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Resisting the Pressure to Stay

Leadership and Management

Resisting the Pressure to Stay

A good bit has been written about the issues an academic leader should consider when thinking about whether to step back from a leadership role. Most recently, Lisa Jasinski has presented a solid list of the issues to examine in Stepping Away, a terrific resource I have recently discussed. I don’t want to rehash those points, but I do want to dig into an issue that merits more conversation: how to address the pressure from well-meaning colleagues and friends to stay in your role even while you are busy articulating for them the reasons why stepping back is appropriate.

The reality is that performing an administrative role—especially one like department head or dean—is difficult and stressful. One gets buffeted from all sides—students, faculty, central administration—and while there are opportunities for joy in charting a path for your colleagues and students between the various Scyllas and Charybdises of mid-level leadership, there are also opportunities for frustration and disappointment. When you have decided that the vexations and challenges outweigh the joyful moments, it is time to step back and turn to professional activities that promise new sources of fulfillment.

What your decision causes for your colleagues, however, will be complicated. Intermixed with their professional respect for your accomplishments and recognition that you have made a good decision for you and your family will come a bit of panic as they quietly (or not so quietly) ask themselves: Who are we going to get to take on this role now? Your decision will have cascading effects on a number of individuals and teams, and several of them are likely to plead with you to stay. And these will be people whom you respect and with whom you have enjoyed working. They will be colleagues whose projects and initiatives matter to you and whose work supports the students you value. They will be folks that you want to continue to share collegial relationships with, folks you like meeting for coffee and chatting with in the hallways. They will be your friends as well as your colleagues. Too bad. You can’t let peer pressure coax you into changing your well-considered decision.

As the pressure builds and the flattery gets laid on more and more thickly, here are some thoughts and potential counterarguments to consider.

  1. You are not irreplaceable. There really is someone else who can fulfill your role. That individual may do so differently, and they may have things to learn, but after that adjustment period, they will be able to do the job well. And that is what is needed. Don’t fall prey to the argument that no one will be able to take your place or do the job like you did. That is exactly as it should be: the organization’s goal shouldn’t be to replicate you but to move forward.
  2. Maybe your colleagues aren’t thinking creatively or inclusively enough about who should fill your position. If your colleagues can’t identify a good candidate for your role from within the organization, maybe they will need to search more widely than they had hoped. Or maybe they will need to reflect on who has administrative potential that has thus far remained untapped. (Those individuals may well be off the tenure track or people of color, women, or from other non–straight white male groups.)
  3. Your colleagues don’t want to make more work for themselves. This can lead them to try to persuade you to act against their own best interests. For instance, if you are stepping back from work with a volunteer-based professional organization, your colleagues will likely perceive your departure in relation to the difficulties of recruiting a replacement who can commit time and energy to the organization, and you can anticipate their eagerness to have you continue.
  4. They fear that the budget won’t support bringing in someone new. They may well be right. It is unlikely that another person will replicate the highly individualized set of skills and interests that you have brought to your role. If that mix of skills is essential, then the organization may need to hire two people to replace you, and it should be grateful that it could squeeze as much as it did out of your position during your tenure. If the organization is unwilling or unable to provide the funds needed to replace your skills, this reveals either a lack of commitment to the skills you brought to the position or a need to make efficiencies and trim the position’s scope to fit the available budget.

    Either way, this is not your problem.

    You have worked thoughtfully and diligently to advance the institution’s mission, and you have been paid for your work. You cannot be held hostage to the position by a lack of institutional commitment to providing the support needed to move forward in your absence.
  5. Your colleagues—like all of us—resist change. Change requires us to act intentionally and to reflect on our decisions, strategies, and priorities. It adds another layer of work on top of our already complex and exhausting responsibilities. Your leaving your position is going to require everyone who remains to shift a bit in their roles and relationships. The changes may be as minor as simply helping to onboard a new staff member and adjusting team dynamics to integrate a new personality into the mix. Or they may be much more significant, pushing team members to accept additional duties or redefined roles.
  6. Your departure may well be an unwelcome reminder that your unit or your campus has not paid enough attention to succession planning. Higher education as a profession has struggled to develop leaders for some time. (When was the last time you had a supervisor who actively mentored you during your performance review or who seemed concerned about the career trajectory you were creating for yourself?) The burnout caused by the tumult of the past few years has only increased administrative swirl and turnover. If you are able to mentor a future leader and attend to succession planning for your position, you certainly should, but when you have already decided to step away, it is not the time to start worrying about successors. You and your colleagues should have been planning for your departure from the day you assumed the role. If you failed to plan for your succession, those you leave behind will need to pick up the pieces. The best you can do is commit to succession planning in your next position.
  7. Don’t fall prey to threats like, “Gee, if you leave, we may need to cut this project.” None of us can control what those who come after us will do to the projects in which we have invested our time and energy. Whoever takes your place can always undo your legacy (it is just a matter of how quickly they can do it). You need to take pride in what you accomplished during your tenure: the students retained or graduated, the research that was funded, the programs that were created, or whatever your achievements were. But don’t be fooled into thinking that your successes will continue to be valued after you have gone. If they are strong, they will persist—as long as they are consistent with the institution’s strategic plan and the goals of your successor.

You are the only person who knows what you need and why you are choosing to step away from your role at this moment. Your reasons are good ones. Don’t back down.


Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the former dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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