Interested in Leadership Roles?

Then you should tell someone -- and here’s how, writes Judith White.

February 8, 2017

We often hear about faculty members who are reluctant to respond to requests to take leadership roles. But I’ve also been asked about the reverse: What do I do if I’d like to be more involved with my department or unit leadership but no one is approaching me?

I’m going to start with the assumption that the issue is not a concern on the part of your chair or dean that you have had opportunities to lead and not handled those situations in a way that contributed to the effort. If that describes your experience, then we have a set of issues for another column.

Instead, I’m going to address you as a faculty member who has been working diligently in your discipline, doing as little departmental service as you can and feeling satisfied with your contributions. Then something comes to your attention that piques your interest in a leadership role. Your interest may stem from a sense of being left out of discussions or it may be a specific issue that has importance to your area and you want more of a say. If that’s your experience, what can you do?

Simple answer: tell someone you are interested.

Of course, before you take that step, you need to prepare. You should:

Be clear about what you seek to gain from the experience. This is not a matter of justifying your interest -- just clarifying what interests you. Are you looking for new skills, broader understanding or a specific impact on issues affecting you? Those are all fair expectations when you seek faculty leadership roles, but each is different and requires clarity in pursuing your goals.

If you are mostly interested in learning how to run meetings, create a cohesive committee and present a cogent report, then almost any topic could be of interest and use to you. Are you more interested in the processes of faculty governance or do you want to know how budgets are developed and approved? If so, you may need to ask about projects that consider longer-term structural changes for the institution so that you can see a broader range of topics reviewed and integrated.

You may have quite specific goals. Do you want to see something changed? Do you want to move an idea or issue forward or resist a direction? In that case, do you know where the decisions are being made -- and who is making them? Also, do you know the role of the faculty members involved in the discussions? It’s important to note that faculty governance requires the capacity to see the good of the whole, the positive of something larger than what you seek as you enter the discussion. You need to be clear that your specific goal includes learning about this broader context.

Be ready to list what you would bring to the experience. That may be difficult because we often are not fully aware of our skills and talents beyond intelligence and concern. Having clarified your interests, you know you possess some combination of openness to learning, intellectual curiosity and academic passion. Bringing those strengths to faculty leadership roles will serve you and your colleagues well.

Push a bit farther. You probably know whether you are especially well organized, are good at clarifying the core of wide-ranging discussions, are comfortable handling conflicting viewpoints and bringing them into perspective to aid an analysis rather than paralyze the group. You may have specific skills and experience with organizational processes outside your academic life. Maybe you are proficient with using digital tools for sharing information with small groups or communicating with larger audiences.

One goal here is to be ready to talk about the talents, skills and perspectives you could add. At the same time, you are now ready to listen for what is needed so the parallels can be assessed. And it is important to be clear about not only what you may be good at but also what you do not want to do again.

Test what you’re learning with a few people whose leadership you admire. How will you know who they are? Think about colleagues you have noted as leaders on various projects. You have probably thought of some people already. What you want to talk about is their experience of leading. They may not think of it that way, but you can let them know that’s how you see their actions and that you value what they are doing.

Tell the person what interests you -- what draws you to a specific committee assignment or what you would like to gain from more active participation in faculty leadership. Then ask about what they enjoyed and what they’ve learned in such roles. Is there any specific information you should know? That might be everything from “I wished I’d asked for administrative support” to “Food is key to afternoon meetings.”

Try to keep your questions open-ended as you start so you get whatever key tidbits they want to offer. You may find that the answers start trending towards a recounting of the dynamics of particular committees or individuals. It is hard to resist sharing war stories, but you should try to avoid them. Intervene gently (nicer than interrupt, right?) and steer the conversation back to what you want to know: “How did you get things back on track after that?”

In such conversations, you can also get people’s reactions to your interest. They may be surprised. Don’t take that personally. (“Why wouldn’t I want to lead?”) You haven’t shared this interest before, and most other people aren’t looking carefully for leadership potential. But it’s just as likely that the people with whom you are talking will say they’ve always thought you would be good in this role.

When You Are Ready to Come Forward

Once you are prepared to voice your desire to assume a leadership role, your chair is a likely person with whom to start. If you are not clear about what is available or of particular interest in the department, you can make this another testing discussion. It is important for your chair to know that you are interested and looking for the right place to contribute. You may be able to represent the department in school or institutional activities, for instance. Ask your chair for others with whom to talk about your interest: Who are campus leaders she admires?

Be alert that your first offer to take a leadership role may not be exciting or glamorous. There are always routine assignments to be done on a campus; it will be your responsibility to take on some of those. Often faculty members complain about such service obligations. I’m advocating that you use your exploratory conversations to identify ways those responsibilities can also serve as leadership opportunities.

If you are clear about how you can contribute and seek those opportunities, you are far more likely to end up with roles you can enjoy -- and not the reverse. With the preparation I’m suggesting, you will also be very likely to have the chance to make a difference in the lives of your colleagues, students and institution.


Judith S. White became president and executive director of HERS in 2005. For more information on HERS, visit


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