August 17, 2017

One of the Toughest Leadership Jobs: The College Presidency | Leading from the Library

Steven BellAn uptick in a number of college presidents leaving their positions early on, along with two new reports on the skills necessary to be an effective college leader, shed some light on what it takes to lead a complex organization.

From the higher education worker’s perspective, on any given day, all can seem to be going well in the president’s office. Which is why learning that our president is unexpectedly resigning, or is suddenly in battle with the trustees, comes as shock to us. I speak from recent experience. At my institution our president, who seemed to be leading effectively—despite some tensions with the surrounding community over a planned stadium project—was revealed to be at the center of some troubling events. Just a few days after the news broke, the president was shown the exit door. As leadership positions go, college president has to be one of the toughest at which to succeed—perhaps even more demanding than comparable positions in industry or government.

Always on, always under pressure

Given the nature of the job you might wonder why anyone would want it, though “high risk, high reward” is no doubt an enticement for many aspiring college presidents. It’s a high pressure, 24/7 role that needs to constantly satisfy a multitude of constituencies. From the newest freshmen and their parents to the saltiest trustee, from the activist faculty member to the demanding donor, the president must work well with them all and win everyone over. Few other high profile leaders work in a similar shared governance setting where any project or change requires buy-in from faculty—not to mention external community partners—though corporate leaders are increasingly subject to the demands of activist investors. Always under the microscope, one wrong statement or  botched project could signal the end. In 2006 the average tenure of a college president was 8.5 years; in 2017 it is down to 6.5. Yet there are presidents who thrive for many years at one institution. What is it they do from which others can learn to be better leaders?

What leads to failure

One might think that after years of higher education experience as a provost dean, or possibly president elsewhere, or time as a seasoned corporate or political leader, a college president would be primed for success. While that expectation might work in other industries, higher education is a uniquely complex environment that requires a far wider range of skills in order for presidents to succeed. According to two new studies, the key elements of an increasingly turbulent landscape that presidents must navigate include technological changes, political uncertainties, financial pressures, demographic shifts, and cultural tensions. To be sure, some presidents doom themselves with poor decisions, insensitive statements, or , in the case of Temple University’s president,  abuse of power. In “Swift and Silent Exits”, Rick Seltzer reports that the causes of presidential resignations are often shrouded in secrecy, hence the popularity of “family matters” or “seeking new opportunities” as the public explanation. Increasingly, according to higher education analysts and executive search firms, presidents lack the ability to meet the demands and expectations of trustees. When the relationship sours, the president and board are quick to seek a parting of ways.

Basics over multitasking

Most surprising about the response to the current wave of turnover in the president’s office is that experts point to something startling: lack of leadership skills. You would think that before hiring a president, search firms, committees, and trustees would check that box on the skills list. The Deloitte and Aspen reports, linked to above, suggest that college presidents must be consummate multitaskers, blending a mix of strategic, financial, technological, and academic skills. According to past Northwestern University president and higher education consultant Richard M. Freeland, both reports overlook more basic leadership skills, such as vision articulation, organizational design, and team building. Freeland warns that “to equip presidents to succeed in this universe” what they need “is a combination of the traditional skills of strategic leadership combined with a long-neglected focus on organizational development.” Despite calls for college leaders to have an ever-widening array of skills, “Multitasking is not the answer,” claims Freeland, “in fact, it leads presidents and those who appoint them in entirely the wrong direction.”

Preparing future presidents

So how should higher education prepare its next generation of leaders? As it enters what might be the most tumultuous period in its long history, with declining enrollments and funding streams, competition from new education providers, challenging labor relations, and rising expectations from students and parents, higher education’s future depends on highly qualified presidents who can lead their institutions through difficult times. If the presidency devolves into nothing more than a leadership revolving door, our students and those of us who work in higher education will be worse off for it. That sense of urgency is behind the call for new and better pathways to the presidency and the preparation needed to lead in complex times. Higher education leaders are aware of this challenge, and now question what type of preparation and what set of skills will best keep the pipeline to the college presidency well stocked with candidates who can manage under pressure without undermining their ability to succeed. The Deloitte and Aspen reports, though not without fault, are steps in that direction.

Takeaways for aspiring library leaders

Developing a broad set of professional and technical skills, along with a deep understanding of library systems and workflows, will always be of value to librarians seeking leadership roles. But those skill sets are more suitable to managerial positions where the focus is on developing and supervising projects. I think Freeland offers wisdom when he states that most higher education leaders can articulate a vision, but if they lack the ability to establish priorities, organize and properly resource departments and units to accomplish them, enable key subordinates to focus on the tasks at hand, and monitor progress and make corrections as needed, then the vision goes unrealized.

That’s the weak link that brings down college leaders: failing to strategically manage the complex process of moving the organization to successfully complete projects. In other words, aspiring library leaders needs to learn how to bring their vision to fruition through the basics of strategy and organizational design and development. Despite what currently ails the college presidency, great examples of higher education leadership are out there. If your president or provost is a model for how to succeed, see if you can learn what they get right that allows them to avoid the fate of too many short-lived college leaders.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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