12/21 — Vision is Only the Beginning: Educators Talk about Highly Effective Leadership in Colleges and Universities

David L. Nickel

David L. Nickel

David L. Nickel

Today, colleges and universities face existential challenges. With declining enrollment pools, constraints on public funding, and increasing questions about whether the high costs for college are ‘worth it’, effective leadership in higher education is more essential than ever before. In these challenging times, it is not just leaders and leadership that are needed, but highly effective leaders and leadership to help institutions of higher learning both survive and thrive. But what is highly effective leadership? What does it look like? What can be learned from current administrators in higher education regarding what is necessary for highly effective leadership in colleges and universities? Such insights can be helpful to those who aspire to leadership roles as well as to current leaders seeking to advance their effectiveness as leaders. 

Libraries are replete with books and articles seeking to shed light on this question. Theories of leadership have been advanced over the past 100 years ranging from the early trait theories, to behavioral and situational theories, to the more recent transactional and transformational models (Aalateeg). Kouzes and Posner included representatives from higher education in their extensive survey of what people look for in leaders and found traits of honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking mentioned most frequently (Kouzes & Posner). However, most of the work on effective leadership has focused on corporate settings with little attention to whether findings hold true in higher education. 

Colleges and universities differ in mission and goals from business and industry. Also, while corporate leadership flows downward from boards of directors and CEOs through the various organizational structures, colleges and universities have traditionally sought to follow a model of shared governance. A strong power base exists among the faculty who have sought authority or at least a voice in determining the direction and operation of the institution. These structural differences would seem to point to differences in characteristics of leadership effectiveness in higher education versus the corporate world and lead to the question of focus in this exploration,

‘What are the primary qualities, characteristics, and competencies of highly effective leaders in higher education?’

Informal discussions were held during 2019-20 with 26 higher education leaders in Ohio and adjoining states to determine their responses to this question. Six of these individuals were college presidents, vice-presidents or provosts, 12 were deans or department chairs, and 8 were faculty. Nineteen of the interviews were face to face, and the remaining seven were by telephone. Discussions were open-ended and non-directed, with spontaneous responses to the above question of interest recorded during or immediately after the interview.

Responses were grouped within categories of functions common to leaders in any organizational setting. Specifically, 

  • Developing the vision – identifying and analyzing current strengths, desired state, and strategies to move forward 
  • Gaining commitment –collaborating with others to gain and strengthen commitment to the vision and strategies
  • Empowering the team – motivating and enabling others to carry out needed actions
  • Delivering success – effectively implementing operations

Developing the Vision

Half of the 22 individuals interviewed emphasized the importance of a vision for the institution’s direction, particularly for the long term. To quote several of these individuals:

(President): ‘These are enormously challenging times in American higher education. The times call for leadership concerned about the long view rather than about tomorrow, capable of developing and articulating a compelling vision for the long term.’

(Dean): ‘The highly effective leader must have a vision and then must be able to articulate it clearly.’

(Faculty Member): ‘Vision is important, but it is only the beginning point. The leader must have clarity of goals and communicate the vision and goals consistently.’ 

(Dean): ‘It is important to be a visionary. You are responsible for your thinking, and it is important to get it down to the concrete. Have a vision so you can sort out the action items and concrete things to plan a strategy.’ 

Related to the ability to create a vision and strategies, there is a need for a high level of personal intelligence and critical thinking. Again, quoting, 

(President): ‘You must be really smart. In the academic world, the coin of the realm is intelligence. You have to figure out how to synthesize a lot of factors and think through them simultaneously. If you leave out one factor, it causes big problems.’

Several spoke of the need for belief in and commitment to the college’s mission, not for one’s own mission or personal aspirations. Others went on to talk about the importance of strategic thinking for achieving the vision, for innovation, risk-taking, and action orientation. For example, 

(Provost): ‘In higher education, they believe in their institution’s mission — to serve students, to foster high-quality research, to engage the community – whatever the focus of the institution’s mission is, leaders have to be aligned with it. Other university leaders’ vision must align with the president’s so that the entire institution moves forward.’

(President): ‘It makes a huge difference if you are willing to go with the identity of your institution and not be so arrogant as to say, ‘I must put my stamp on this institution.’ Of course, there has to be something unique about each leader’s contribution, but if it is not faithful to the institution’s real identity, it does not work.’ 

(Vice President): ‘Sometimes presidents lose their ethical grounding or their sense of mission and get greedy or begin to think that they’re the sole reason for the university’s success, and when that happens, they can make mistakes that cause them to fail. I think that sometimes presidents forget their institution’s mission, and then they fail.’ 

Gaining Commitment

In line with the role of shared governance in colleges and universities, half of the individuals interviewed emphasized the need for consultative and collaborative skills of leaders. Having the patience to work within the system was highlighted, as well as being receptive to diverse perspectives and dealing with a wide range of types of people. Being accessible and visible was emphasized as well as the quality of listening. One individual stated,

(Dean): ‘Language is important. ‘I have listened to your views, and I will take them under advisement.’ Now, with that, the person feels listened to and heard.’ 

(Department Chair): ‘Really good leaders employ their active listening skills — seek out what people are not saying, as sometimes that can be most important. They are also good at listening for deeper messages, in essence, looking for what is being said below the words.’ 

(Faculty Member): ‘This is key: Listen to their ideas and concerns. Listen, listen, listen. In addition to having and then communicating the vision, be a good listener.’ 

(President): ‘You, as a president, provost, or dean, must be able and fluent to talk to a wide range of faculty and students from a broad range of academic backgrounds.’ 

(Dean): ‘Others must feel psychologically safe in approaching the leader. This quality also helps in working across boundaries and building a sense of community and bringing people together.’

The special concerns related to operating with shared governance were noted.

(Provost): ‘Higher education leaders live with the expectation of shared governance – the idea that faculty have a stake in the institution and should be consulted about major decisions before they are made. Leaders are still decision-makers, but the expectation is that they will hear from those who have a stake in the institution. As universities and colleges become increasingly bureaucratic, and demand for accountability and compliance increases, shared governance becomes a much more difficult model, and many leaders find it hard to navigate. Additionally, managing boards of trustees is much more difficult than in the past. They are more in the weeds than they used to be. Boards often have no patience for the idea of shared governance since most of them have not been in the academy, and they believe in a corporate model of leadership.’

(Department Chair): ‘Leaders must be ‘brokers’ – both with people above you and also with people below you. Get people to meet in the middle, and that takes a lot of skill. So how does one do that? For one thing, you can use resources wisely to help the situation. Balance priorities.’ 

Half of the individuals interviewed mentioned the need for good communication skills and, specifically, public speaking skills.

Empowering the Team

Skills in gaining and maintaining the support of individuals to meet the institution’s objectives were viewed as incredibly important in leadership and were mentioned by 24 of the 26 individuals interviewed.  These included abilities to inspire and motivate others, skills of decision making, transparency, and emotional intelligence. For example,

(Department Chair): ‘It is important to be transparent in many things, particularly on finances. Instead of publicizing that you are transparent, be transparent. I tell them to come and look at the budget books anytime they want.’

Personal qualities of humility, honesty, integrity, and authenticity were emphasized by half of those interviewed as well as respect for others.

(Dean): ‘Leaders need to be humble in their disposition, but authoritative (energetic and action-oriented) for their college. That is, there has to be humility and the need to be grounded. The good leaders might exhibit more silence at times. At the end of my meetings with my staff, I say, ‘If I can help you in any way, please let me know.’ ‘Is there anything that I can do for you? Is there anything that I need to pay attention to or that I need to do better?’ 

(Vice President): ‘I always try to ask a person after a difficult conversation or after he or she shares a problem if the person feels better or worse after that conversation. That often conveys that I care about being a good listener and, when necessary, a problem solver. I have found over the years that people generally do appreciate that kind of closure after a conversation. And I, of course, ask it with sincerity.’

(Department Chair): ‘They must have humility and must be willing to receive feedback. They must be learners. They must have a sense of humor, and they must have integrity. They must have good emotional intelligence.’

(Dean): ‘We collide regularly with the economic challenges. Net tuition revenue is flat (or declining), yet healthcare costs go up, and employees want cost-of-living raises (at least). Capital projects require investments. And there aren’t that many other marginal costs to adjust. I mean, there are some, but after eight or ten years, you’ve picked all of the low-hanging fruit. So real honesty and openness about the trade-offs that are involved are crucial and also a capacity to commiserate or empathize as we take steps that ask people to do a little more, a little more, a little more (with less, with less, with less).’

(Dean): ‘Because it is important for others to feel psychologically safe, trusting, and comfortable in approaching and in speaking with leaders, being personable with others can enhance and foster such an atmosphere.’ 

Delivering Success

Of course, the bottom line is achieving institutional objectives – a process mentioned by 24 of the 26 subjects — and that requires ongoing attention to the strategies and actions necessary to meet goals. Competencies and characteristics mentioned here include empowering others, setting priorities, flexibility, resilience, willingness to own and learn from mistakes, and giving and welcoming feedback. To illustrate,

(Dean): ‘Be fast on your feet and able to make a decision fast. Be able to read a situation fast and come up to answer quickly.’

(Department Chair): ‘On handling people — I spend 95 percent of my time handling problem employees and staff (almost always faculty, not staff). Advice: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. How does a leader keep enemies closer? Visit them in their offices, say genuinely nice things to them, say ‘hello,’ give them recognition.’

(Dean): ‘Those leaders who do not let followers and colleagues disagree with them are setting themselves up for failure. They are not open to hearing of problematic areas, and thus, in time, those problematic areas can be a big factor in their later downfall. Leaders can fall into a sense of complacency. They can have a pattern and rhythm that helps them to feel that all is okay, when, in fact, trouble is brewing.’

(Dean): ‘Know and understand your people, always look to give opportunities. Reward people for their work. Raise their salaries to the extent that you can.’

(Faculty Member): ‘The empowerment of others is essential. People’s imaginations are more important than the leader’s ideas. The leader has to ignite the imagination of the collective. Inspire and give up control.’

(Vice President): ‘The latest brain science advances that there are at least five points in deep learning: 1) paying attention to work climate, 2) work to inculcate a sense of belonging, 3) transparency in assignments, tasks, evaluation, etc., 4) working on growth mindsets and trying to dispel fixed mindsets, and 5) reflection on practice. I believe all five of these elements can be translated into higher education leadership. Finally, I think every leader must have appropriate doses of empathy.’

A sense of humor was also noted as necessary.

(President): ‘A sense of humor and the ability to smile helps a lot, and it can help diffuse tense situations and help people keep their spirits up when they have been working too hard and too long.’

Reasons for Derailment

As a related question, ‘On a related slant, what are your observations as to what kinds of things derail leaders in higher education from continuing on their intended leadership trajectory?’

Interviewees were also asked to identify reasons for the derailment of leaders in higher education. Here the term, derailment, refers to being kicked off the anticipated leadership trajectory path, i.e., moving from positions of dean to vice president of academic affairs to president. It is not surprising that they cited inadequacies or absences of leadership skills and competencies discussed above as primary reasons for derailments. As examples, they identified having an excessive ego, failing to communicate and collaborate, and general problems with relationships as leading to leaders’ downfall. The lack of candor, lack of transparency, and lack of follow-through were linked to a loss of trust, goodwill, and confidence in the leader. Loss of personal credibility and support from superiors and colleagues could lead to leaders’ derailment. They also saw forgetting or making decisions incompatible with the institution’s mission or seeking to make changes too fast or slow as problematic. Again, relevant quotes are shared.

(President): ‘Hubris, ego problems, lack of confidence, arrogance, not appointing good people, or maybe appointing people who will be loyal but not working for a better future. Being afraid of being surrounded by people of better talent than you have. Putting people in the wrong positions for themselves.’

(President): ‘You must have, and then maintain, the confidence of those to whom you report. If the person or persons higher up are somewhat hesitant or, at least somewhat lukewarm in supporting or being promoting of you, this can lead to derailment.

(President): ‘The impression or persona that you project as a top leader is very important. If you project a dull or non-presidential persona, it will not work to your benefit.’

(President): ‘One can be derailed for not having enough intelligence. A leader needs to be able to assimilate and synthesize a large amount of information and from that, chart a good, clear, concise course that makes things happen in a good way. For example, with this Covid pandemic, issues with a broad range of interdependent factors must be considered – student and staff safety, course requirements, housing, cafeteria and transportation issues, potential loss of revenues, and so forth.

(Vice President): ‘I think some presidents don’t have the skills necessary to lead or are in it for the wrong reasons (ego, money, power, etc.), and those leaders often go through times where they are just mediocre. But leaders who seem to be on an upward trajectory can fail for many reasons: they forget that they need to keep faculty and students connected to their vision, or they fail to understand the cultural issues at their institution, or there is a mishap over a Title IX violation, a racial or LGBTQ incident, an athletics violation, or some other crisis that they cannot recover from and the board ousts them for lack of institutional control. Sometimes, presidents lose the faculty’s confidence, who may take a no-confidence vote and make it impossible for boards to continue supporting their presidents.’ 

Summary and Closing

While these findings of qualities and competencies needed for higher education leaders paralleled those found for leaders in corporate settings, several points are noteworthy.

 Interestingly, in today’s environment of tightening funds for higher education, not one of the individuals identified managing finances or fundraising as an essential skill for leaders in higher education. Nor were the challenges of maintaining or expanding enrolment mentioned. These omissions may reflect the way the questions were asked, with the focus on characteristics and competencies of leaders rather than leadership challenge. It could also reflect the designation of specific sections and individuals within the institution as responsible for these functions. Nonetheless, there was no indication of a shared sense of responsibility among the institutional leaders for these essential functions.

Interviewees mentioned using resources as a reward or motivational factor with the staff and the need for truthfulness and transparency about funding shortages. Throughout the interviews, they emphasized the importance of transparency to enable a sense of working together to achieve goals. An overall mindset of facilitating a sense of community within the institution was apparent.

A strong focus on communication and collaboration was noted throughout the interviews, with both upward, downward, and cross-departmental communication needs noted. Differences in perspectives of Board of Trustee members and the educational leaders was of concern, with CEO approaches to management sometimes at variance from the traditional institutional culture of shared governance. Clearly characteristics of leadership valued by Board members may well differ from those valued by academic communities and future exploration of the views of Board members would be of interest.

In closing, the two quotes below provide an overall summary and guidance for leaders in higher education.

(President): ‘I think the key to leadership in higher education is to have multiple leadership approaches. There will be times when decisions need to be made quickly, and a leader needs to be decisive. There will be times where the leader must be a facilitator, and top-down leadership will backfire. There are times to listen and times to talk. I suspect that colleges and universities require more breadth of their leaders than other organizations. In higher education, there are ‘points for style’ …that is, you can be right about what to do but, if you fail to lead appropriately for the situation, you will fail.’ 

(Dean): ‘The best leaders take the time to self-reflect, to have time for reflection as to how they handled something and, perhaps, how they could have handled things differently.’ 

It is my hope that the valuable insights gained from this article will allow current leaders in higher education to become more effective leaders thus resulting in higher quality institutions. Also, I would hope that implementation of the insights and wisdom gained from this article will help current leaders to move along more successfully on their own career trajectories.

Works Cited

Aalateeg, Sultan. (2017).  “Leadership Review on Leadership Theories”. IOSR Journal of 

Business and Management, 19 (11), 35-43.  [PDF] Literature Review on Leadership Theories | Semantic Scholar

Kouzes, James M. & Posner, Barry Z.  Leadership in Higher Education: Practices That Make a 

Difference. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019.

David L. Nickel, PhD, worked for over three decades in leadership and teaching positions in the academic and business sectors. In the academic sector, he worked for several years with the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University as Faculty Coordinator and Lecturer in the Fisher College of Business Industry Clusters program. He also taught short-term programs in China in association with Ohio State. He has taught numerous undergraduate business and MBA courses in central Ohio colleges and universities, focusing on leadership, management, change processes, and organizational development.  In the business sector, he served for 20 years as a manager and senior trainer of the leadership and management programs for senior, middle and front-line managers for the Goodyear and Lockheed Martin Corporations.


  1. Said E. Dawlabani on December 28, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Dear David,
    As inspiring as this research is, I fear it leaves out much of the elephant in the room that is the disruption being caused by the Digital Age. I might as well have been reading a piece from the 1980’s. Should higher education remain primarily a utility, ie a tool that helps people acquire skills for jobs, traditional 4-year colleges will become dinosaurs regardless of how much “innovation” people from within the system attempt to bring in. I didn’t hear specifics on embracing the myriad of new platforms towards which much of the new generation is gravitating. Nor were there specific about shifts towards life-long learning that defines the future job market, an to a greater extent the structure of the future of society and the critical role that higher education plays in it. If you’re familiar with the Spiral Dynamics model, most the responses you’rve listed from University presidents, deans and provosts are the recycling of Green and Orange values that have defined higher education for over a century. The future requires higher education to be designed from the much higher Yellow level of values that anticipate institutional disruption ahead of time and be on the cutting edge of social changes, not react with an old model designed from the highest levels of Orange and Green. Social disruption has gone exponential requiring models of education, governance and everything else to become lean, resilient, and capable of continuance change and adaptation. As brilliant as university educators are, they simply don’t see the future from the much higher level of consciousness that comes from the Yellow stage of human development.

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