-out! Let them know you appreciate their work and that you want to work with them and learn from them.


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