Why it's so hard to find new leaders

Fostering a pipeline of future leaders can be tricky

Campus leaders often come from the faculty, but transitioning to the administration can prove difficult for many academics, Jeffrey Selingo writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

According to the American Council on Education, the average tenure of a college president has dipped in the last decade from 8.5 years to seven. That's bad news for colleges, according to Selingo. Not only can it take a significant amount of time to find a successor, but he says the transition process is becoming more challenging for institutions seeking new leadership.

In working with staff and faculty from a variety of institutions, Selingo identified eight reasons why it's so difficult to build a pipeline of future leaders—and why the tough transition often holds back innovation on campus.

1. Recruiting faculty to leadership can be tough

Leaders who come from the faculty may find the adjustment difficult, Selingo says, and their academic colleagues may not support their transition. Academics may also have concerns about their ability to return to the faculty after they've put their research on hold to take an administrative position.

2. New leaders must overcome a steep learning curve

It takes a while for a new leader to get comfortable in his or her role and gain sufficient knowledge about the business side of the institution. Instructors-turned-leaders must also make the shift from focusing on their own teaching and research to making decisions that affect the entire campus community.

3. High turnover means little follow-through

Making real change at an institution requires a long-term, deliberate approach. But as the rate of turnover rises, institutional priorities get shuffled more frequently. Each new leader has his or her own agenda. Over time, Selingo says this can build a culture of skepticism that real change will ever be accomplished.

4. Administrators forget about the big picture

Administrators understandably put most of their energy into dealing with the demands of their own institutions. But Selingo argues that when leaders don't consider the range of challenges facing higher education, they miss out on ideas and perspectives that they could ultimately bring back to benefit their campuses.

5. Faculty often don't understand the decision-making process  

Professors who take on senior-level positions often lack understanding of the networks and relationships necessary to make change, according to Selingo. He says that many leaders from an academic background initially don't know how to work with other high-level leaders such as the provost, president, or chief financial officer.

6. Future leaders need emotional intelligence

When putting so much effort into problem-solving and decision-making, new leaders may forget about the image they project and how that image affects others. Selingo says future leaders need to be trained to consider how their actions affect others and focus more on building relationships and developing their leadership skills. 

What you should know if you aspire to be a college president

7. Professors don't like taking risks

Campus leadership is all about taking risks and accepting controversy, Selingo says. But he argues that academics unfamiliar with large-scale decision making may opt for safer paths that aren't necessarily the most effective.

8. Career paths aren't well-defined

Many academics are unaware of all their career options, whether on campus or elsewhere, as a result of little coaching, mentoring, or succession planning. People who could be outstanding leaders may not understand the opportunities open to them or feel confident that they'd be qualified (Selingo, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/9). 


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