Many books and seminars exist that define the traits of successful leaders. There are also a number of survey instruments to assess leadership. And all leaders are subject to and involved in established periodic institutional measures and systems to evaluate their leadership. The serious limitation of the various methods and systems of evaluation is that they are either too early or too late to best assure both the continuity and sustainability of one’s leadership in…
Many books and seminars exist that define the traits of successful leaders. There are also a number of survey instruments to assess leadership. And all leaders are subject to and involved in established periodic institutional measures and systems to evaluate their leadership. The serious limitation of the various methods and systems of evaluation is that they are either too early or too late to best assure both the continuity and sustainability of one’s leadership in concrete leadership situations.
Leadership situations are frequently uncertain and often involve significant changes in institutional direction or vision. These changes are frequently perceived as threatening the established institutional culture and standard operating procedures. Leaders are required to orchestrate successful organizational transformations. This is especially true of current higher education. Higher education requires maintaining continuity and sustainability and avoiding fads or trends that burn out when specific leaders leave colleges and universities. These are no longer the days of strong, executive-driven, charismatic leadership; leaders in higher education today are much more constrained by events external to the university or college they lead. Additionally, academic leaders are often just as constrained (or more so) by their faculties, boards of trustees, and presidents they directly or indirectly report to.
Given the uncertainty of the circumstances of higher education leadership, it is incumbent upon all academic leaders to engage in self-evaluation through a rigorous, deeply reflective auditing process. Such an engagement will identify potential threats to leadership success early on and offer potential solutions to those threats. Waiting for threats to become entrenched obstacles means dealing with them under the worst leadership circumstances for success. By engaging in a self-audit process periodically during the academic year, one is likely to uncover obstacles and communication difficulties before they get out of control.
What should a periodic self-auditing of an academic leader’s effectiveness and sustainability look like? What are the key markers or elements that an effective self-audit should involve? The management literature and direct observations of numerous academic leaders are helpful in defining the key elements.
It is important to realize that leadership is a journey, not a destination. No leadership behavior or leadership style will have the same results over time. Institutional conversations change, faculty turns over, presidents come and go, boards of trustees have key changes, governmental regulations change, and perceptions and beliefs in the marketplace about higher education and its value and cost also change. Given all these changes, if one persists throughout one’s leadership tenure always acting and communicating the same way, there will develop a gap between messages, performance, and results that will become obvious to both supporters and critics in the college or university community a leader serves.
The first critical assessment in the self-audit is the question of whether you must adjust your leadership in some respects to meet the challenges of change in the organization. Can one stay the course without negatively affecting the organization’s mission, values, and marketplace relevance?
Second, a leader must ask whether she or he is being perceived as and acting as a servant leader. This is a gold standard of modern leadership. To be a servant leader you must be involved in constant communications with the entire organization. You must pay attention to how frequently you communicate with formal leaders, informal leaders, and the coalition of followers needed in the organization to develop and sustain the leadership agenda, as well as to the character of these communications. This type of audit is informed by direct face-to-face conversations with a wide variety of faculty, staff, administrators, students, board members, and others who define the active, lived culture of the institution.
The third element of the self-audit should be a very self-critical assessment of messages you receive, meetings you attend, feedback from your administrative peers, and rumors and actions of the faculty—including both leadership and the general faculty. Relationships in higher education are critical to success. When those relationships deteriorate or fray from misunderstandings, rumors, perceived slights, communications errors, or lack of making oneself available, they can quickly turn into the establishment of a strong resistance coalition or an apathetic response from the community one is supposed to be leading.
The fourth element of a self-audit requires an assessment of whether you are practicing change-friendly leadership practices. Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan describes these practices in detail in Change Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance, and they are readily applicable to higher education. Violating any of these principles and practices will generally ensure a leadership failure for any change in academic affairs. Practicing them as fully and faithfully as possible will increase success and better ensure a leader’s long run credibility as an agent of change.
A fifth element of a successful self-audit is your assessment of whether your image and behavior fits with management leadership research by the American Management Association. Does your leadership reflect a community-wide perception of honesty, integrity, competence, and inspiration? All these elements are critical to leadership. Honesty is considered the most sacred of these elements across cultures and organizations. However, leaders that are respected and followed by their peers, direct reports, and those they manage directly or indirectly tend to use all four elements in their leadership.
A sixth element of the self-audit involves a rigorous assessment of whether the coalition of a leader’s supporters is expanding or diminishing. Effective leadership is characterized by wide support across the organization, not just one’s superiors, work unit, or direct reports. Declining support as well as stagnant support must be analyzed. In both cases, the assessment must discover the reasons for decline and stagnancy and make changes to overcome them.
A final element of a serious self-audit of leadership takes the wide view. Are you addressing the heads, hearts, and hopes of followers and superiors? To do so, leaders answer some fundamental questions clearly and revisit them periodically for updates and changes. The first question is: what change are you trying to achieve? You must be clear why this change fits the organization and will ultimately make it stronger and more effective. The next question is: why is the change necessary or beneficial for the community? What circumstances related to the external environment, the organization, competition, or institutional finances make the change necessary for the well-being of college employees and the students they serve? The final question is the “what if” question. If the change is successful, how will the institution and the community be better off? How will the change’s success create a space for all institutional members to feel more valued and more appreciated? By what measures will one know it has been successful and worth all the joint effort for its achievement?
The wise leader knows that leadership is about timing. Chinese leadership literature, specifically the Tao Te Ching and The Tao of Leadership, make this very clear. Leading before it is time will not achieve sustainable progress. Also, leading after a time for change has passed will not be successful. The sweet spot in leadership is when the culture and community are ready for it. Change should be orchestrated in such a way that the vast majority of the community feels good about it, has a vital role in its achievement, and personally owns it.
Duncan, Rodger Dean., and Stephen R. Covey. Change-friendly leadership: how to transform good intentions into great performance. Liberty, MO: Maxwell Stone Publishing, 2012.
Laozi, and D. C. Lau. Tao te ching. London: Penguin, 2003.
The Tao of Leadership Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age. Green Dragon Books, 2015.
Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, is a Midland University leadership fellow.