Through the Provost’s Window-Looking for Impactful Leaders

By Dr. Kristine Barnett

Scanning for Leadership Traits – What Are You Looking For?

When I interview candidates for academic positions, I ask them to describe their leadership styles and how they will lead from the positions they are in. A candidate I was interviewing recently turned the tables and asked me “What are you looking for in leaders?” This is a great question. I answered quickly, but later wondered if I had ever directly shared this with the folks who work in my area. I mentally noted when leaders had not stepped up or when people acted more like managers than leaders. I considered leadership skills when thinking about promotion for future opportunities. But had I consistently and clearly commended people for the leadership they brought to the areas I oversee? This question prompted me to develop a simplified set of leadership approaches that I want to see in the people with whom I work.

Impactful academic leaders step in, not back. Leaders don’t sit at their desks waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They anticipate, think ahead, reach out, and get engaged. They are aware and they fully own their roles while also looking for additional ways to contribute. I have worked with individuals who follow what I like to call the fast food service approach to work.  They give only what people ask for, in only a couple of flavors. While this approach is critical in some jobs, it’s not what I’m looking for in the individuals I hire and promote to leadership roles. 

Impactful academic leaders place students first. Our student learners need—and deserve– to be at the very center of everything that the institution is about. Unfortunately, we can easily get distracted by organizational structures and narratives that focus too much on lecturing and less on learning. Good leaders put students at the center, consistently considering decisions through the lens of how students will be impacted. Effective leaders step back and reframe, thinking through all alternatives and possibilities before decisions are made that carry unanticipated negative consequences for students . These leaders support and prompt their colleagues by asking “How will this decision or action impact our students?”  

Impactful leaders see the big picture. Don’t get me wrong, folks who excel in the weeds bring incredible value, but big-picture thinkers are often the ones who take programs and organizations into the new and productive territory. Developing big-picture thinking takes time and practice. When it comes to vision, I want big-picture thinkers as a part of the mix. Big-picture thinkers are like artists; if they don’t see the picture they will step in and draw it. They will connect the dots between seemingly random things, resulting in new opportunities that others easily miss.

Impactful leaders focus on the solution, not the problem. It is a known fact that academics are trained to analyze issues and deconstruct ideas. This often leads to brilliant intellectual work, scholarship, and innovation. But it can also mean that some folks are drawn more naturally to problem analysis instead of solution finding. While our institutions benefit from both, the most effective leaders are adept at spotting problems AND bringing solutions. They are good, deep listeners when problems are brought to their attention. They spend time trying to understand the root causes of problems to ensure the proposed solutions make sense. The next time you spot a problem that you want to escalate, take a step back to make sure you fully understand the problem and then bring two or three options for a solution. You might see a big difference in the way your problem is heard. 

Impactful leaders focus on the issue, not the person. Truth be told,  a good portion of my time as an administrator over two decades has been spent on personality clashes, non-collegial conduct, and overemphasis on the messenger instead of the message. There have been times I have wanted to climb on a desk and shout, “Can’t we all get along?” In conversations with other academic leaders, I know that my experience is not unique. To be clear, our people need care and feeding. They are on the front lines serving our students and this is incredibly important work.  Effective leaders learn how to balance ‘people care and nurture’ with attention to the bigger issues that need attention. They have good emotional intelligence and model how to address personality issues with respect for all parties while redirecting attention to the issues that are most essential.

How would you answer the question, “What are you looking for in the leaders on your team”? Have you shared with your team what you are looking for in terms of strong leadership skills?

Jot down your leadership expectations. What characteristics, skills, and values do you believe are necessary for leaders? How might you most clearly communicate these leadership expectations to your team? How could you work these into the annual evaluation process?

Every person plays an important role in the organization and leaders are needed at every level. On my team, I’m looking for leaders who step in, keep their eyes on the big picture, are student-centered, and focus on solutions rather than problems or people are likely to be noticed. They are likely to make an impact.

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

Leave a Reply