How to Fail as an Academic Leader
Effective academic leaders teach us a great deal. They serve as inspiring role models, provide examples of best practices, and demonstrate that leadership at its best can utterly transform a college or university. But despite all the benefits we can derive from highly effective academic leaders, failed academic leaders actually teach us more. While much of the success that effective academic leaders have is due to their individual style and personality—which is often so unique to them that it can’t really be borrowed by anyone else—failed academic leaders provide a practical education in what not to do. Although their failures may also be due to their own styles and personalities, we can learn to avoid these mistakes and thus become at least a bit more effective in our own leadership environments.
In Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It, (The John Hopkins University Press, 2013) Stephen Trachtenberg notes that the reasons for failure at the presidential level “are relatively few in number and persistent. Presidents today lose their positions for the same reasons that presidents lost their positions in the past.” (Trachtenberg, 2013, 137. Among these “relatively few” reasons that Trachtenberg cites are ethical lapses, poor interpersonal skills, inability to work with key constituencies, difficulty in adapting to a new environment, failure to meet established objectives, and shortcomings of the governing board. (Trachtenberg, 2013, 129-130) Having learned a few additional lessons from failed academic leaders at all levels of the administrative hierarchy, I’d like to add several more examples from my own observations of how one can fail as an academic leader.
Assume that data can be equated with information
There’s a great deal of pressure on academic leaders to document how their programs are achieving the results they claim for themselves. In part, this tendency simply derives from the accountability culture that has been expanding in higher education for the past several decades. (See Buller, 2012, 3-22.) In part, too, it derives from an increasing skepticism among legislators, members of governing boards, students, and the parents of students that the high cost of a college education is actually a good investment.
In their eagerness to demonstrate that they’re “data driven,” certain academic leaders chart fluctuations in student credit hour production, retention rates, average time to graduation, and job placement rates on a daily (at times even hourly) basis. But these data frequently don’t tell the entire story. Comparing these figures from program to program or institution to institution blurs such factors as differences in mission, composition of the student body, and the less easily quantified contributions of an academic program.
An institution that provides access to a larger number of part-time working adults is inevitably going to have lower credit hour production per capita than an institution that primarily serves full-time residential students. A program with a mission to provide greater access to students whose prior academic performance doesn’t reflect their true potential will probably have higher attrition rates and lower four- and six-year graduation rates than an institution that only admits academic superstars.
Data can’t be equated with information. Information depends on understanding data in their proper context and taking into account factors that stubbornly resist measurement or assessment. Some academic leaders fail because they don’t fully understand this distinction.
Hire carbon copies of yourself
A second reason why many academic leaders fail is that they surround themselves with people who approach challenges in the same way that they do. It’s not uncommon for a new president to bring in a new team of vice presidents or for a dean to replace at least some of the existing department chairs. In many ways, this tendency is understandable: people want to work with their own “teams,” administrators who won’t resist the innovations they believe to be necessary. But filling your team with carbon copies of yourself can also cut you off from alternative points of view. It can be easy to believe that a perspective is widely shared across the institution simply because it’s echoed so frequently by those around you.
When others do offer an opposing view, the temptation will be to dismiss them or even begin regarding them as “the enemy.” In time, you’ll stop hearing alternative ideas because people will be afraid of your reaction or regard you as uninterested in what they have to say. Sooner or later, you’ll need the perspective that others could have offered because you and your team will have lapsed into groupthink. By cutting yourself off from the opinions that could prevent you from making a mistake, you’ll fail when you could so easily have succeeded.
Confuse decisiveness with inflexibility
The stereotypical image of the great leader is someone who can identify the underlying cause of a problem very quickly, decide on a solution, and pursue the path toward that solution despite opposition from naysayers, chronic complainers, and malcontents. Unfortunately, academic leaders who seek to model themselves on this stereotype sometimes fail to understand the difference between consistency and rigidity. Leaders who change their minds constantly on the basis of the last person they talked to or their whim of the moment will be dismissed as erratic. But clinging to a decision in order to look “strong” even after it is clear that the decision was ill-advised is a recipe for disaster. Successful leaders feel confident enough to change their minds periodically. Leaders who refuse to change course end up driving their programs off a very steep cliff.
Mistake aggressiveness for assertiveness
In addition to the stereotype that all good leaders make decisions quickly and then stick to them, there’s another misconception that effective leaders must have very forceful personalities. They need to come on strong, “take no prisoners,” and let everyone “know who’s boss.” While that approach may work in certain organizational settings, it’s a guaranteed path to failure in higher education. We work in an environment of shared governance. Even if faculty members “report to” the president, dean, and provost according to the org chart, they all view themselves as independent contracts. An aggressive stance on the part of an academic leader may win a few small battles, but it’s highly unlikely to win the war. Successful academic leaders value the people they work with, and they let them know they value them. While they feel free to speak their minds, they’re continually aware that their voice should not be the only one in the room.
Avoid giving credit to others
Perhaps the greatest cause of failure for academic leaders is overemphasizing their own importance. Presidents come and go. Deans come and go. And students certainly come and go. But the faculty and staff tend to remain committed to an institution for the long term. For an academic leader to assume that “I did this” when something wonderful happens in one of his or her programs is usually to misunderstand his or her role. While some of us may teach and do research, we don’t teach most of the classes in our areas or produce most of the research. Our responsibility is not to do everything ourselves but to create a fertile environment in which others can do their jobs most effectively. Effective academic leaders share credit broadly, even generously commending others for contributions that may not have otherwise occurred without their own prompting or support. A major cause of academic leadership failure is thinking that the success of the enterprise is primarily the work of the academic leader. It rarely is and, even in those cases where it may be, academic leaders keep the focus on the programs, the faculty, and the students, not themselves.
Buller, J.L. (2012). Best practices in faculty evaluation: A practical guide for academic leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Trachtenberg, S.J. (2013). Presidencies derailed: Why university leaders fail and how to prevent it. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.
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.