Lessons From My First Presidency

A difficult job.


June 14, 2016

This past academic year, I served as interim president of the college where I had worked for more than five years prior to my appointment to the helm of the institution. Since coming to the college, my job had changed every year for a variety of reasons—from changes in leadership to promotion, to change of focus or direction. Every year, I took on a new challenge. I was deployed to different areas when vacancies and transitions occurred or when things were simply not working well. I developed a reputation as a fixer and innovator. By the end, I held a unique amalgam of a professional portfolio and responsibilities.

As my position was a one-year interim, I could evaluate the role and lifestyle of the president and determine whether I wanted my next job to be president or whether I wanted to postpone that for some time later. Ultimately, I decided that my family and I were ready for the challenge of a permanent presidency. This first experience as a college president helped me to think through the kind of institution that I want to lead and to find my identity as a college president.

For my Generation X sisters considering becoming a college president, here are some of the most important lessons I learned.

A Bit of Context

As I reflect and share the most important lessons that I learned this year, I want to highlight context a bit. I was born at the tail end of what is considered Generation X. I am an immigrant for whom English is the fourth language and I came to the United States speaking not a word of English. My profession is my life. I get to work with amazing people to keep the American Dream accessible. Creating pathways to help individuals and families become self-sufficient and to lead in their professional fields and communities is exhilarating to me. Being a college president is more than a job to me.

Top 10 Lessons, in no Particular Order

  1. The presidency is not for the spineless, faint-hearted, or those lacking empathy.
  1. As cliché as this may sound, finding the right institution matters greatly.

I learned this during my search for a permanent presidency. Institutional fit is paramount, so doing the necessary homework on the institution matters.

  1. The work should be exciting and fun for everyone involved.

For me, going to work every day is like collaborating on a concert. All the planning and hard work culminate with our students’ graduation at the end of the year—the big show. I also work hard to make it fun for the entire team.

  1. The President holds primary responsibility for making sure that the people of the college are taken care of, and not in a paternalistic way.

To be chosen as leader of an institution means to be entrusted with the livelihood—current and future well-being—of individuals and their families. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Knowing and caring for the people who drive the institution are equally important.

  1. The President sets the tone for the culture of the college and needs to lead and manage in such a way that models and ensures that the desired culture permeates the entire college.

  1. Leading a learning institution means that life-long learning starts with the president.

I try hard to model willingness to learn new technologies, embrace varied epistemological approaches, and stay current on new knowledge, practices, and emerging trends in and outside of my discipline. It takes time and commitment, but it’s worth it.

  1. I learned to draw on the wisdom of others And  maintain my identity as leader and a simple person.

Finding this balance has given me the benefit of seeking guidance and input from others without drowning myself and neglecting the attributes that have helped me in this journey thus far. I have learned to own and trust my gut, and embrace my unique leadership style.

  1. Decisiveness and deliberation are important as are time and distance.

Routinely evaluating and consuming lots of data and insights from varied sources allow me to make quick and informed decisions, but I have also learned to create time, space, and distance to contemplate more complex decisions and manage meaningful relationships. A long drive or a walk, a good night’s sleep, and snorkeling alone (when I can afford that luxury) clear my head and improve my decision-making.

  1. Self-care should not be neglected.

I’ll do better with this one, this time around.

  1. In a solitary role like the presidency, loved ones take on an even more central role to our happiness and well-being. Their happiness matters and they should not be neglected.

I endeavor to do better with this one too.


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