Leadership Qualities

Leadership Qualities

I am in San Antonio, Texas, this weekend at a conference of the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC), the annual gathering of “Chief Academic Officers.” I have been before, and looked forward to coming. It is one of the best professional development opportunities for academic leaders in independent, non-profit institutions I have come across. The sessions have been not just consistently good, but consistently excellent. Yesterday I spent the day with new Provosts (I mean the whole day, 7:30 AM to 9:00 PM) and will meet with them again today. If anyone thinks that academic conferences are a perk or like a political junket, they are mistaken. Today I have already met with three providers of administrative services we need, and a consultant, went to a session on reorganization of academic divisions of universities, and am planning on at least one, maybe two sessions on legal issues peculiar to institutions of higher education. Tomorrow, along with more sessions, I will meet with the group of Deans and Provosts of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. And I have seen some old friends and am making some new ones who I will see at future conferences, and can contact for advice and commiseration in the future.

Last night we heard an address by Lee Bolman co-author with Joan Gallos of Reframing Academic Leadership (2011). He presented their way of thinking about higher education which had the merit, it seems to me, of helping us see the complexity of higher education institutions, why they can be both so creative and so unchangeable at the same time. I have the book on my shelf, recommended to me earlier by Cindy Steele, Executive Director of our Regional Centers (and Interim VP for Student Services) who worked with it in her doctoral program at Azusa Pacific. I will have to get to it soon, while I have some questions in mind.

At the end of his talk Bolman gave us “a” list of leadership qualities, commenting that everyone seems to have their own list. The lists we find overlap and are often unsystematic, being the result of experience and discussion rather than scientific investigation. In this way leadership qualities are much like the discussion of ethical “virtues,” the qualities that define a person as “good,” or “excellent” morally. His list was instructive, unique, I thought, and interesting. He said that “Great Leaders” have or are:

  • Clear sense of focus and those around notice it.
  • Passionate about the institution they serve—with a love for place, people and/or purpose.
  • Courage to make difficult or unpopular decisions and lead into an unknown future.
  • Wisdom–an appreciation of complexity and the ability to hold things together.
  • Integrity, which encourages trust in those whom they lead.

As I thought about it though, there seems to me to be another way of framing these qualities, at least this is what I have noticed. So my list would say that leaders have or are:

  • Integrity first—without trust in their words and basic fairness they will not be trusted for anything else. In this case the order of the list matters.
  • Successful—they are known to be able to achieve and bring their organization and followers to common success, and often they are successful in life. This quality requires focus, passion and courage. Too often this seems too instrumental, but I would argue that we have to employ passion, courage and focus for the right ends, the right mission, and in the right measure. And the only way to know if someone has done so is by their success. The higher in an organization a position is, the more we look for a track record of success, with all of the qualities required for this. I put this second on my list because without it, we wouldn’t and shouldn’t follow a leader. A quality of leaders is success.
  • Wisdom—I like what Bolman said, but I would add, that wisdom includes a unique insight into particular situations, how to approach what we face here and now and an ability to balance priorities in right proportions for that task at hand. He may also say this elsewhere.
  • Generosity. I believe this is essential. Generosity is not just about giving money, it includes recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of others, of offering both praise and compensation, and opportunities for others to try something new and exercise their strengths. I have been the recipient of organizational generosity by others and appreciate it in those who have led me.
  • Openness—the ability to respect, to listen, to seek out new ideas wherever they might be found, as well as an appropriate transparency which in turn encourages trust. Openness also includes hopefulness about the future, to what is coming. Open leaders do not withhold what should be known, and hope in the future of their organization and people.

For the time being, it seems to me that my list has some merit, but I would appreciate comments and critique. I realize that I have combined categories—success is somewhat different than the others. Perhaps if Bolman had said his list was of the qualities “successful” leaders have I might have accepted it more readily. But I would still want to add generosity and openness. I have increasingly become more tolerant of these kinds of “system-breakers” if they help us see things more clearly.

Finally I would say that these qualities (and also Bolman’s) are compatible with our Christian faith. We might describe them as the virtues of Christian leaders. We believe we approach them better with the help of grace and faith, and not solely on our own strength. The last three in particular require a certain humility, a particularly Christian virtue, and the three, or at least the last two seem to me to be particularly Christian while I recognize they can be found in other philosophical and spiritual traditions.

This is my list for now. You never know what you will find at a conference. Off to another session…

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Academic Administration Leadership Success

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