A 10-Point Survival Guide to Being, and Staying, an Academic Leader

While entering the administrative ranks of academia might seem a formidable task, staying there presents a whole other series of challenges. The average length of stay for a dean, vice chancellor, or chancellor can often be fewer than five years and in some programs, the duration of leadership has been known to be considerably shorter.

Of course, many administrators move on or up to more appealing administrative jobs, but if you are considering the long haul — and quite frankly some believe it is hard to make substantial, meaningful change in fewer than five years — the following are a few thoughts on building a long-term administrative career relying, for the most part, on basic principles of communication and common sense.

1. Don’t bear a grudge: Every day, people will annoy you. They may not mean to, or they may have every intention of driving you to distraction but whatever the cause, there will be irritation — it’s the nature of your job. Being in a position of authority, you could have the opportunity to retaliate in ways large and small. Don’t.

“Getting even” really doesn’t feel that good and, more importantly, if your actions are viewed as petty and vindictive, your stock as a leader is diminished. Learn to rise above the irritation — it’s a more sustainable and appropriate response for a leader.

2. See the best in everyone and the bright side of everything: You may not believe all your colleagues are doing things the way you want them done or that aspects of the program are as good as they should be. Do the best you can to effect positive change — that’s your job.

Forcing change may be hard, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. So try a change in attitude — yours. Look for the best attributes in people and work with them. Sure, Professor X is not the most active senior member and hasn’t done a lick of research in 20 years but…he’s a pretty good teacher, popular with the students and alumni, and is generally ‘underappreciated’ by his colleagues. Encourage his teaching, take him out on an alumni event, put him forward for a teaching award — you may be surprised by the response.

3. It’s all about people: Regardless of mission statements, written curricula, and action plans, it all boils down to people — faculty and staff — to make it all work in the end. Talk to your colleagues about their work and aspirations, and be helpful where possible — even in very modest ways. Put them forward for awards, fund their requests wherever practicable, and take an active, personal role in their career development.

Where you have time, go walkabout — wander around the offices and chat to people on their territory about their classes, research or service, and send them notes/emails on their accomplishments. Building a long-term relationship with your colleagues heightens your value as a long-term administrator.

4. Think big picture: If your intention is to be part of the future of your program, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Day-to-day minutiae, crises, and administrative clutter can fill your life and waking hours and refocus you on short-term achievements. Remember to focus on the big stuff, ignore the ‘yes buts’ and the difficulties (at least at first) wherever possible, and keep your eyes on the horizon. Filter out the ‘noise’ of less important material, and stick to major principles. If not, you will quickly get immersed in details that confuse the final outcome of a vision.

5. Make sense of it all: Semesters begin with a bang, hurtle at breakneck speed through finals and end abruptly. Despite everyone’s best efforts, progress toward programmatic goals and even awareness of the program’s identity may be unclear or unshared by the players in the frantic rush to “get the work done.”

Try and develop a detached, critical overview of your program and be the commentator on its development. Once you’ve made sense of it all — or at least your version of it — try to communicate the story to the appropriate audiences, and engage your colleagues in constructive discourse about its future. Simplify. Then simplify again.

There are endless complications, nuances and complexities in everyday administration. Once you’ve cleared the noise to give you a chance to “think big,” don’t blow it by talking gibberish. Reduce your message to manageable concepts — short sentences, clear examples, appropriate metaphors, and no jargon.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE for part 2 of this article.

Robert Greenstreet, PhD., is the dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.