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Leadership Development through Role-Play

Leadership and Management

Leadership Development through Role-Play

There is much conversation nationally about declining faculty engagement in shared governance and leadership. At the same time there is a clear need for a stronger faculty voice as higher education faces increasing constraints and calls for accountability from external stakeholders. An interview study with new faculty on our campus revealed their sense of unpreparedness to engage in broader issues affecting higher education and, potentially, their careers, beyond their research and teaching. Addressing this disengagement through faculty development efforts with new faculty offered us the opportunity to begin steps intended to reverse those trends and to help develop our campus’s future faculty leaders.

We turned to role-play as an effective faculty development technique that would allow us to introduce key issues in higher education and help new faculty begin to understand their potential role in addressing them. Role-play has the advantage of affording forethought and practice in approaching often thorny, high-stakes conversations, allowing participants to think through and modify their responses constructively. Role-play also highlights the ways in which individuals can effect change in highly complex environments.

To develop the scenarios used in role-play activities, we turned to conversations we had heard on campus about issues in local leadership that also reflected larger national trends. For example, the effort on our campus to prioritize programs is symptomatic of a strong industry trend toward rationalizing budgets and introducing greater efficiencies. Although this is a trend many faculty members dislike and regard as inherently contrary to their interests, it is a necessary process for many campuses, given the economic climate. An effective and intelligent faculty voice is necessary if the principles that faculty value, such as student learning, are to remain central to the institution.

In the included sample scenario we illustrate how we generated a conversation with the intent of helping our newest colleagues understand the issues at stake and practice the ways in which they can frame responses that are mostly likely to forward their values. While we created this role-play around a topic that would resonate on campus, we were careful to avoid circumstances specific to any individual. In the case of prioritization, the scenario is one many faculty members could imagine themselves in, but the framing was different from our situation locally. The feeling of being “caught” between potential opportunity and threat, however, is common for both faculty and administrators. In that a given situation provides context for that reality, a role-play scenario can be a useful way of conceptualizing leadership issues that extend beyond a particular issue. We developed additional role-plays similarly—reflecting national trends that impact daily work—and asked faculty to practice approaching the issues raised in effective and constructive ways.

The process for enacting the role-play (as described in our sample scenario below) was designed to increase awareness of multiple perspectives and to afford experience in engaging those perspectives while taking note of issues of authority, credibility, social identity, and interpersonal dynamics. If time permits, the conversation can be deepened by reenacting the scenario with the roles reassigned and comparing how the identity and approach of the individual enacting the role influences the outcome. In the whole group discussion that follows these enactments, the articulation of what is at stake, and how different responses might generate different outcomes, is key. It is also very useful to talk about steps that could have been taken before this conversation took place that might have increased the likelihood of a constructive outcome.

On our campus we utilized these role-plays in our new faculty mentoring program. Formal session evaluations indicated that new faculty greatly appreciated the opportunity to practice and debrief with others on how they might reframe or strengthen their responses. Informally the value of the exercise was made apparent when faculty requested that we construct scenarios to reflect immediate concerns they had or issues they needed to have conversations about with department chairs and other administrators. Recognizing the complexity of these issues and the constraints facing the institution left them better prepared to influence the situation at hand.


Scenario: Your institution has been struggling as a result of tight state budgets. Although there have been no actual funding decreases, there’s also been no money for institutional growth, new program development, or salary increases. In order to generate discretionary funds that can be used for growth and development, your president and her cabinet have determined that the campus will use a program prioritization process to realign funding with current and future needs. Prioritization has been presented as an “opportunity for faculty to shape the institutional future” and the campus has been promised that no jobs are about to be cut. But faculty are scared: their departments could be losers in what feels like a zero-sum game.

Junior faculty member: You arrived as a new faculty member three years ago, and now you’re worried about your department’s future. You’ve been quietly developing a lot of ideas for program improvement—plans that could take your department (and career) to the next level. But you know they won’t happen without money. You have asked for a meeting with your dean to insist that he fight for the resources you need—there’s no way you trust some committee to see things fairly! Plus, it’s the administration’s job to find the money, and not by robbing Peter to pay Paul. You’re determined to make the dean see the reasonableness of your point.

Dean: You have a lot of empathy for faculty members and their worries about pet programs. But the current state of affairs benefits no one. Furthermore, every program is weakened by the institution’s inability to even discuss possible reallocations. It’s so clear that assigning vacant faculty lines, for example on the basis of program potential rather than program history, could result in real institutional growth—growth that will yield tuition dollars that can be used to lift the institution as a whole. But you’ve been under siege by faculty who think only about protecting their own turf. You want to work with them, not against them. But how?

Process for using role-play: Break the junior faculty cohort into groups of three with each group assigning one person to each role and the third individual serving as observer and note-taker. Ask them to take a total of 15 minutes, first to do the role-play as realistically as they possibly can (carrying out a conversation from the perspective of the person they are assigned), and then to debrief using the questions provided. Follow with a whole-group discussion.

Questions to guide initial debrief:

1. How did you (each party) feel during the conversation?

2. How did the other party seem to feel?

3. What seem to be the issues at stake?

4. What additional information could have made the conversation more productive?

5. What are the issues that were not raised but that could have informed the conversation?

Questions to guide whole-group discussion:

1. What are the issues at stake in this conversation?

2. Realistically, what are the constraints under which each party operates?

3. Did either party make particular “moves” that enabled (or closed down) productive discussion? If not, what might have been done differently or beforehand to change this dynamic?

4. What did you learn about your institution from this experience?

5. What did you learn about effective leadership?

Prioritization is one of many topics that can be developed into role-plays for use with junior faculty. Other topics in role-plays we have constructed include conversations between deans and/or chairs with a junior faculty member who is asked to help with work that (in terms of tenure and promotion criteria) appears thankless; someone who is interested in interdisciplinary work but faces a skeptical chair; or an individual who believes departmental resources are allocated unfairly (see examples in Kelsch & Hawthorne, 2014).

While the role-play included here was developed to facilitate discussion of leadership issues with junior faculty, the conversation could easily be reframed. For example, a role-play might involve a departmental chair and a dean in a conversation in which the chair finds herself caught between pressure from her faculty and the expectations of the dean—who is also her boss. Constructed in that fashion, the role-play can be used in a training session for new chairs. Other role-play scenarios could be used in faculty development with prospective mentors to help them consider strategies for creating productive relationships with mentees, in sessions designed to help mid-career faculty imagine the opportunities and challenges of taking a step into campus leadership, or in training sessions created to help faculty consider more (and less) productive approaches to committee service and leadership.

No matter what the intended use, it’s critical to the effectiveness of role-play pedagogy that the “play” itself be followed by a debriefing. The role-play team (in this case, two actors and an observer) will usually be eager to discuss the experience among themselves. However, facilitated whole group conversation will enable participants to hear about other outcomes for the experience—the conversation in one group may have resulted in a quick and amicable resolution while the same conversation escalated into little less than a screaming match in another case. What (or who) made the difference? What do we learn about effective communication in comparing notes? How might we better plan and inform the conversations we do have? What insights can we take away about leadership styles?

Although role-plays are frequently used in professional training, they are underutilized in faculty and leadership development. Asking faculty and administrators to take on an authentic role and make necessary decisions in the context of a dynamic exchange is a powerful learning experience. Participants gain a broader awareness of the complexity of issues and an appreciation of the genuine constraints on decision making, as well as practice in articulating effective responses that reflect their values and goals. For faculty in positions of both formal and informal leadership, these experiences can prove invaluable when they find themselves having to deal with the real-world equivalents of the scenarios they have role-played.


Kelsch, A. and Hawthorne, J. (2014), Preparing New Faculty for Leadership: Understanding and Addressing Needs. To Improve the Academy, 33: 57–73. doi: 10.1002/tia2.20006

Anne Kelsch is the director of instructional development and Joan Hawthorne is director of assessment and regional accreditation, both at the University of North Dakota.


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