As administrators we’ve heard it often enough and probably said it a few times ourselves: “In order to be an academic leader, you have to be able to make the tough decisions. What deans and department chairs do is hard work. You need to stand up for what’s right, not what’s popular, and take the heat when you’re doing what you know is right.” There’s certainly plenty of truth to these statements. It’s always easier to say yes to someone than to say no, and it’s particularly difficult to refuse a request from someone you regard as a colleague, perhaps even as a friend. But it’s also easy to focus far too much on the need for academic leaders to have a thick skin and to screen every candidate for an administrative position with the litmus test of “Are you tough enough?”
The truth is that resilience and conviction are important qualities in a president, provost, dean, or department chair, but so are certain gentler qualities like collegiality, the ability to encourage consensus (rather than the belief that you can impose it), the willingness to admit mistakes when they occur, a commitment to transparency and high ethical standards, a talent for communicating with a broad range of stakeholders, and an awareness that communication involves listening, not just talking. Too often these other qualities get lost in the urge to find, not just a leader, but a LEADER—someone who’s willing to take charge from Day 1, to “shake things up,” and to “get things moving again.”
That fixation on leaders as change agents can result in some fairly one-dimensional academic administrators. Ironically the very people whom we admire during interviews for their quick assessment of problems and willingness to address them sometimes prove to be the same people who come across as antagonistic, sharply critical, or inflexible once they’re on the job. The truth is that there’s more to effective college administration than simply being “tough enough.” In fact, in an environment where a significant portion of our stakeholders (i.e., the faculty) have Ph.D.s and another significant portion of our clientele (i.e., the students) could easily transfer elsewhere if they feel our atmosphere isn’t sufficiently supportive, too much toughness from academic leaders can hamper their ability to get the job done.
One of my own former department chairs taught me a valuable lesson when critics were questioning whether he was tough enough to be effective in his administrative responsibilities: “Don’t confuse civility with weakness.” And he turned out to be exactly right. Higher education is an environment in which all our stakeholders—the faculty, students, parents, other administrators, members of the governing board, and the public at large—count on being treated with respect. And they deserve to be. If you demonstrate your toughness to these constituents too sharply or frequently, you may get your way today, but you’ll make it far more difficult to bring about meaningful change in six months or a year. If people start to see you as an obstacle in their path, some of them will simply oppose you; the loyal opposition will increasingly become disloyal. Others—and these are often the very people you need the most—will begin formulating a Plan B that they can rely on if the atmosphere ever becomes too toxic. But the problem with a Plan B is that, all too often, hostile environments cause talented people to find it even more attractive than Plan A.
When institutions hire at the highest administrative levels, those of us with a long history in higher education have an obligation to educate our governing boards and the search firms they retain to teach them that, despite frequent claims that it is, running a university isn’t really all that much like running a business. The “products” we create at colleges and universities are knowledge and skills, not student credit hours, degrees, or indirect costs from grants. To be sure, the latter can sometimes serve as proxies for the former, but they’re not actually the same, and they’re certainly not ends in themselves. In fact, they’re far from being the most important metrics of our success. Similarly, it’s a false picture to imagine a university president standing at the top of a hierarchy and “running” the institution from the top down in the way that a CEO might. Shared governance is the lifeblood of higher education. We traditionally delegate full responsibility in certain areas (such as the curriculum) to the faculty and in other areas to the governing board, legislature, or university system. There are certain rules that even a president cannot (or dare not) overturn. Faculty members, every good administrator learns early on, tend not to respond well to situations in which they’re told what to do rather than consulted about what should be done. Effective leaders of colleges and universities are usually those who work cooperatively with the faculty and move together toward a common goal. Doing so requires patience, empathy, and the willingness to seek compromises. Toughness can at times play a part, but it’s far less important than many other aspects of effective leadership.
Deans and department chairs also need to resist the seduction of being “tough enough.” Once faculty members stop seeing administrators as their advocates and allies (“s/he’s one of us”) and start seeing them as bosses and judges (“s/he’s one of them”), the relationship begins to deteriorate, perhaps irreparably. The deans and chairs may find themselves increasingly insulated from bad news because no one wants to be the messenger who’s shot. But that bad news is often precisely what we need to hear, and our insulation can cause a minor problem to fester until it becomes a major disaster. Nor is it an effective strategy to rely on a member of the staff, such as an associate dean, to do the dirty work simply because he or she has an assertive personality and is perfectly comfortable saying “no” to others when we don’t want to. Staff members who are confrontational soon make our work harder, not easier. By letting them play bad cop so that we can remain the good cop, we convey the impression that the internal communication in our offices has broken down and, as a result, the faculty and staff receive mixed messages. In fact, the strategy doesn’t really work anyway: Whatever a staff member does under our authority becomes associated with us whether we want it to or not. If one of our assistants is regarded as noncollegial, then we’ll be viewed as suffering from the same flaw. After all, it’s a fair assumption that we wouldn’t keep staff members in their positions unless we approved of their decisions and interpersonal style.
On the whole, therefore, it’s easy to overemphasize the value of toughness in academic leadership. Make no mistake: It’s important for people to know what a leader stands for, and it’s even more important for the leader to stand for something. An academic leader must have backbone. But the value of backbones is that, while they can be firm when necessary, they can also bend when flexibility is required. Rigid insistence that the leader is always right isn’t evidence of a strong character; it’s a sign of a problem. The real question we should be asking ourselves isn’t “Am I tough enough?” but “Am I effective enough?” In order to answer that question honestly, we have to begin with an understanding of the environment in which we work and the needs of the people with whom we work, and with the recognition that there will be times when the insights of others will be clearer than our own.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS, a firm providing academic leadership training and assessment worldwide. The ATLAS Institute in Academic Leadership, May 22-25 in Orlando, provides intensive training on such topics as managing conflict, promoting collegiality and leading change. For information, go to tinyurl.com/ATLASOrlando2013. Dr. Buller's latest book, Best Practices in Faculty Evaluation: A Practical Guide for Academic Leaders, is available from Jossey-Bass.