The following section is an excerpt from our introductory chapter in Strategic Transformation of Higher Education: Challenges and Solutions in a Global Economy (Sutin and Jacob 2016, Chapter 1), which provides an overview of my leadership philosophy.
In the midst of a constantly changing higher education landscape, there is a need for strong and strategic leadership. Leadership is fundamental to ensuring that higher education continues to provide quality graduates, cutting-edge research, and increasingly, exceptional customer service. Strategic leadership in higher education is based upon a set of personal characteristics and core values developed over the course of one’s lifetime. These characteristics and core values serve as a moral compass to guide leaders in all that they do (Covey 1989). Often, higher education leaders pattern their individual characteristics and values after positive leader role models they encountered in their past. In this way, leadership is often modeled by the many exceptional leader and mentor examples individuals have had the opportunity to meet and learn from (Kalungu-Banda 2006; Kerr 2001).
Higher Education leaders should also be grounded on a set of core values. The following six core values are deemed essential for successful higher education leadership.
- High Morals and Ethics. Moral and ethical leadership is the first-listed core value of higher education leadership for a reason—it is the foundation that students, teachers, and administrators can mutually build upon to achieve sustainable success (Brown and Treviño 2006; Greenleaf 2009). Ultimately, consistent moral and ethical leadership helps establish organizational virtue, positive reputation, and high performance (Cameron et al. 2004).
- Innovation and Creativity. Successful higher education leaders encourage innovative thought, teaching pedagogies, and practices. Leaders should come prepared to offer meaningful solutions to help overcome challenges within organizations. Innovation is at the heart of cutting edge research and teaching practices that are often required to best meet the unique challenges and needs of an increasingly diverse and changing field of education. Enabling leaders help establish an institutional culture and atmosphere that helps innovation flourish in many varieties, including disruptive innovation (Christensen and Eyring 2011; Christensen et al. 2011).
- Community Engagement and Service. Leaders should ideally be engaged and serve in the communities associated with their higher education assignments. This includes encouraging faculty members and students to do the same within their respective areas of expertise and personal and professional networks. Reaching out and engaging others provides leaders with an ability to build meaningful local, national, and international networks in a strategic way. It also enables leaders to better balance their many responsibilities by partnering with others (Jacob et al. 2015; Patterson et al. 1999).
- Good Governance. Leadership should adhere to the principles of sound governance—organizational behavior based on appropriate theory and practice, sufficient information flow, transparency, and accountability. These principles should serve as a standard of excellence in all areas of our instruction, research, and practice. Successful higher education leaders encourage strategic planning, record keeping, and setting goals (Hitt et al. 2013). Periodic progress evaluations set a standard of accountability for goals and assignments given.
- Reflective Practice. It is important for higher education leaders to take time to reflect on various areas that are essential to help improve their organization. One of the greatest weaknesses of leaders is that they are often too busy to take the time necessary to evaluate and improve on what they have learned (Griessman 1994). Everyone makes mistakes, and it is important to learn from these mistakes. Good governance is a reciprocal and reflective leadership practice that includes important evaluation and feedback loops to help learn from our mistakes and find ways for continual improvement. Effective verbal and written communication skills are also needed as a reflective leader, and in team environments through attentive listening, consensus building, motivating, negotiation, conflict resolution, and persuasion.
- Team Work and Synergy. It is important for higher education leaders to strive to establish an organizational atmosphere that encourages each team member to become the best that they can (Patterson et al. 2002). We all have different strengths and talents and together we can achieve much more than if we go at it alone. Synergy is an essential ingredient to any high-performing team (Covey 2013). There are often many ways to accomplish any given task in higher education. Effective leadership includes an ability to reach out to and be willing to work with those who may have differing opinions and perspectives than we do (Miles and Snow 1994).
Among the many characteristics we consider important in higher education leadership, the following eight are perhaps most essential.
- Integrity. Honesty remains among the most important foundational characteristics of leaders in every field, and especially in higher education. Sometimes it is difficult to do the right thing. Higher education leaders must remain steady when it comes to abiding by government laws, regulations, and setting the example for others to follow. While contexts, challenges, and relationships continuously change, integrity is something that should never be compromised. The most successful leaders are true to themselves and have substance; they are genuine and able to draw from their unique personality strengths (Bennis 1989).
- Dependable. Being fully committed to one’s institution, assignment, and responsibilities is a second fundamental characteristic. Higher education leaders must be dependable. This is essential, whether it be related to your job, personal area of expertise, or in relation to community service opportunities. Regardless of the circumstance, it is important to approach each assignment with dedication and a willingness to see it through to the end. Commitment to others is a crucial element in team development, and is especially important for leaders to model so that others will feel like they are part of a high-performing team. When difficulties arise, and they often do in higher education contexts, leaders remain steady and can be looked to for guidance and as exemplars.
- Excellence. Successful higher education leaders strive for excellence in several key areas and set an expectation for others to do the same. It is virtually impossible to achieve exceptional performance without first having a goal to do so, and this pertains to all areas of instruction, research, and community engagement. Strategic planning is an essential and ongoing process to achieve sustained excellence in higher education.
- Humble. Successful higher education leaders are humble. Maintaining a constant desire to learn is fundamental in education and in higher education leadership. Learning can and should come from many sources, including through personal study, and perhaps most importantly from others. Being able to listen to others helps leaders better understand their perspectives and needs. Learning at the individual, group, and institutional levels is an on-going process; leaders need to help forge an atmosphere and culture where this learning is continuous (Duke 2002; Senge 1990).
- Empathetic. It is essential for leaders to learn about and love those they lead. This can only be achieved by showing empathy to others and it includes getting to know them and truly understanding the diverse circumstances and needs that they have. When solid and trusting relationships are established by team members of an organization, there are tremendous opportunities for personal and collective growth.
- Empowering. In a collaborative way, effective leaders help establish a higher education organizational mission and vision and effectively communicate them to others. The most effective leaders give others opportunities to participate in carrying forward leadership initiatives, including the implementation of a shared mission and vision for their respective units. No matter how talented the leader is, they cannot and should not do everything themselves. They proactively seek out and include others in decision-making processes. This inclusive, collaborative, and shared-governance approach motivates others to help share the leadership load and creates a greater sense of buy-in, ownership, and commitment (Blanchard et al. 1999).
- Results-Based. In order to obtain excellence in higher education, leaders should set a standard of expecting quality efforts from all within their organization. Generally speaking, quality inputs lead to quality results. A results-based management approach is a best leadership practice, which includes establishing an atmosphere of progress reporting, continual improvement, and reflection that enables leaders to identify and report on areas of self- and organizational-improvement. Establishing a results-based culture within a higher education unit—which could be institution-wide or pertinent to a smaller unit within a higher education institution (HEI)—ultimately leads toward establishing a foundation where the four principles of good governance (coordination, transparency, information flow, and accountability) can flourish. When higher education results are measured, results improve. When higher education results are measured and reported, “the rate of improvement accelerates” (Monson 1970).
- Prudence. The post-global financial crisis era (post-2007-2008) has only amplified the need for greater fiscal prudence in all areas of higher education leadership. The most successful higher education leaders are strategically prudent with their time, money management, and in judgement areas where decisions have a meaningful and lasting impact.
The Higher Education Leadership Wheel visually displays each of the core values and essential characteristics of successful higher education leaders (view the Higher Education Leadership Wheel here).
We also provide an additional set of important characteristics common among the most successful higher education leaders. There is also a space for other characteristics that may be important or essential, depending on the leadership position. These core values and leadership characteristics are foundational to strategic leadership in higher education. In many ways they serve as a guide when leaders are faced with new challenges and don’t necessarily have a blueprint to follow.
Remaining adaptable to changing circumstances, contexts, and the various needs of a diverse student body, faculty, administrators, staff members, and the many additional stakeholders we engage with on a regular basis is key to a strategic leadership approach. Successful higher education leaders always come prepared with a number of eclectic leadership approaches to best meet the needs of diverse challenges, situations, and contexts.
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