12 key traits of a successful higher education leader

Courageous administrators are needed now since some highly accomplished people have failed to lead institutions during times of turmoil.
Titilayo (Titi) Ufomata
Titilayo (Titi) Ufomata
Titilayo (Titi) Ufomata, is the senior vice president for academic programs at the Council of Independent Colleges, an association of more than 700 nonprofit independent colleges and universities, state-based councils of independent colleges and other higher education affiliates. She previously served as provost and senior vice president at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, provost and dean of faculty at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York and associate provost and distinguished professor at Kentucky State University.

What does it mean to be a leader? And more specifically, what does it mean to be a leader in higher education?

I have been thinking about and discussing this subject recently in different settings with different groups, including presidents and chief academic officers (both sitting and retired), vice presidents, board members, and members of the public. The conversations have occurred formally and informally in leadership development programs that I oversee for those aspiring to move into these roles.

Upon reflecting on these conversations, and from my extensive experience at different types of institutions as a faculty member and as a chief academic officer, I come to the same set of conclusions about those who succeed in leadership roles:

  1. Successful leaders recognize early that they cannot do their jobs alone and that they need the support of many people.
  2. Effective leaders know who they serve. They are in tune with their students and understand the issues important to their community. They have a clear idea of who else they need to be responsive to—including their alumni, parents, local community, funders, boards, faculty and staff.
  3. Such leaders consciously and explicitly acknowledge the multidimensional nature of their complex roles. While not managing businesses in the traditional sense of manufacturing, services and sales, they are leading multimillion-dollar organizations that have commendable goals of developing the next generation of leaders.
  4. Higher education leaders who succeed recognize that they are in a “people business” wherein they must be inspirational, aspirational, encouraging and astute at the same time. They embrace their role as the face of their institutions.
  5. These leaders are clear about their positionality as individuals and as leaders. They know who they are. They know what they stand for. They embrace the missions and values of their institutions. While institutional missions can evolve over time, institutional values hardly change. They often possess values that align with the values of the institutions they serve.
  6. Those who do well have the appropriate level of competence, sector knowledge and sector understanding. They exhibit an elevated level of cultural competence and emotional intelligence. All around us, in the current socio-political climate, we see how a lack of these competencies can lead to expensive mistakes.
  7. Presidents and other campus leaders are leading in a sector with inherent contradictions. People crave—in fact, demand—leadership, but do not want to be led. They demand innovation, but do not necessarily want change.
  8. At the heart of leadership in higher education is an understanding that there are different centers of power and the leader is guiding a coalition of leaders.
  9. Culture invariably wins when an outsider clashes with it. Effective institutional change management tends to be grounds up and not top down. Resistance tends to be reduced when a suggestion for change comes from someone the community trusts and sees as “one of them” and not from someone they consider an “outsider.”
  10. Good leaders understand that the process used to arrive at a decision is as important as the decision itself. Those who need to be consulted are consulted, those who need to be informed are informed so that people are not surprised by important decisions. This is the essence of shared governance. Done well, it is one of the distinguishing pillars of collegial life. Successful leaders recognize this and work hard to build relationships and trust which in turn confers on them the rights of an insider to do their work well and to introduce needed change.
  11. New campus leaders who are also the first of their kind in a role should be prepared for extra scrutiny. People will be curious about them. They might be held to higher standards. If they are brought in to solve a longstanding problem, the expectation could be that they would solve that problem within an unreasonable schedule. They must convince people they need time to get to know their new community and handle a complex set of responsibilities outside of the one issue.
  12. Strong leaders act with courage in tricky situations.

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The work of leading institutions is important and worthy. This list will continue to grow as the landscape of higher education shifts. More institutions are experiencing shortened runways and are having to deal with serious financial problems.

Partnerships, mergers, acquisitions and closures are on the rise. Increasingly, leaders need to collaborate with other institutions. The line between campus and community is blurring in a way that places institutions under intense and uncomfortable limelight while the value of higher education is being questioned. My hope is that higher education continues to attract and retain courageous and effective leadership.

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