Academic leadership is an incredibly engaging discipline in its own right. You may hold a degree in educational leadership, have devoured countless books or articles, or relished a stellar podcast or two. Even among other leaders at diverse organizations – all striving for similar goals—the journey of a senior leader can be solitary. Many believe that leadership varies greatly across different institutions. Colleagues often say, “You just don’t know what it’s like here!” Indeed, organizational cultures, specific stakeholders, and circumstances inform the leadership challenges we face. Yet, having navigated through the leadership space at several distinctly different institutions, I’ve encountered certain leadership lessons repeatedly. I’ve come to categorize these as the universal laws of leadership. As we commit to evolve as leaders, recognizing and acclimating to these universal laws of leadership is essential.
There Are Things You Don’t Know.
Leaders make decisions daily, and at times, these decisions are tough. Which academic programs should we invest in? Which campus building should we refurbish this year? Do we offer a student a second chance? Do we guide a challenging employee to move on? Competent leaders accumulate facts, evidence, and perspectives to make informed decisions, yet often decisions must be made under pressure. Excessive deliberation hampers progress, and in today’s dynamic higher ed landscape, prolonged deliberation is a luxury we can’t afford. Seasoned leaders must find their comfort zone with not having all the answers and act decisively.
Sometimes decisions are made at higher levels. Our boards, presidents, or other senior leaders might make choices that impact us without sharing the entire narrative. I’ve encountered several instances where I’ve been left to navigate the aftermath of someone else’s choices – like an unforeseen structural reorganization or a questionable hire. After expending too much energy attempting to decipher another person’s motivations, I’ve realized that I might not have all the information nor am I necessarily entitled to it. At times, the best recourse is to move on.
There Are Things Others Don’t Know And Should Not Know.
Most effective leaders champion transparency. However, there are numerous instances where discretion is paramount. For example, we must guard information concerning personnel or legal matters. It demands considerable restraint to withhold information that people desire, especially when communicating decisions we didn’t support or had no control over. I’ve faced several scenarios where I’ve been pressed to disclose the rationale behind a decision, explain a project delay, or reveal details about a personnel situation. Numerous times, I’ve communicated to a campus community about a beloved staff member’s departure. This subjected me to shock and ire, which even for seasoned leaders, is tough to handle. Over time, I’ve become less reactive, reminding myself that not everyone is privy to the full details. A phrase like, “I’m sure you understand that I can’t share anything further,” has become a valuable tool for signaling it’s time to move on.
Someone Is Always Going To Be Unhappy.
Decision-making would be a breeze if only good options were on the table. However, that’s seldom the case. When grappling with a tough choice, I often ponder, “Which is the least terrible of my options”? We’ve seen leaders hamstrung by fear of upsetting others. While being liked is pleasant, it shouldn’t be a primary driver. I’ve come to terms with the fact that not everyone will endorse my methods or like me. Some individuals, I’ve noted, choose to dwell in unhappiness. The so-called 80:20 rule resonates: you spend 80 percent of your time dealing with 20 percent of the people, often the discontented ones who can truly mar your day. Early in my career, I might have mulled over decisions that displeased some, but now, I’m quicker to move on. I’m open to explaining, within reason, the rationale behind a decision, but then it’s time to move forward.
This week, take a moment to jot down the universal laws of leadership you’ve discovered on your leadership journey. What recurring truths have you encountered as you’ve progressed in your career? How have you grown more receptive to these universal laws when they emerge?
Likely, you’ve faced scenarios where these universal laws of leadership were at play. Some leaders may spin their wheels fretting they should know more, others should know more, or that unhappy colleagues might impede progress. If you’ve executed your role adeptly, embracing these laws of leadership will empower you to forge ahead. There’s much significant work awaiting you!
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.