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When faculty and staff members take on leadership roles, they inevitably face unexpected challenges for which they are not prepared. Our team at the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics has extensive experience in working with higher education leaders, from writing books and articles to presenting seminars and workshops on leadership. As universities work to expand their programming and support for institutional and department leaders, we offer some thoughts about the elements they might want to consider and include—elements important and effective for helping those new leaders navigate some of the most significant challenges in their transition to leadership and for current leaders to strengthen their leadership values and practices. We’ve found that a combination of practical tools and principled grounding is key to creating successful and fulfilling leadership development experiences.

The Dual Nature of Leadership

Understanding how leaders go about achieving a goal can be as important as the goal itself. In the same way, how institutions go about promoting leadership in their programs should be closely integrated into what they think effective and ethical leadership entails. Moving beyond narrow notions of effectiveness, we urge potential and current leaders who participate in our programs to focus on issues specific to the higher education environment and to learn about and practice tools and skills that can make their engagement with leadership responsibilities more satisfying and successful. We encourage them to create and sustain, in our words, cultures of excellence.

A central tenet of our programming is that a leader is always both an individual person—with personality traits and values, strengths and weaknesses, insights and blind spots—as well as the person holding a specific institutional office or role that has authority and responsibilities that one occupies for a period of time. Understanding how those two dimensions interact must be a thoughtful and intentional process. For example, in some situations, a leader doesn’t have the latitude of saying, “Well, that’s just who I am,” when they are speaking from and enacting the role they are responsible to play and preserve the credibility of.

Thus, a key aspect of a leadership-development program should be an emphasis on the importance of personal reflection by the leader about who they are, why they seek to be a leader and the values they bring to that role. As a participant in one of our seminars noted to us, “I was able to obtain a significant understanding of my role as a leader and how I might positively impact others in my unit. I was also able to acknowledge my personality traits and how to manage those in service of having the best community environment in my unit.”

A Long-Term Approach

Adults require repeated exposure to ideas and practice of skills to learn and change their habits. Thus, a one-shot, beginning-of-the-year orientation program is insufficient. While it can be a foundation for welcoming and orienting new leaders, it takes time to understand and effectively apply concepts—and some elements of a leadership role do not even emerge until one is well into it. Learning in context is crucial to the application and retention of new knowledge and skills.

Moreover, intuition and judgment are developed through repetition of experience. Becoming a principled leader is a continuous, long-term endeavor; it is never finished or complete. That is why we design our programs to give participants repeated exposure to a variety of scenarios that can inform their cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses.

In addition, the most beneficial professional development activities not only have an immediate impact in developing specific problem-solving and decision-making skills but also provide general heuristics and principles that participants can take with them and adapt through practice in their everyday work. Those include, for example, skills for problem-solving, negotiating, change management and bully-proofing academic units, to cite just a few. Learning and practicing such skills over time promotes a sense of continuous self-improvement, opening the door to broader perspectives and helping leaders make meaningful contributions to their institution or unit’s mission and success.

Practical Content

Busy people who are assuming new roles need practical, immediately usable tools. In our decades of experience, we have seen some higher ed leaders thrive, some struggle and others crash and burn. We have ourselves dealt with daily problems and challenges of every variety. In our professional development programs, we focus on issues, choices and dilemmas that are central to the work of academic leaders, starting with the special challenges of the academic environment: the range of constituencies, the need to build consensus to lead effectively and effect change, the tenure and the academic star systems, and so on.

Throughout the program, short cases with reality-based dilemmas that academic leaders have faced and will face again allow participants to wrestle with real-world problems. They must be rooted in the experiences a wide range of leaders will encounter. By working through such scenarios, participants can deepen their understanding of their roles, responsibilities and approaches to problem-solving. Case study discussions provide leaders with a psychologically safe space in which to analyze complex problems and the tradeoffs they often represent and to think through categories of predictable and recurring issues across academic settings.

Case studies about actual leadership challenges and dilemmas foster the development of intuition and judgment. Rich narratives that emphasize context, character and interpersonal dynamics highlight how many situations resist simple solutions. Even the smallest change in the details of a case study, or what one chooses to focus on in the case study, can alter the way that a person responds. The case studies provide real problems and the opportunity to practice responses so that leaders can develop habits in their decision-making that support principled leadership.

One might call the approach we recommend bottom-up. Instead of starting with an abstract ideal type or a specific leadership model that leaders are expected to adhere to, we begin our approach with concrete, real-world examples and principles. Through reflective analysis, we derive general leadership guidelines from these specific, reality-based instances. There is no single best model for leadership. Participants need to find a combination of leadership approaches that work specifically for them, given who they are and the context in which they find themselves.

Tools You Can Use

Through hundreds of interviews and focus groups, we developed the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool (AUDiT) to evaluate the characteristics of thriving and struggling academic units. Using those results, participants then reflect on how to prioritize their efforts to improve as leaders—because you can’t address everything at once. We provide a decision-making framework in the context of case studies drawn from the daily challenges of leading an academic unit as a heuristic for how to approach decisions, especially those involving difficult personnel elements. A session on difficult conversations introduces practical, time-tested approaches for preparing in advance for meetings likely to produce conflict and high emotion. Sessions on negotiation, on listening skills, on dealing with bullies (and different types of bullies) all start with a fundamental set of strategies.

Another foundation of strong leadership programs is using a cohort model. In a group of individuals with similar responsibilities, participants can share experiences and learn from each other’s perspectives. The collaborative nature of these leadership cohorts promotes lasting relationships among leaders. We encourage participants to use group problem-solving methods throughout the program, including case study discussions. Many of our former participants tell us they still turn to people they originally met in one of our seminars to work through issues and consider different perspectives.

An example of the cohort model is our version of the Critical Friends approach developed by the Annenberg Institute, based on the following tenets: no leader succeeds on their own; everyone needs trusted associates to provide a bit of distance from a specific problem; everyone can benefit from different perspectives and advice about what to do. Our cohorts implement this collaborative problem-solving approach, and we have exercises specifically on how to form a critical friends circle of trusted associates. In the words of one participant, “The component of this experience that will have lasting value is the relationships that I have built with a group of like-minded leaders who are developing the same skills that I am. They have become my friends and my support system.”

Key Questions to Ask

If you are designing a leadership develop program for your institution or reviewing an existing one, five key questions can help to ensure that you are creating intentional, principled leadership programming.

  1. Will your participants leave with a set of practical tools with which they can experiment and learn?
  2. Where in your programming do participants consider their personal values and goals and intentionally explore the dual nature of academic leadership?
  3. How does this programming provide time to reflect, practice and incorporate new ideas and skills into leaders’ daily habits?
  4. Is it all theoretical, or is it rooted in the daily experience of actual higher education leaders?
  5. Will participants be able to build a network of trusted peers in the process?

Effective and ethical leaders develop over time, through practical, repeated exposure to knowledge and skills, exercised through challenging scenarios and case studies that promote practical judgment and reflection. We hope that these guidelines and questions help your institution identify and build high-quality, principled leadership-development activities.

Jacob J. Ryder is a project associate at the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the center, professor emerita of business and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Elizabeth A. Luckman is a clinical assistant professor of business administration with an emphasis in organizational behavior. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the university.

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