Pressure Points for Academic Leaders
The seasons have declared their change, and autumn is upon us. The leaves outside my office are beginning to fall, joining in an autumn waltz as they claim their spot on nature’s dance floor. They are still. They are unbothered. In this moment, I long for the days when my academic planning calendar mirrored the stillness of the fallen leaves. Nevertheless, I snap back to reality surveying the to-do lists, projects, and calendar of events.
The calendar of an academic leader devours time like a ravenous beast moving from project to meeting in a single gulp. Added to our schedules, by time-consuming others, the events and assemblies appear manageable, but once they are paired with strict deadlines and duties, the pressure mounts. It mounts and it morphs until it exposes leaders, bringing out the best in some and the worst in others. Exposure and its close cousin pressure reveal the true nature of a leader. Separately, they have the ability to either make leaders or break them. Collectively, if handled effectively, they guarantee growth. As the saying goes, pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds. If you are in a leadership position or striving to become a leader, I am willing to wager that you have survived a few broken pipes and that you have made a few diamonds.
The demands of the academy are many. There are great demands on our time, our energy, and our effort. If we are not careful, we allow the inherent pressure of higher ed to hinder our ability to be effective leaders. This does not have to be commonplace in our leadership lives. With a shift in mindset, we can prepare ourselves to perform under pressure by understanding the following pressure points.
Pressure point number one: Exposure
Expose and identify the main source of pressure. Ask yourself: What singular task do I feel most pressured to accomplish? Why do I feel pressured? At present, what job-related stress do I feel? Who will experience the most relief once the task is complete? If faced with the same task again, what should (would) I do differently?
Providing honest answers to these questions will expose what we need to address. They will provide a sense of clarity and reveal the culprit behind the pressure. Unpopular opinion: sometimes we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Do not become that person. If you already are-stop being that person. I know you may be saying, “Sounds good.” I also know some things are not as simple as they appear to be. But having survived the leadership terrain for almost 20 years, I want to assure you that it can be done. You may be inquiring how. How can this be done considering the unwritten articles, unfinished grant submissions, derailed projects, and other stacks of paper that wind their way to your desk? One word: mindset.
No, not the book, although Dweck’s (2006) tips and strategies belongs in every leader’s toolbox. I am referring to your literal mindset: the particular belief system you have about the pressures of your professional life. If you are able to associate pressure with positive purpose, you can use it as a productive force. This brings us to our next pressure point.
Pressure point number two: Preparation
Prepare for pressure (as best you can). Ask yourself: What annual events, projects, reports, and the like can I prepare for in advance? What system can I create to help better manage task? Do I have a planning-at-a-glance desk or wall calendar? Does this calendar allow me to see future assignments three, six, and 12 months away? How do I manage myself around the time allotted to me daily?
Answering these questions will allow you to see your time clearly and compartmentalize it wisely. I conduct a number of workshops throughout the year. One of the most popular focuses on time management. Participants are often surprised when I begin the presentation by informing them that I will not talk about time management, because such a thing does not exist. We all inherit the same 24 hours each day. Making the most of our private and professional time is a creator-mandated task. As such, we do not manage time; we manage ourselves around the time allotted to us. As for pressure, we must actively plan for it. Planning for pressure cannot happen without a self- management mindset shift. Time is intangible and cannot be touched. We can, however, allow time to touch us by imposing manageable deadlines. This leads to our final pressure point.
Pressure point number three: Production
Allow pressure to increase your productivity. Ask yourself: What does production look like? What must I produce for the project to be complete? Are there small productions that lead to one big production? Am I solely responsible for the production of this task? How will I reward myself once the project is complete?
These questions help to clearly define the production process and guide us toward the finish line. If allowed, pressure can serve as a means to produce. There are times during my leadership journey when I have been under a tremendous amount of stress. Grace under pressure I was not. I was frantic and worried and imposed a frantic and worried mindset on my team. A major change occurred when I shifted mindsets. I realized that pressure turns the intangible tangible! Pressure makes diamonds. Time’s association with pressure and temperature causes diamonds to form, yet we are not always aware of time’s contribution to their existence. So it is with us. Ironically, elapsed time is our only proof of production or the lack thereof.
When handled ineffectively, pressure busts pipes, and leaking pipes cause flood damage. Preparing to perform under pressure mitigates mistakes. There is no buildup. The pipes remain intact. Adopting a positive mindset about the pressure inherent in leadership has afforded me the opportunity to develop into a more efficient leader. Consistently checking my own pressure points helps me maintain a clear view of persistent pressure that creeps into my academic life. Preparation allows me to manage myself within the construct of time. Collectively, all pressure points lead to increased productivity. Leaders are diamonds waiting patiently to shine. Until next time, stick with pressure.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Tywana Chenault Hemby, PhD, is the dean of the School of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Voorhees College.