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Assessing Leadership Needs

Leadership and Management

Assessing Leadership Needs

Creating a successful academic leadership program at a college or university requires first knowing what skills, practices, and attributes you need to develop in current and prospective leaders and then structuring opportunities to provide that development. But how do you know what those needs are so that you can address them most effectively? There are several widely recognized ways of achieving this goal, but as we’ll see, some of the most common approaches institutions adopt for assessing their leadership needs don’t result in the level of improvement they want. What are they doing wrong, and how can they do better?

Existing responsibilities

Probably the most common mistake institutions make when trying to determine the content of their academic leadership programs is basing them too closely on the duties outlined in formal job descriptions. If the position announcements that are developed when searching for new academic leaders say that department chairs do A, B, and C and that deans do D, E, and F, then (so the thinking goes) any leadership development that is created should teach people how to do A through F. But there are problems with this approach.

To begin, no academic leaders worth their salt do exactly and only what’s outlined in their job descriptions. A job description is, by necessity, a very blunt instrument that provides only the most general idea of what the leader’s duties are. Once in a position, every good academic leader makes the job his or her own. The visionary develops great visions. The detail-oriented worker masters the details. The great communicator builds bridges through communication, and so on. As everyone who has ever held an academic leadership position can attest, 90 percent or more of what leaders actually do in their jobs is either the result of their own initiatives or buried in the line of the job description that ends “and other duties as assigned.” You don’t get much specific guidance from that.

The second problem is that the assumption behind this approach is that the participants in the program will only be people with formal leadership titles like chair or dean. But the best academic leadership programs recognize that no one needs a title to be a leader. Some of the most influential faculty leaders are never assigned specific titles; they simply rise to fill a perceived need. And a leadership program that doesn’t address the needs of informal, prospective, and potential leaders will miss the groups of stakeholders that it could help the most.

The third problem is that job descriptions attempt to address what academic leaders do now; a leadership development program also needs to prepare its participants for what they’ll need to do in the future. Even worse, formal job descriptions are frequently out of date. By basing a leadership development program only on the duties outlined in these sources, an institution runs the risk of preparing leaders who are perfectly prepared to serve their programs—as they were a decade or more ago.

 Self-perceived needs

Another mistake leadership development programs make in planning their content is to survey prospective participants about what they believe their needs to be. But the fact of the matter is that people’s greatest leadership needs tend to be things they’re unaware of. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is famous (or perhaps notorious) for distinguishing between known and unknown unknowns.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

One’s own leadership needs very commonly fall into Rumsfeld’s category of unknown unknowns. We don’t perceive them, either because we’re blind to our own limitations, or because they represent some future need of our institutions that hasn’t even appeared on our radar as of yet.

If you’re an experienced academic leader who’s trying to prepare the next generation of leaders, it may even be better to trust your own instincts than to survey the needs of your future participants. As Steve Jobs is reported to have told Business Week, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Much the same thing can be said of trying to design a leadership program through surveys and focus groups:  A lot of times, potential leaders don’t know what they need until you show them.

 Externally perceived needs

In much the same way, you can expand on this approach to tap into the instincts of other stakeholders who work with and benefit from the contributions of academic leaders. In other words, the single best way to assess leadership needs at your institution is not to ask the program participants themselves but to ask others who work with those leaders. Survey seasoned and former deans and department chairs to find out where they sensed the greatest gaps between the skills they had and the skills they needed when they first began their leadership positions. Ask the people to whom participants report and the people who report to the participants what the skills of those in your program already are and what skills they currently lack. Pay attention to the issues that appear to be emerging at other institutions globally as reported by such publications as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Change, and Academe. If those problems and opportunities haven’t reached your school yet, it’s only a matter of time before they do. Start including them in your leadership curriculum to be ahead of the curve.

Most importantly, don’t overlook the fact that the most important aspects of leadership taught in the best academic leadership programs are rarely mentioned in the titles of the sessions. Certainly there can be workshops on budget preparation and conflict management and strategic planning, but the skills most academic leaders really need involve learning how to be adaptable to a rapidly changing higher education landscape. Create exercises that compel participants to make decisions on the basis of flawed or inadequate information, since academic leaders rarely know everything they’d like to know about an issue before they have to act. Present them with case studies in which their decisions have unintended consequences, because such unpredictable consequences often arise in actual leadership roles. And develop opportunities that encourage participants to remain flexible, because in the complex environment of higher education leadership, maximum flexibility is probably the most important skill we can have.


DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, http://archive.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=2636 

“Steve Jobs’ Best Quotes Ever,” Wired. http://archive.wired.com/gadgets/mac/commentary/cultofmac/2006/03/70512?currentPage=all

Jeffrey L. Buller, PhD, is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.


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