The best movies always have some nugget of truth delivered by a compelling character in a pithy line. Some movies, like the Godfather trilogy, delivered advice inspiring (“Go to the mattresses”), insightful (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”) and inane (“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”). But what advice does a new administrator need to be successful?
As an American Council on Education fellow in 2012-13 studying higher education administration, I received good advice from the 155 presidents, vice presidents and deans I spoke with that year. During interviews I’d ask at least one question about what it felt like to be in charge: “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?” or “What do you wish someone had told you before you took this position?” The answers ranged from terrifying (“I was appointed as president after the previous president had a nervous breakdown”) to hilarious (“Don’t buy underwear in town. People don’t need to know that much about you. Your private parts should stay private.”).
Now after completing two years as a senior administrator, I reflect upon earlier words of wisdom, my own experience, observations of other new administrators and those of colleagues. So, here is my own advice to new senior administrators as inspired by famous quotes from some of my favorite movies.
You are not “the king of the world” (Titanic, 1997). Being cocky gets you nowhere (spoiler alert: the Titanic sinks and Jack Dawson dies in the end). You are not a delicate flower on the pristine lawn of your new institution. So don’t ask for your own parking space, for the art museum to decorate your office or for facilities to add a bathroom to your office. You are there to do your job -- get to it. You’ll need to earn respect and trust first before others will want to follow you. That only comes through respecting the fact that others have more important things to do for the institution than take care of your personal needs.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” (Jaws, 1975). Before setting out in a metaphorical vessel with the thought of killing a giant shark of a problem for the campus, figure out what you’re dealing with first. Take time to assess whether it is a great white or a bunch of kids with a cardboard fin. Then make sure you have a big enough boat, a team that can tackle the problem and all the tools you need. Also, remember that any longstanding issue won’t be solved quickly no matter how much experience you have to draw upon. If you think a problem will take six months to reel in, add a year to that timeline. You don’t know what you don’t know.
“Houston, we have a problem” (Apollo 13, 1995). Face it -- the job now is to solve problems. So stay calm and carry on. Be mindful; be intentional and impeccable with your words. People will follow your lead. Make sure it is the direction you want them to go physically, emotionally, intellectually and fiscally.
“These aren’t the droids you are looking for” (Star Wars, 1977). Watch out for the Jedi mind trick. Remember every person and every group of people has their own realities. Each wants you to see the world through a particular lens when you’re responsible for making institutional decisions. This doesn’t mean people are inherently deceptive or bad. It just means they have jobs to do and they want to do it in the easiest and best way possible for them. Make sure you talk to people on both sides of any issue before coming to conclusions and taking actions.
“Snap out of it” (Moonstruck, 1987). Being a senior administrator can be stressful, and the pressure has been known to break the toughest of minds. Bad things are going to happen more often than you think they will. You are going to have to figure out how to be resilient, because you’ll be carrying some serious emotional weight relating to institutional challenges and the lives of the people at your institution. Figure out how to take care of yourself and live a balanced personal life. You can only take care of others if you have taken care of yourself first.
“I really do want world peace” (Miss Congeniality, 2000). Yes, you’re intelligent, tough and competent. You wouldn’t be in the position you’re in without being those things. But in addition to those characteristics, the job will require something equally as important: emotional intelligence. You’re human; you have the capacity for empathy and you care about others. Don’t forget to show it sometimes. You’ll get more support and buy-in for tough decisions if you do. Remember: a genuine expression of compassion toward those affected by your decisions doesn’t make you weak -- it makes you a leader.
“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939). At any institution, you get used to the way things are done, and those ways become normal operating procedures. When you get to a new institution, its distinctive history, people and needs have created different operating procedures for the same problems your old institution faced. Don’t expect the normal of a previous institution to be the normal at your new institution. Take time to understand what led to policies and procedures before trying to make everything into your normal.
“I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” (Network, 1976). People are affected by your decisions. Don’t create an “us versus them” mentality as an administrator. Take time to communicate on a regular basis about major accomplishments in your division and throughout the institution, challenges ahead, and plans for the future. There are maxims of communication: “in the absence of a narrative, people will create their own narrative” and “people fear what they don’t understand.” Work hard at being transparent, open and honest. People won’t like or accept all your decisions, but at least help them try to respect them.
“You can't handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men, 1992). Things become much more complicated when you’re at this level. When you were a faculty or staff member you only had access to a certain amount of information. Everything seemed so clear about how to handle administrative decisions. You were filled with righteousness and idealism -- you knew exactly how to handle every situation and you knew better. Now it isn’t so easy, because there are legal, financial and myriad other things you’ll have to learn. Nevertheless, stay rooted in your idealism and strong sense of right and wrong. Always do the ethical thing and maintain your integrity.
“Forget it! I'm stayin' right where I am” (Norma Rae, 1979). Your work is going to require a certain amount of sheer will and determination. Stand up for what you believe, back up your staff when they have to make tough decisions and don’t allow people to be bullies or to have bad behavior. Remember if there is something you need to address, it isn’t going to go away. You might as well put on armor and deal with it from the beginning. Otherwise, it will get worse and you’ll have to address it anyway. Don’t waste time or energy. Deal with it now. Short-term pain is long-term gain.
Aside from the fact that I have a very eclectic taste in movies, I view this list as my own words to live by as an administrator. It is essentially an Eat, Pray, Love (2010) plan. I’m imperfect, but I’m going to do my damnedest to do the best I can every day. I’m always going to seek to feed my capacity for improvement by learning from my experiences and those around me. I’ll work to reflect and process how my actions affect my institution and the people I serve. I’m determined to stay present long enough to enjoy and take pride in helping students learn, support individuals to succeed and reach their potential, and enable my institution fulfill its mission while staying true to core beliefs and values.
K. Johnson Bowles is vice president of advancement at Warren Wilson College.
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