What makes great higher education leaders great

Nine traits in common, says one VP

While every leader is unique, many of the best leaders share several traits—from mental toughness to a commitment to the mission—one VP of academic affairs writes for Inside Higher Ed.

Scott Newman, VP of academic affairs at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology and former American Council of Education (ACE) Fellow, wanted to know what made a great higher education CEO. During his time as an ACE fellow, he spoke with "more than 40 campus and system presidents and chancellors broadly considered successful among their peers and the people they lead."

Here is what Newman says makes the group unique.

They are tough. Higher education CEOs face "near-constant demands for their time and attention from a broad spectrum of stakeholders," Newman explains. To keep up, he says the best leaders have found ways to manage the physical and mental stress of their jobs, which "generally require levels of mental and physical endurance most individuals aren't able—or willing—to sustain."

They are mission-driven. While senior leaders in any organization are frequently driven—at least in part—by a desire for power and prestige, Newman says the leaders he spoke with emphasized something else. "The CEOs I interacted with were clearly motived by the opportunities their positions provide to effect meaningful change—with a notable subset preoccupied, first and foremost, with improving students' present and future realities," he writes.

They know their history. Successful higher education executives understand the power of knowing their institution's history. "They do so … partly out of respect for their colleges or universities and those who came before them, and partly so they can unite the institution's diverse constituencies around a shared past," Newman writes. "They understand the immense value of being able to authentically contextualize current and envisioned organizational states of being."

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They know who they are. Newman says the leaders he spoke with were keenly aware of their weaknesses. But "equally noteworthy," he adds, "was how self-assured and exact the chief executives were in articulating their personal and professional values, and the extents to which they continuously draw on those principles in navigating work and private responsibilities."

They are funny—with a purpose. Many higher education executives use humor to bring levity to tense situations. "Developed or innate, successful CEOs tend to possess good senses of humor and use them effectively," Newman writes.

They are problem solvers. Most leaders Newman spoke with had a knack for identifying and implementing creative problem-solving strategies. "They are equally focused on encouraging such thinking and behaviors in others—marshaling internal and external stakeholders to the advancement of their colleges or universities," he adds.

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They are careful with their politics. While the level of political engagement among the higher education leaders Newman connected with varied—he says each had considered their approach carefully. Executives with political backgrounds were more comfortable engaging in the political process but "all had developed clear positions regarding the political activities they are, and are not, willing to undertake, and are prepared to field such requests whenever they arise."

They are comfortable with uncertainty. All leaders are forced to make complex decisions with incomplete information. "As leaders of complex, dynamic organizations, successful higher education CEOs make peace with this reality," Newman writes.

They feel fortunate and engaged. As Newman notes, "postsecondary CEO positions are difficult to come by." Most higher education executives said they felt lucky to be in their role and had actively sought it out. "As a result, the CEOs are fully dedicated to fulfilling those roles—explicitly disallowing themselves any buyer's remorse or sense they can simply step down when the going gets tough—until retirement or some other development compels a change," Newman observes (Newman, Inside Higher Ed, 12/9).

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