Filling an Empty Toolbox
The convention in many video games is for the players to begin with only a few rudimentary tools or weapons and then increase their arsenal as they complete more complex challenges. Administrative positions are amazingly similar. Most of us start out with few, if any, tools in our leadership toolboxes and add resources only as we mature, gain more experience, receive appropriate training, and learn from our mistakes. In fact, we make a lot of those mistakes initially, largely because our repertoire of administrative strategies is so small. In the familiar adage that’s been attributed to practically everyone from Mark Twain to Abraham Maslow, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” So if something has worked once to solve a problem—creating a task force, working with opinion leaders behind the scenes, or simply forging ahead by making a decision ourselves—we keep doing that until the time comes when that approach fails—perhaps spectacularly and destructively.
There has to be a better way. If our goal is to assist our programs as much as possible, there has to be a way we can gather the tools we need more effectively, systematically, and rapidly. The good news is that there’s not just one way; there are three.
Invest in administrative training
As academic professionals, we wouldn’t even consider allowing ourselves to fall behind in our disciplines. We keep up with new research through journals, attend conferences, and submit our own discoveries for peer review. But we don’t always take this same approach to our administrative work. Maybe we simply assume that we’ll pick it up as we go along. But colleges and universities are extremely complex environments in which to work, and they’re becoming more complicated all the time. Legal issues that affect higher education, best practices in strategic planning and assessment, effective ways of resolving conflict and promoting collegiality, how to respond in an emergency, and dozens of other important issues require detailed knowledge, training, and practice.
Publications such as Academic Leader are a key component of this administrative training. But participation in programs like the American Council on Education’s Leadership Academy for Department Chairs (www.acenet.edu/leadership/programs/Pages/Leadership-Academy-for-Dept-Chairs.aspx) or Kansas State University’s Academic Chairpersons Conference (www.dce.k-state.edu/conf/academicchairpersons/) provide a valuable immersion experience in issues affecting administrative professionals. Webinars and DVD courses, such as those provided by Magna Publications (www.magnapubs.com/online/seminars and www.magnapubs.com/store/), offer convenient opportunities to invest in leadership training without even leaving your home campus.
One other way of offering that type of training on your campus is to bring an administrative trainer to you by working with a service like ATLAS Leadership Training (www.atlasleadership.com) or the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org).
Learn from the mistakes of others
As we’ve seen, without an investment in administrative training, most of the things that academic leaders learn come about through trial and error. But the problem with that approach is that the errors can sometimes cause a whole host of problems before the best solution appears. That’s why, if you have to learn through mistakes, you’re better off learning through someone else’s rather than your own. We’ve all known presidents, provosts, and deans who have been wonderful role models for us, and we can learn a great deal from these positive examples. But we can learn a great deal more from the truly disastrous academic leaders we encounter because they show us so many things not to do.
In an episode of the old television series Seinfeld, George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander) decides that every decision he’s ever made has been wrong. As a result, he resolves to do the opposite of whatever his instincts tell him—and he finds that he’s beginning to become more and more successful. A variation of that strategy is a good way of beginning to fill your administrative toolbox. Consider what the worst academic leaders you’ve known have done—and do the opposite. If one brought about a disaster by dithering when action was required, draw the conclusion that what you need to do is to be more decisive. If another lost support of the faculty by consulting behind closed doors with only a small group of advisors, decide that you’ll be more transparent; block out time on your calendar to get out of your office simply to walk through the buildings most closely connected to your program. If the worst academic leader you’ve ever known created havoc by treating everyone as though they were unimportant, resolve that you’ll make your faculty and staff feel more appreciated.
Form internal networks
Finally, we should recognize that we’re not the only ones at our institutions trying to figure out how to be better administrators. Our fellow vice presidents, deans, and chairs are often dealing with many of the same issues. Although it’s not uncommon to get together with your peers as part of a dean’s council or provost’s leadership team, we don’t often take advantage of meeting with our colleagues for mutual support, advice, and encouragement. Gathering once a month to talk about current frustrations and the best ways to solve them, case studies in leadership challenges and the best ways to approach them, new initiatives at your institution and the best ways to pursue them, and the like can provide you with important leadership tools at little or no expense. Moreover, these internal networks offer us an opportunity to reflect on why it is we do what we do, and the insight that comes from this reflection isn’t likely to occur unless we set aside formal time for doing so.
Unless we happen to have degrees in management or higher education administration, most of us begin our positions as academic leaders with an empty toolbox. But learning on the job isn’t the only way we have available to us to increase our stock of administrative strategies. By being proactive in seeking out opportunities for leadership training, learning from other people’s mistakes, and forming our own internal networks, we have an opportunity to progress much more rapidly toward the level of expertise that both we and our stakeholders expect from our academic leaders.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.