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We need look no further than recent news headlines to be regularly reminded of the challenges that higher education faces, and will continue to face, for the foreseeable future: dwindling budgets, growing public mistrust about the actions (and inactions) of those in leadership positions, the skyrocketing costs of attendance and questions about the value of a college education, to name just a few. And a fundamental question that undergirds all these challenges is: Do we have individuals equipped to lead our institutions through and beyond such challenges?

While we saw instances of notable leaders rising to the occasion across all industries during the pandemic, we also saw examples of leaders who were ill equipped to deal with the complexities of the moment or the needs of the future. Those complexities and needs are only growing.

“A title does not a leader make” is a line I have repeated ad nauseam in my undergraduate courses as well as my workshops for faculty and administrators. I am a management professor with expertise in faculty and leadership development, particularly midcareer faculty development. My students include those in current leadership positions (e.g., department chairs, deans), those aspiring to leadership positions (e.g., deans, provosts) and those considering other career advancement milestones (e.g., full professor). As part of the workshops, I ask the attendees, “Who among you is interested in holding a leadership position on your campus?” Inevitably, that question elicits responses about wanting to serve as a department chair, dean or executive-level administrator. In addition, many of the participants in my sessions already occupy these roles and are looking to enhance their skill sets.

In my workshop, I pause before we launch into the training and development sessions to clarify what I mean by the term “leader.” First, I direct attendees to consider the many people they are surrounded by in the academy who have a high-ranking title or position on campus. I pose a question: “Do you consider these individuals to be leaders?” I encourage attendees to think about these individuals based on their behaviors and abilities. Inevitably, the people who display negative behaviors come to mind first; it’s easier to identify poor leaders as our go-to, as most of us know what it feels like to work for someone who lacks the capacity for true leadership. Personally, I have worked for many individuals with big titles and significant power and influence, but I do not regard them as leaders based on their behaviors and abilities. I repeat: a title does not a leader make.

While the students or workshop attendees usually offer negative examples first and predominantly, I then offer counter examples with the corresponding behaviors and abilities that we should strive for in ourselves and others. For example, the students or attendees might share the following negative behaviors, and I then respond with a counterbehavior for each one.

  • Negative behavior: Poor-performing leaders have big egos; they believe they are the smartest people in the room.
    • Counterbehavior: A true leader appreciates and draws on the collective wisdom of those in the room to advance the needs and priorities of the institution and surrounding community.
  • Negative behavior: An ill-equipped leader listens to react.
    • Counterbehavior: An effective leader listens to respond. Such an approach, however, requires pooling multiple data points and engaging with trusted stakeholders.
  • Negative behavior: An insecure leader demands loyalty.
    • Counterbehavior: A grounded leader surrounds themselves with individuals who value integrity, guided by a moral compass during the steady and the challenging times.
  • Negative behavior: An unseasoned leader censures communication; they restrict or eliminate diverse channels of interaction.
    • Counterbehavior: A leader with high emotional intelligence knows the importance of creating a culture in which voice and speaking up and out are cultivated; it is an expectation.
  • Negative behavior: An immature leader places blame on others as a first response.
    • Counterbehavior: A capable leader admits to missteps or wrongdoing and accepts responsibility while also offering a course of action to rectify the situation moving forward.
  • Negative behavior: A misinformed leader is single-mindedly focused.
    • Counterbehavior: A confident, knowledgeable leader can read the room, adapt their message and maintain the trust of those in the room, even when delivering challenging news.

Where Are the Academy’s True Leaders?

In response to the Great Resignation, we are seeing many internal promotions to fill vacancies across all levels of the institution. Often, those individuals are promoted because of their tenure and knowledge about the institution—not because of their content knowledge, subject matter expertise or ability to set a vision and execute a strategy in that specific subject domain. While we tend to focus on the executive leadership levels, given those are often the most visible externally to the institution, we need to think more strategically about the leadership pipeline for the longer term. That requires investment in leadership development at all levels throughout the institution, including faculty and staff members.

Yet, unfortunately, we often find in higher education a lack of investment in developing bench strength. Succession planning and management practices allow organizations to have a backup plan in place when inevitable and unexpected team departures occur. While we see this practice used regularly in industry, it occurs less often in the academy, particularly at the lower levels of the institution.

The benefits are many, including maintaining operations, work-process continuity and employee retention. What’s needed is for department and unit heads, program directors, managers and executive-level administrators—the people who have direct reports and are responsible for the team and their unit’s performance—to initiate intentional conversations and planning about issues of succession. Team members must have clarity and reach agreement about the skills required to successfully fill a given role as it is presently conceived, while also anticipating the skills, abilities and competencies needed to perform it as it and the institution evolve.

Investing in Leadership Development

Internal opportunities for advancement are necessary to retain talent. Research tells us that opportunities for advancement serve as a motivational tool, help to maintain core institutional knowledge and facilitate career advancement trajectories. Yet an important caution to consider is when individuals are in positions of decision-making authority and the key or only perspective they bring to that position is based on their experience in that given institution. In that situation, we must pause. Those individuals often miss opportunities to consider alternative pathways, resulting in more of the same.

To combat such issues, top institutional administrators must engage in more intentional, strategic leadership development and succession management conversations and actions, such as investing in the necessary financial, intellectual and human resources to support development. Effective leadership development also requires an honest assessment about the talent you have and the talent that is missing. Questions that should guide those discussions include:

  • What does success look like for someone in this role or position?
  • What have been the biggest missteps of the person occupying the position and what lead to those missteps?
  • How do the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for someone to be successful in this position complement and supplement those of their team members and the units for which they are most engaged and responsible?

The aim should be to create a balanced action plan that fosters an internal leadership pipeline through career and leadership development and facilitates external talent recruitment and engagement.

As institutional administrators look to be more purposeful in their leadership development, they should take five key steps:

  1. Engage in more robust recruitment strategies. Start with careful crafting of job descriptions with clear references to institutional values and strategic priorities. Be explicit about the importance of those in leadership positions actively developing talent in their units. That should be a key performance indicator for anyone with direct reports.
  2. Reach out beyond conventional sources for talent. Employ the services of executive-level search firms. Actively recruit through professional associations, higher education and industry outlets. Consider nontraditional recruitment outlets and networks outside higher education in which diverse talent can be found.
  3. Ensure internal search committees include diverse stakeholders. This should be a priority throughout all stages of the search process and include the supervisor, peers and direct reports of the incumbent. It should also encompass representatives from the departments and other units that most frequently interact with this position, as well as a mix of seasoned institutional veterans and newcomers.
  4. Build in growth plans as part of yearly evaluations. At minimum, yearly evaluations must elicit information about employee skills and abilities that may be underutilized. Further, employees must be given an opportunity to share areas in which they seek expanded skill development and diverse experiences. That will enable supervisors to ensure they are knowledgeable about the talent they have on their team and provide opportunities to foster it.
  5. Consider the needs of the future, not just those of the moment. As we in the academy grapple with understaffing and overassigning work tasks to the people who remain, it is easy to focus on the here and now, given the immediacy of the challenges. But those in supervisory and leadership positions must be deliberate about anticipating, in collaboration with others on their team, future directions and the specific talent needed to traverse those future directions successfully. We must engage in more regular, smaller-scale, strategic human resource planning at the department level.

A robust leadership-development pipeline provides a strategic advantage for institutional leaders while providing a career-advancement road map for employees as they navigate their careers. And a vital outcome of that investment is employee engagement. Such an approach to leadership development for faculty and staff recognizes the importance of diverse lived experiences, in and out of the institution, as necessary to the future of the academy. Higher education needs leaders to broaden their focus beyond attracting and retaining diverse talent to seeking to attract, retain and engage that talent. Investing in more robust leadership development is one way to achieve that aim.

Vicki L. Baker is the E. Maynard Aris Endowed Professor in Economics and Management and department chair at Albion College. She is the author of Managing Your Academic Career: A Guide to Re-Envision Mid-Career and co-founder of Lead Mentor Develop, LLC. Her research focuses on faculty and leadership development, mentoring, and liberal arts colleges.

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