Common Characteristics of Successful Leaders

After a year studying presidents and chancellors, Scott Newman describes the characteristics he believes help college and university chief executives succeed.

December 9, 2015

Eager to gain a greater understanding of the higher education chief executive officer role during my tenure as an American Council on Education Fellow, I explicitly sought out more than 40 campus and system presidents and chancellors broadly considered successful among their peers and the people they lead. Over the course of my fellowship, several attributes common to those CEOs emerged.

This essay focuses on those characteristics.

They are mentally and physically tough.

Postsecondary CEOs experience near-constant demands for their time and attention from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Further, their days are typically long and congested, and their roles often require them to make difficult, unpopular decisions. While these insights should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent much time around a postsecondary chief executive, a number of the CEOs I met with spoke openly about having underestimated how taxing their roles would be prior to undertaking them.

As a result, most had adopted strategies for managing those demands. Regardless, higher education chief executive positions are inherently demanding and generally require levels of mental and physical endurance most individuals aren’t able -- or willing -- to sustain.

They are driven to help others.

Everyone has encountered individuals motivated to pursue certain leadership roles because of the perceived power and/or prestige of those positions (sometimes referred to as wanting to be a ____ versus doing the work of a ____), and the postsecondary CEO role certainly attracts its fair share of I-ought-to-bes.

However, the CEOs I interacted with were clearly motived by the opportunities their positions provide to effect meaningful change -- with a notable subset preoccupied, first and foremost, with improving students’ present and future realities.

This is not to suggest that many don’t enjoy the influence and recognition their positions provide. However, having spent considerable time observing and talking with a number of postsecondary CEOs, I’m convinced the most successful chief executives are drawn to such positions because of the opportunities they afford to advance others.

They are students of institutional history.

Most CEOs understand their colleges or universities did not begin on their first day on the job, and that their institutions will, in the vast majority of cases, exist long after they’ve departed. However, successful chief executives take the steps necessary to develop deep understandings of their institutions’ histories -- particularly their creation narratives.

They do so for multiple reasons: partly out of respect for their colleges or universities and those who came before them, and partly so they can unite the institution’s diverse constituencies around a shared past, but mostly because they understand the immense value of being able to authentically contextualize current and envisioned organizational states of being.

Rarely is the departure of a CEO who does so effectively accompanied by stakeholder assessments that “S/he never really got who we are.”

They know themselves.

During the course of my interactions with CEOs, I was impressed with how cognizant and candid they are about their shortcomings -- and reminded how essential self-awareness and openness are to a leader’s capacity to mitigate her or his weaknesses (e.g., through targeted professional growth opportunities and team development).

Equally noteworthy was how self-assured and exact the chief executives were in articulating their personal and professional values, and the extents to which they continuously draw on those principles in navigating work and private responsibilities.

They use humor astutely.

Humor can be an invaluable tool, or, used inappropriately, can beget awkward or potentially litigious situations. During my campus visits, I observed numerous chief executives use quips or humorous anecdotes -- often self-deprecating -- to lend much needed or appreciated levity to circumstances. Developed or innate, successful CEOs tend to possess good senses of humor and use them effectively.

They are connected.

Successful chief executives are almost always plugged into local, state, national and, increasingly, international organizations, initiatives and information streams. Doing so ensures they are connected to key players and informed about major trends, opportunities and movements that are or may be acting on their colleges or universities. Of course, maintaining such a level of connectedness isn't without its challenges given the demands of their positions. Nevertheless, successful CEOs consider it a top priority.

They are entrepreneurial.

Perhaps the least surprising attribute of successful CEOs is how enterprising they are, and the extent to which their thoughts and actions extend to any and all facets of their institutions. Most of the chief executives with whom I met continuously seek to meaningfully further their institutions and stakeholders by leveraging resources toward existing and emergent opportunities.

Most importantly, they are equally focused on encouraging such thinking and behaviors in others -- marshaling internal and external stakeholders to the advancement of their colleges or universities.

They hold clear positions regarding political engagement.

Because postsecondary chief executives occupy relatively high-profile positions, their support is frequently sought by individuals seeking (re-)election to public office. Not surprisingly, CEOs’ viewpoints vary on the extent to which they should -- or should not -- participate in the political process (i.e., during their tenures as institutional chief executives).

Those with prior political experience (e.g., had held office or worked in government relations) generally reported greater comfort levels in providing financial support to candidates or engaging in similar activities, whereas CEOs without such backgrounds commonly cited the need to remain neutral because of the diverse political perspectives and affiliations of their colleges’ or universities’ constituencies. Regardless, all had developed clear positions regarding the political activities they are, and are not, willing to undertake, and are prepared to field such requests whenever they arise.

They tolerate grayness.

Anyone who’s held a leadership role has found her- or himself having to make a decision without all the information s/he would like. While degrees of grayness can vary widely by circumstance, a certain amount is inherent to nearly any situation. As leaders of complex, dynamic organizations, successful higher education CEOs make peace with this reality.

They are grateful for and committed to their jobs.

In general, postsecondary CEO positions are difficult to come by. Not surprisingly, nearly every one of the chief executives I spent time with readily acknowledged her or his good fortune to hold such a role. After all, they had, in most cases, actively sought, deliberated on and accepted their positions. As a result, the CEOs are fully dedicated to fulfilling those roles -- explicitly disallowing themselves any buyer's remorse or sense they can simply step down when the going gets tough -- until retirement or some other development compels a change.

Of course, the attributes detailed in this essay aren’t representative of all of the higher education chief executives I spent time with over the course of my fellowship. However, they are indicative of most. Given the importance of chief executive roles, and the many challenges associated with navigating them, it’s hoped these insights will be useful for others.


Scott Newman, a 2013-14 ACE Fellow, is vice president of academic affairs at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology and author of Higher Education Administration: 50 Case-Based Vignettes (Information Age Publishing, 2015).


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