Faculty Focus


A 10-Point Survival Guide to Being, and Staying, an Academic Leader – Part 2

Editor’s Note: Today we feature part 2 of Dr. Greenstreet’s “10-Point Survival Guide to Being, and Staying, an Academic Leader.” If you missed part 1, please click here for yesterday’s post.

6. Talk straight: Someone once said: “Sincerity is the key to good leadership — if you can fake that, you’re in.”

This is not the best advice, as the bumpy progress of many a politician has shown. Every day, you talk to many people, often on the same subject. If you spin a different story to one and not the other, you will be caught. Maybe not immediately, but when you do, there goes your credibility. Tell the truth at all times. Be economical with it — everyone doesn’t need to know everything — but be direct and honest, even if it may be uncomfortable at times. In the long run, it’s better to be known as a trusted and honest leader whose words have credibility and consistency even if the message you deliver is not always what everyone will want to hear.

7. Borrow freely: Very little is new in academic administration. A lot of very smart people have come before us, and they’ve tried just about everything. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find out what others have done and shamelessly appropriate the ideas, adapting them as necessary. My decanal colleagues and I have been pilfering each other’s ideas for years — the phrase ‘bubonic plagiarist’ has been used on occasion — and usually improving on the other’s performance in the latter iterations of each idea.

8. Go with your strengths: Administrators all have different styles and different strengths. If you’re a detail-oriented person focused on the inner workings of your school, be careful if you enter an arena that expects you to be the Vision Person or the Outside Dean — the transition may be difficult. Play to your strengths, be true to your core characteristics and choose a role and/or a school which is compatible to your skills. Even if the match isn’t perfect, do your job in the best way that utilizes your skills. The results are likely to be better than if you retool mid-task.

9. Look, listen and learn: Most day-to-day problems stem from poor communication — people not telling their story clearly (see Point 5) or others not hearing — or rather hearing, but not necessarily listening. A good legal contract has been described as a ‘meeting of the minds.’ If you want your mind to meet those of others, concentrate on what they are saying, both in words and in their body language. Ask frequent questions, confirm key details (‘so you mean…’) and commit the result of any actions to paper as soon as possible.

10. Do it with humor: Leaders are asked constantly to speak at a conference or meeting, or provide opening remarks at any number of events, often with very little notice. Humor is a serious tool that can set the tone, leaven otherwise doughty comments and actually increase the likelihood that your words are being heard — people listen more if they are interested and/or entertained.

Of course, not everyone is a natural comedian, so choose your material carefully. Keep a file of short jokes, anecdotes, quotations, statistics, lists — anything that might one day be relevant to commentary you have to make. Even the dullest of bureaucrats can light up a presentation with a well-chosen quote or appropriate aphorism.

While there may be no real secret to sustaining a long career as an academic administrator — it could be luck and circumstance — developing skill sets that attitudinally engage you more with your colleagues and programs are a good first step in being an effective leader in a current climate where short-term change is prevalent.

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