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Leadership Skills for New Academic Administrators

Leadership and Management

Leadership Skills for New Academic Administrators

As new academic administrators begin and advance in their academic careers, they will need new skills and strategies for leading complex initiatives, programs, and tasks. New academic administrators will be expected to guide their higher education institutions through change and ensure continued focus on related vision, mission, and goals. They will also face unprecedented challenges as the higher education environment adopts new technologies and pedagogies, adapts to decreased state funding, and shifts offerings in response to changing demographics. New academic administrators will require

  • strengthened skills in multiple academic roles and content areas;
  • enhanced knowledge of academic committee and program-level leadership, including how differences in style, strategy, and approach affect collaborative work;
  • an appropriate balance between action and consultation;
  • improved skills for those leading academic programs and committees at the department, college, and university levels; and
  • an enhanced ability to identify emerging leaders for committee work and future academic leadership roles.

Recent discussion in leadership development

“Institutions of higher education have the responsibility to invest in developing leadership programs that prepare young or early-stage faculty to become leaders, as well as to become more purposeful contributors to the broader university strategic goals.” (Coll, 2016)

As budgets tighten in the face of decreased enrollments, changing demographics, philanthropy fatigue, and student demands for nicer and more extensive facilities, it is tempting to reduce investment in leadership development at the same time that academic leaders need to be more skilled, thoughtful, adaptable, and astute than ever. There is ample evidence of the need for increased attention to the cultivation of aspiring leaders in higher education (Ashe & TenHuisen, 2018; Coll, 2016). Employees need tailored and individualized options that resonate with their experiences and provide tools that they can apply immediately (Wilks et al., 2018).

Not only do employees need focused professional development, they also need it delivered in a convenient, self-paced, accessible format that permits interaction with others but does not require expensive and time-consuming travel (Ruben et al., 2018). Virtual and asynchronous options also allow faculty to balance professional development with personal obligations, which potentially addresses class, race, ethnic, and gender disparities in access to leadership development opportunities. Excellent leadership programs will also ensure coverage of topical, timely content and reliable data to support leaders in creating budgets that reflect their values, focusing on increasing enrollment, and dealing with entirely unpredictable conditions such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Establishing leadership goals for new academic administrators

A key challenge for new administrators is understanding what they don’t know, what they need to know, and how to transform knowledge into action. As faculty members, we learn to collect data, be attentive to nuance, provide deep and comprehensive analysis, and develop expertise in specific content areas. These academic skills are helpful in that they allow leaders to be thoughtful, thorough, and deliberate. They are also a liability in that they can slow decision making, allow leaders to seek information that does not necessarily assist in making a decision, and keep attention on a narrow issue when the problem is broad and overlaps multiple areas. Most faculty are accustomed to working alone, with almost complete control over their scholarly and pedagogical decisions. The perfectionism that we seek in our scholarship can be an obstacle to managing an administrative workload. Some work requires swift action, some must be delegated, and some must be done despite uncertainty that it will work or disagreement with the direction set at a higher level or necessitated by external pressures.

To make this critical transition, there are skills that new academic administrators must develop and access. New administrators will need to be able to

  • reflect on their own leadership values;
  • assess leadership strategies and skills in day-to-day scenarios;
  • prioritize leadership decision-making;
  • explore approaches for expanding leadership skills in different situations;
  • discuss leadership scenarios and potential outcomes;
  • explore valuable leadership resources and tools;
  • develop a leadership action plan for use across a variety of academic contexts;
  • empower those under their supervision to contribute and develop leadership skills of their own;
  • manage meetings in an efficient, productive, and inclusive way;
  • confront and navigate conflict without anxiety or self-doubt; and
  • manage budgets, including reallocation of resources when necessary.

Strategies for new academic administrators

New academic administrators can prepare for their roles through deliberate and focused professional development. As early as possible upon assuming a leadership role, a new academic administrator should do the following:

  • Develop a leadership mission statement. This exercise will help the new administrator in reflecting on values, developing a clear sense of purpose, and identifying a focus for initial work. It will also help the new administrator set and accomplish leadership goals and priorities beyond daily tasks.
    • A mission statement should be short (no more than a paragraph) and broadly framed to identify goals for leadership rather than strategies for task completion.
    • The mission statement can serve as a guide in determining which projects to undertake.
  • Create a support network. A new administrator will need allies who are not under the administrator’s immediate supervision. It is important to be able to process information, talk through problems, script difficult conversations, and check biases. The options below can help:
    • Check-in sessions: A regular, 30–60-minute weekly conversation with a trusted colleague will provide valuable support. The colleague could be a peer, a person from another institution, a personal friend, or anyone who is discreet and trustworthy.
    • Professional networks: Some professional organizations provide opportunities to interact with others facing similar challenges. The American Council on Education (ACE) Women’s Network state chapters, the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) Network, the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network, discipline-based organizations for administrators (such as the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences), the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) STEM Leadership Institute, or major academic leadership meetings (such as the Leadership in Higher Education conference) can provide opportunities to meet other new and aspiring leaders.  
  • Ensure good communication with “next level down” employees. While managers can be helpful and spare the new administrator time and effort, it is important to know what employees who are secondary reports to you think.
    • Open office hours, held weekly, biweekly, or monthly, can be a way to encourage them to share information without undermining the authority of their direct supervisors.
  • Engage in intentional reflection. New administrators should seek opportunities to secure timely feedback. As you transition to a leadership role, bear in mind that people will be more reluctant to speak frankly and directly because of your new authority. Options for securing feedback include
    • brief, anonymous surveys;
    • coaching sessions with trusted peers and mentors who have observed meetings or projects managed by the new administrator; and
    • debriefs after challenging conversations or meetings, with questions as to what went well and badly to steer the debrief to the outcomes rather than the performance.


Ashe, D. L., & TenHuisen, M. L. (2018). NextUp: Intentional faculty leadership development for all ranks and disciplines. Journal of Faculty Development, 32(1), 17–24.

Coll, J. (2016, January 7). Rethinking leadership development in higher education. The EvoLLLution. https://evolllution.com/managing-institution/operations_efficiency/rethinking-leadership-development-in-higher-education

Ruben, B. D., De Lisi, R., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2018). Academic leadership development programs: Conceptual foundations, structural and pedagogical components, and operational considerations. Journal of Leadership Education, 17(3), 241–254. https://doi.org/10.12806/V17/I3/A5

Wilks, K. E., Shults, C., & Berg, J. J. (2018). Not dean school: Leadership development for faculty where they are. Journal of Faculty Development, 32(1), 37–44.

Further reading

Bolman, L. G., & Gallos, J. V. (2011). Reframing academic leadership. Jossey-Bass.

Crylen, J. (Compiling ed.). (2020). Leading through crisis, conflict, and change in higher education. Magna Publications.

Gardner, S. K. (2016). Mentoring the millennial faculty member. The Department Chair, 27(1), 6–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30088

Hogan, A. M. (2018). Moving from administrivia overload to leadership competency development. Journal of Faculty Development, 32(1), 25–30.

Strawser, M. G., & Carpenter, R. (Eds.). (2019). Engaging millennial faculty. New Forums Press.

Strawser, M. G., Carpenter, R., Dvorak, K., & Bruce, S. (2020). Administrative best practices for engaging millennial faculty. The Department Chair, 31(2), 13–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/dch.30348

Sara Zeigler, PhD, serves as founding dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Political Science, Feminist Formations, and the Journal of Political Science Education, among others. She is incoming provost at Eastern Kentucky University.

Russell Carpenter, PhD, is assistant provost and professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University. Carpenter serves as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Faculty Development. Recent books include Engaging Millennial Faculty, Studio-Based Approaches for Multimodal Projects, and Sustainable Learning Spaces.


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