Faculty Focus


Top 10 Traits of an Effective Academic Leader

Despite all that has been written about leadership, the question still remains: What does it take to be an effective academic leader?

At the risk of being redundant, and with apologies to David Letterman, here are the top 10 characteristics that I have found to positively contribute to effective leadership.

Number 10: Follow procedures and adhere to policies. Effective leaders are essentially good followers. They know it is not a good idea to behave as a lone wolf, but that they must instead keep their work priorities aligned with the organization’s goal and have an appropriate sense of self-importance.

Number 9: Submit to the authority of others. Closely related to number 10 is the recognition that we are all under the authority of someone, whether it is a supervisor, director, president, board of governors, or whomever else.

Number 8: Take risks. Sometimes it is necessary for leaders to step outside the box, to be innovative. Leaders must be flexible enough to know when it is time to try a new procedure or implement a new policy.

Number 7: Commitment. Any person who assumes a leadership role needs to be committed to the group. An effective leader is a person who can commit to using his or her ability to lead others, perform technical skills, and conceptualize situations, thus helping to ensure goal achievement.

Number 6: Be proactive. Covey (1989) points out the need to be proactive. Individuals who assume leadership must take the proverbial bull by the horns and move forward to be successful.

Number 5: Expect conflict. Conflict among people is a natural, inevitable, and constant factor of human interaction. An effective leader expects conflict and is able to manage it in a productive manner.

Number 4: Tell the truth, but with compassion. To some degree conflicts occur because people are not able to differentiate between task-related conflict issues and their personal investment in a given situation. Bracey, Rosenblum, Sanford, and Trueblood (1990) point out the importance of truthfulness in leadership. Yet at the same time the leader must compassionately tell the truth (e.g., about a faculty member’s job performance, etc.).

Number 3: Listen. Communication plays a vital role in the achievement of interpersonal and organizational goals. Communication is a two-way process. Effective communication requires leaders capable of effective listening. Covey’s (1989) Habit #5, Seek First to Understand, Then Seek to Be Understood, reflects the epitome of effective listening.

Number 2: Love people. Roger D’Aprix stated that leaders must be “loving in [their] organizational relationships” (cited in Goldhaber, 1993, p. 217). “Loving” in this context means that we acknowledge the value of our coworkers and respect them with the dignity they deserve.

Number 1: Check your attitude. Amid the natural chaos and interpersonal interactions, effective leaders are determined to ensure not only that personal goals are reached, but more important, that the group achieves its objectives and fulfills its mission.

Bracey, H., Rosenblum, J., Sanford, A., & Trueblood, R. (1990). Managing from the heart. Atlanta: Heart Enterprises.

Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Shapiro, P. (2005). Too many leaders?…or do we use the term “leader” too freely? News & Tools Leadership, 1(2),

Wergin, J.F. (2007) (Ed.). Leadership in place: How academic professionals can find their leadership voice. Boston: Anker.

Goldhaber, G.M. (1993). Organizational communication (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Dr. Willis M. Watt is the director of organizational communication and leadership at Methodist University.

Excerpted from 10 Recommendations toward Effective Leadership, Academic Leader, Jan. 2008.