Seven Big Ideas for Academic Leaders: How You Lead Matters!

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what influences academic leadership

During my time as a dean, I’ve learned a lot about budgets, fundraising, strategy, recruitment, retention, and personnel matters, but I’ve also discovered seven big ideas about how my outlook and approach influence my leadership.

Big Idea 1: Optimism matters

With so many negative stories about higher education in the media, it’s easy to feel frustrated about the expectation to always “do more with less.” Therefore, it’s essential to be an optimistic leader.

  • Be a beacon of hope. Find silver linings in your challenges, and give your faculty and staff reasons to work hard to navigate toward better times.
  • Be a cheerleader for your college—internally and externally. Show your college spirit, highlight positive accomplishments, and help others see the college in a positive light.

Big Idea 2: Kindness and care matter

In the high-pressure world of higher education, kindness, appreciation, and even a smile can make a huge difference.

  • Appreciate what faculty and staff do. Thank them for their efforts and contributions.
  • Take time to get to know your faculty, staff, and students. If you know and care about the people you are leading, it makes your work more meaningful, compelling, urgent, and rewarding.
  • Celebrate often. Celebrate birthdays, homecoming, awards, work anniversaries, student success, and promotions to show that you care about those you lead.

Big Idea 3: Communication matters

Communication is not an occasional consideration for academic leaders—it’s a daily priority and opportunity for you to improve your leadership.

  • Develop open lines of communication with your direct reports so they come to you with issues before they become catastrophes.
  • Stop by offices to say hello. Visit classrooms to offer words of appreciation, encouragement, and pride for the college. Be visible and accessible so you can hear things that will help you be a better leader.
  • Seek input. Create a climate where faculty, staff, students, and alumni offer suggestions, innovative ideas, and honest feedback.

Big Idea 4: Intentionality matters

Making data-based decisions is important; however, data alone may not tell the whole story. Be sure to consider how decisions will affect students, families, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners.

  • Don’t rush just to get an issue resolved. Take time to understand the situation and possible outcomes so you can make the most informed and strategic decision.
  • Write it down. Take notes so you don’t forget, and review your notes at the end of each day to make sure you follow up on those things that require further attention.
  • Truly engage, participate, and advocate during meetings. Don’t get distracted by checking emails or working on other tasks.

Big Idea 5: Relationships matter

Being an academic leader is “people work.” Whether you are interacting with faculty, staff, students, alumni, community partners, or prospective students and their families, strive to build positive, productive relationships.

  • Get to know your faculty, staff, and students and let them get to know you. If you have to address a challenging matter, it will be more effective (and possibly easier) if you already have a relationship with the people involved.
  • Devote time to engage with alumni and donors. They can provide helpful insights as well as important support such as recruitment, student mentoring, advice, donations, and student internships.

Big Idea 6: Collaboration matters

Because leadership in higher education is relatively flat, academic leaders must rely on consensus building.

  • Build a shared leadership team that meets frequently. Seek input from this team to hear multiple perspectives to inform your decisions on challenging issues and to leverage promising opportunities.
  • Build collaborative relationships with key players who influence your college including senior campus leaders, other deans and chairs, legislators, and accrediting boards. Such collaborations can help you navigate challenges and give you a chance to offer input before important decisions are made.

Big Idea 7: Inspiration matters

While it’s easy to get caught up in the transactional nature of being an academic leader, strive to be the kind of leader that others want to follow.

  • Once you have collaboratively determined your college’s vision, mission, values, and strategic priorities, keep focused on those so everyone understands the direction you are all heading. Within that framework, praise hard work, set audacious goals, embrace innovative ideas, and create a context where people come to work excited to be part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Be a builder. Build support, donations, and programs. Build your unit’s reputation, student support services, and scholarship opportunities. Build enthusiasm and a sense of pride for your college.

Final thoughts

That’s quite a list, but as I’m reminded daily, being an academic leader is a huge responsibility. And I have one final big idea to share—remember to breathe, smile, and take care of yourself so you can get up tomorrow and do it again!

Laurie Elish-Piper, PhD, is dean, distinguished teaching professor, and presidential engagement professor in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University.