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Although some leaders make leadership appear to be flawless, leadership positions in higher education are not for the faint of heart. While much literature discusses the characteristics of leaders, I rarely find any about teaching aspiring leaders how to approach their roles. I received my first leadership opportunity at the tender age of 26, having recently completed my master’s degree. “Who in their right mind would give a 26-year-old a leadership position to oversee staff and a multimillion dollar budget?” you may ask. My response is simply that someone was willing to take a chance and groom the next generation of leaders, trusting that millennials were here to stay. I must admit I was terrified—not of the position itself but of leading others. I had never been in a leadership role before, to say nothing of one in which I would oversee adults twice my age. I barely had savings, and now I was responsible for managing a grant for more than $2.5 million dollars. In retrospect, I wanted to know everything there was to know about my position and higher education, and honestly, the fear of not knowing consumed me: the fear of my team asking me questions I would not know the answer to or my not knowing what to do when something went wrong. Cliché has it that hindsight is 20/20, everyone must start somewhere, and everyone needs someone to believe in them. Even now as an assistant provost, I reflect on this role and realize how much I’ve learned and grown. These Petty Principles are specifically for new leaders who have the anxieties, fears, and doubts I once had. There are two parts to these Petty Principles: what to do and what not to do as a novice leader. I hope you find my experiences eye-opening and humorous and can learn from the petty mistakes that have transformed into my Petty Principles.
I so vividly recall the day I assumed my first leadership role. I walked into my new office, wearing a new suit and strutting with the biggest smile. I was ready to conquer the world and change higher education as we knew it. I called my first meeting and quickly got to work. I informed the staff of my ideas and changes to come, and I assigned tasks and deadlines to each of the staff. I knew that all the goals and objectives would be met with no problem. But . . . I hadn’t gotten to know my new team as a leader. I had worked with them as a colleague and nothing more. Ignorantly, I did not learn about them as individuals, as mothers and fathers, as sons and daughters, even though (and this is the poignant part) I knew better. I had failed to provide for them at Maslow’s third level of human need, which involves feelings of belonging. The need for interpersonal relationships motivates behavior. If your leadership style is all about you, your leadership style is toxic; you will fail to build relationships and build a team. Leadership is about bringing out the best in others, not constructing a cult of personality. It is not about you. It is about being humble and never losing touch with the most important individuals: those who follow you and help you succeed.
We as administrators are a people who love to be heard. We talk, talk, talk, and talk some more. I know and deal with leaders who love to be heard and who never take the time to stop and listen. This can be a recipe for disaster. As I often remind the people I mentor, there are multiple perspectives in every issue, and you must be able to consider them all to make educated decision. Also, your ideas may not be the best ones. Even though I thought I had all the answers when I started my first leadership role, I found out that I did not. My team had more experience in higher education than I did (my background was in project management), so I had to learn to listen to them. I quickly realized that being a leader does not mean knowing more than anyone else. It was imperative that I recognize that there were other experts in the room. As a leader, trust the expertise of those around you, give them autonomy, and encourage them to be creative and do excellent work. In higher education you will have to train your ear to listen attentively because the situations you face as a leader are not one size fits all. Each situation you will be involved in will require you to talk less and listen more. You will also want to talk less as a leader because people often hang on your words. A leader’s responsibility is to pay attention to what other people say, even those who think their views do not matter. You build relationships and gain trust with individuals by listening.
“What is it that you do?” This question would change me forever. It was posed by a gentleman I encountered at a networking session during the tenure of my first leadership role: “What is your name, and what is it that you do?” I said my name and boldly affirmed that I was the Title III director at this particular college. Let‘s be clear: unless you are in higher education, no one really knows what in the world a Title III director does; however, it sounded really important. I was quickly deflated when he said, “I do not really care what your title is, I just want to know your name and what it is that you do.” That was my moment of awakening. Until then my title had defined my existence, when what I was actually doing to serve my institution and its students should have. This experience allowed me to do some soul-searching, which I would advise any leader to do before stepping into a role, understand that your role in higher education is as an advocate, champion, upholder, supporter, backer, promoter, and proponent of student success.
From this encounter I learned that I am more than a title and a position. Once I had a position that ended; as a result I developed my purpose in the field of higher education. I developed a 20-second elevator speech. In event if I am ever again asked, “What is it that you do?” the individual(s) would know that I am a change agent. I review convoluted policies and procedures to conform to the students of today. I advocate for student success, and I firmly believe that each student who has the courage to walk through an institution’s doors has the ability to succeed. I consider myself a soldier in the battle to improve and defend the landscape of higher education for generations to come. More importantly, I build bridges for students who attend my institution.
This lesson also translated over to my team. I wanted them to have a sense of purpose, to understand that what they did would make a significant difference at the institution. We developed a theme for our office, identifying what we did and how we did it. Doing so helped to transform the relationships in our department: we developed a strong sense of who we were, a broad understanding of the team’s purpose, and faith in how our individual roles contributed to the whole.
Our students could care less about our fancy titles or the letters behind our names. All they want from us is to know that we can guide them in the right direction. Understanding that it is not about your title, I will leave you to ponder, “What is it that you do?”
As we embark on new leadership opportunities, it is critical to learn the lessons of what leadership is not, and begin to form behaviors that are conducive to effective leadership. Part II of will focus on what leadership is for novice leaders in higher education.
Tanjula Petty, EdD, currently serves as the interim assistant provost of academic affairs at Alabama State University, where she also cochairs activities surrounding accreditation.
Awesome article. Your article is on point. Great principles!