Four Lessons from The Toughest Leadership Job(s)

Where is it hardest to be a leader?  A major company attempting a comeback… a huge conglomerate like General Electric…leading major government agencies?  In an article in Forbes, Rob Ashgar claims that the toughest leadership job isn’t being head of one of America’s major companies, but rather being the president of a major university.

I would expand his thesis to include being in any leadership position within higher education (e.g., VPs, deans, department chairs, program directors).  The principles he writes about apply to all levels of higher education leadership.  I have formulated them as four things to consider to be a successful leader in higher education:

  1. You must be willing to slowly bring change through collaboration and discussion rather than through dictate.  In my experience as a leader and follower within university settings, I’ve seen there’s a perfect balance of strong vision and collaboration/flexibility that is required to successfully attain changes.  I’ve learned from both my own mistakes and the mistakes of others when that balance hasn’t been reached.
  2. You don’t have the ability to fire people on a whim.  Due to the longevity of people’s careers in universities and tenure protections, real change only happens when people buy-in to it, not because it’s forced.
  3. When tasking someone with a project, you don’t “assign it,” but instead you persuade someone to consider taking it on.  In particular, faculty members hate to be “assigned” anything and will typically resist a mandated assignment.  Again, skills in persuasion are absolutely essential at all levels.
  4. You must have the ability to lead through a complex and multifaceted mission.  Many universities strive to delivery quality academic programs (oftentimes at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels), want to produce cutting-edge research, and have a mission to serve their communities, regions, and the world.  The multifaceted mission is something that leaders at all levels must balance.  In addition, presidents have to deal with athletic departments and medical centers that are in some ways separate organizations.

I should clarify that I think Ashgar oversimplifies the task of leaders in corporates settings.  As I’m sure he would agree, successful leadership in corporate settings isn’t as simple as having clear vision and ordering people around.  I would argue that many successful leaders in corporate settings utilize many of the same principles outlined above.

Collaborative leadership and transformational leadership approaches are applied in various settings and utilize many of the principles outlined in his article.  I agree that corporate leaders could learn from the best examples of higher education leadership (and perhaps from the examples of poor higher ed leadership as well!).

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