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Timeless Academic Leadership Skills

Leadership and Management

Timeless Academic Leadership Skills

We can’t predict with certainty how changes in technology, student demographics, funding or government regulation will affect higher education institutions, but the need for certain leadership skills and traits will endure. In an interview with Academic Leader, John McKay, coordinator of the doctoral program in Community College Executive Leadership at Wingate University, offered the following advice for leaders as they face the challenges of today and the future.

  • Do what you say. Integrity and credibility are essential characteristics of any leader, McKay says. He learned early in his career from a negative example that when words and actions are not in alignment, it creates an atmosphere of distrust that hurts morale and makes it difficult to work effectively.
  • Work within the organizational structure. Bureaucracy in any organization is a given, and it can be tempting to find more efficient paths to one’s goals. However, when a leader circumvents established policies and procedures it can undermine the organization by introducing a degree of uncertainty, Ryan says. He also notes that it’s important to guard against seemingly innocuous conversations that may in fact be another person’s attempt to work outside proper channels. For example, a faculty member may approach a leader who is not his or her immediate supervisor and say, “I’m thinking about doing x. What do you think?” The leader may innocently provide tacit approval by saying something such as, “That sounds like a good idea.” It’s a seemingly innocent, casual conversation, but it can create problems if the faculty member’s immediate supervisor’s opinion differs with the leader who voiced support for the idea.

    It’s OK to be encouraging, but be clear that your encouragement does not grant permission to proceed. In these instances, McKay recommends saying something such as, “You need to talk this over with your supervisor, and if he thinks it has merit in the division, we can talk about.”

  • Communicate effectively. Obviously, leaders need to have excellent oral and written communication skills. However, one skill that is often overlooked is listening, McKay says. “The main thing leaders have to work on is listening because we often think about the answers we want to give somebody and don’t really hear what they have to say,” he says.

    One way to be a better listen—in addition to not talking all the time—is to begin conversations by asking questions. McKay says to define the issue and ask for input as opposed to giving your thoughts first because when leaders state their opinions, it tends to stifle conversation.

    Another important communication skill is matching the communication channel with the situation. McKay says that leaders often try to resolve conflicts via email. “I’ve seen minor problems escalate into major problems because people don’t always understand intent [in email messages]. I’ve had to referee those,” he says.

    Email does have some important uses. It is good for communicating information, asking question, and for follow up summaries of face-to-face or telephone conversations. “It’s an effective way to document a conversation: ‘Here’s what I remember us talking about. Let me know if I left something out or if there’s anything you’d like to add or change,” McKay says.


  • Encourage entrepreneurship—In a time of having to do more with fewer resources, academic leaders need be more innovative than ever, McKay says. “We’ve got to be more creative and pay more attention to being entrepreneurial. We’ve got to find other sources of funding sources,” he says.

For example, one community college is looking at ways to work with a community partner to develop some land owned by the college in ways that benefit the college and the partner.

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