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Professional Growth for Shared Equity Leadership to Affect Shared Governance

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership and Management

Professional Growth for Shared Equity Leadership to Affect Shared Governance

What is professional growth for shared equity leadership (SEL)? Why does it matter in the context of shared governance in higher education? Prior to addressing these two leading questions, I will begin by drawing an important distinction between two terms that, as Herrity (2023) notes, are often used interchangeably: professional growth and professional development. She defines professional growth as the result of practices that an individual enacts because of newly acquired experiences or skills. This new learning is intended to affect one’s current role and professional pursuits. By contrast, professional development relates to the specific training a person may pursue to develop or improve on one or more areas of interest for enhanced personal professional performance in preparation for executing duties, and responsibilities.

With Herrity’s lexical distinction under consideration, I turn to Mitchell’s definition of SEL (cited in Kezar et al., 2021). He defines shared equity leadership as the type of leadership that “provides institutional leaders a unique opportunity to scale their equity work by organizing teams across campus who take collective responsibility in developing and moving the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda forward” (p. vi). According to Kezar et al. (2021), there are three fundamental aspects of SEL: (1) “individuals who have undergone some sort of personal journey toward critical consciousness or built a critical consciousness, cementing their commitment to equity”; (2) “values that are shared among members of the leadership team or group”; and (3) “a set of practices that leaders continually enact which both enable them to share leadership and to create more just and equitable conditions on their campuses” (p. 6).

With these three aspects in mind, I argue that professional growth for equity-minded leadership in the context of shared governance represents a key to shaping shared governance with a focus on equity-minded practices. Equity-minded leaders need professional development if they are to succeed. In fact, professional development can build both personal and collective capacity (Holcombe et al., 2023), both of which are required to advance equity work.

Given that, in the context of shared governance in public higher education, leadership emanates from the active engagement of several key players—trustees, faculty, and those in administration (King & Mitchell, 2022)—institutions ought to provide and encourage participation in professional development in SEL for anyone participating in a shared governance model. Equity-minded leaders also need to own their journeys and do what it takes to prepare to act according to the values and practices of SEL. When equity-minded leaders succeed in their roles by effectively contributing to shared governance, so do their institutions. For more on how individuals in these types of roles can contribute to SEL, see Holcombe et al. (2022b).

Below, following the work of researchers supported by the American Council on Education (ACE) and the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center of Higher Education, I offer six suggestions to consider when developing a plan for both professional development and positive professional growth in SEL relative to shared governance.

  1. Be clear on what equity-minded leadership is in the context of shared governance. Start with the very basics: research and educate yourself about your context and confirm that SEL and shared governance are models that the institution embraces. Recognize that interest in SEL is growing and that researchers have been working to clarify what it entails; multiple resources now exist for taking initial steps in this professional journey (see Holcombe et al., 2022a, 2022b; Kezar et al., 2021, 2022). Also, be sure to understand what shared governance entails. Ensuring a clear understanding of what shared equity governance is and how it unfolds on your campus is fundamental to understanding what opportunities exist (or need creating) to enact it. This work will likely result in professional SEL growth.
  2. Know yourself and fully embrace your leadership role in shared governance. Keep in mind what others have noted: an equity-minded leader engages in a deeply personal journey of critical consciousness. Through this introspective process, Kezar et al. (2021) explain, “leaders develop or strengthen a commitment to equity through their identity, personal experiences, or relationships and learning” (p. vii). This introspection is meant to serve as a reality check in terms of the values that leaders embrace. During this process, equity-minded leaders will confront their biases in relation to topics of race, equity, and what it takes to advance all or any of this work at an institution. Maintaining a critical eye toward both oneself and the situational context matters to establishing strategic priorities to dismantle institutional practices that contribute to inequities at all levels.
  3. Build collective capacity by inclusively working with others. In the context of SEL, which is both collaborative and inclusive, leaders at all levels of the organization work with each other to effect change (Kezar et al., 2021). Building professional learning communities is a strategy that leaders may find productive (Holcombe et al., 2023). Keep in mind what other leaders have noted: leading substantive change at an institution of higher education is a collaborative endeavor (Hrabowski et al., 2019). Effective leaders that embrace and enact SEL work with others to create the space for meaningful, respectful, and trusting leadership to affect institutional change.
  4. Recover with grace. Given that the path to leadership success is a journey, not a destination, get comfortable with encountering blocks, unforeseen twists and turns, and dead ends along the way, and be prepared to learn from mistakes without fretting. Mistakes and errors are inevitable, and leaders who embrace growth will recover gracefully to keep moving forward with their newly acquired learning. Successfully overcoming challenges is an example of leadership growth. In other words, mistakes can equip leaders to successfully manage similar incidents in the future. Reflect on the process and figure out how to keep enhancing your approach to problem solving to be more effective next time around. Always remember that SEL is both rewarding and exigent.
  5. Keep an open mind with an eye on the future. Enacting SEL in the context of shared governance effectively takes time. Therefore, embrace the long view of institutional change and keep student, faculty, and staff success as your compass. Understand that many of your efforts to contribute to cultural change at the institution in the present may not fully come to fruition during your tenure. Leaders need to be comfortable with this reality as effective change takes time and institutional change may remain almost imperceptible even when happening.
  6. Prepare to be both personally and collectively accountable and celebrate gains. SEL growth can and should be measured for accountability purposes and assessment of progress toward goal attainment. At times, it will be obvious, with fully identifiable outcomes. Other times, however, it may be less so, but not to the point that you cannot trace or account for it when pausing to reflect. In fact, looking back at where the journey started suffices to quickly determine how far you have already traveled and the successes you have achieved. Or, as Itani (2021) would likely say, focus on the gain, not the gap.

Professional growth for SEL constitutes a necessary ingredient to enact change for long-term success in equity-focused shared governance. In fulfilling their roles, equity-minded leaders will endure the good and the not so good that come with the growing pains of change. SEL growth will result from not only achieving goals but also dealing with the unexpected and managing difficult situations. It is the learning that emerges from experience (good and challenging) that is likely to lead to empowered SEL. While professional development matters to professional growth in SEL, it is professional growth that becomes or provides the evidence to account for impactful and lasting institutional change. Consequently, professional growth that leaders derive from SEL practices while enacting shared governance will signal the level of progress an institution has attained.


Herrity, J. (2023, March 16). 10 strategies to effectively promote your professional growth. Indeed. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/professional-growth

Holcombe, E., Harper, J., Ueda, N., Kezar, A., Dizon, J. P. M., & Vigil, D. (2023). Capacity building for shared equity leadership: Approaches and considerations for the work. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Capacity.pdf

Holcombe, E., Kezar, A., Dizon, J. P. M., Vigil, D, & Ueda, N. (2022a). Organizing shared equity leadership: Four approaches to structuring the work. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Structures.pdf

Holcombe, E., Kezar, A., Harper, J., Vigil, D., Ueda, N., Dizon, J. P. M. (2022b). Leading for equity from where you are: How leaders in different roles engage in shared equity leadership. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Roles.pdf

Hrabowski, III, F. A., Rous, P. J., & Henderson, P. H. (2019). The empowered university. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Itani, O. (2021). The power of progress: Measure the gain, not the gap. https://www.omaritani.com/blog/measure-progress-and-the-gain

Kezar, A., Holcombe, E., Vigil, D., & Dizon, J. (2021). Shared equity leadership: Making equity everyone’s work. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Work.pdf

Kezar, A., Holcombe, E., & Vigil, D. (2022). Shared responsibility means shared accountability: Rethinking accountability within shared equity leadership. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Accountability.pdf

King, W. J., & Mitchell, B. C. (2022). Leadership matters. Confronting the hard choices facing higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Fabiola P. Ehlers-Zavala, PhD, a first-generation scholar of Hispanic background, is a professor of English at Colorado State University, where she has held several academic leadership roles, including academic director and executive director of English language programs. She is the immediate past president of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL).


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