Through The Provost’s Window: Cultivating Courageous Leadership by Dr. Kristine Barnett

A colleague, wearied by the day-to-day challenges, recently confided in me about the hurdles they encounter in pushing forward goals that would benefit students and the institution. This leader, acting and speaking with the best intentions, still faces the inevitable resistance, mostly from faculty and staff. While some pushback can spark innovation and productive dialogue, other forms can be counterproductive. It’s a familiar narrative: resistance is part and parcel of driving accountability and change, but it seldom feels positive to those who are leading the change. This conversation turned to the fatigue that comes from persistent obstacles that hinder progress. We concurred that true leadership is an act of courage. By our meeting’s end, my colleague had recharged, ready to persevere in their vital work.

As a campus leader, your role transcends administration; you are shaping the future of education at your institution. Balancing management with leadership invites both exciting opportunities and a significant weight of responsibility. Courageous leadership is essential, enabling you to inspire and navigate the complex challenges inherent in our evolving educational landscape. I recall a president who once sought individuals with “intestinal fortitude” for their leadership team. But what does it take to embody such fortitude?

Here are some key principles and action steps to help you become a courageous leader, one who can withstand resistance and leave a lasting imprint on your campus:

Self-awareness: Leadership begins with self-knowledge. Reflect on your personal values, beliefs, and how you fit into the institution’s fabric. Recognize your strengths and be mindful of vulnerabilities, especially when responding to challenges. Integrity is crucial when times get tough, as is seeking feedback to enhance your leadership and identify growth areas.

Resilience is Key: Resilience is indispensable for leaders. Resistance, especially to change, can manifest in numerous ways, sometimes even personal attacks. Developing emotional intelligence and stress management is essential to navigate these challenges effectively. Remaining empathetic, yet steadfast in your goals bolsters resilience, and may even inspire it in others.

Leading by Example: Exhibit integrity, transparency, and authenticity. Display the behaviors you expect to see in your staff. Maintain composure in the face of adversity, remembering the early career advice I received on “face management” – keeping a neutral expression during challenging interactions. Your conduct should personify competence, ethical action, and bravery.

Emotional Response Management: Be conscious of your emotional triggers to stay centered on the issues at hand. A neutral reaction is pivotal in maintaining the confidence of those depending on your leadership.

Building Trust: Trust, open-mindedness, and amiability can weather most situations. Foster a trusting environment that encourages open dialogue, constructive feedback, and the exchange of innovative ideas. With trust, your team is more inclined to take calculated risks alongside you.

Embracing Setbacks: Recognize that setbacks are learning opportunities. Encourage your faculty and staff to view failures as chances for growth and essential to progress.

Courageous leadership is not just about the destination but the journey of personal and professional development that goes beyond the organizational confines. While not everyone is born with an abundance of “intestinal fortitude,” it can be nurtured over time through self-awareness, commitment to growth, and cultivating a positive space for achieving objectives. An update from my colleague confirms this: after weeks of spirited dialog at their organization, some of their challenging folks had turned a corner. While they had some speedbumps, they are on the same road to achieving institutional goals.

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.

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