The Traits Necessary to be a University President
John Kroger of INSIDE HigherED has argued that “a university president may need significantly greater leadership skills to achieve good outcomes than leaders in other contexts” (Kroger, 2018). His reasons include having “a large number of constituencies with very different interests, accompanied by unwieldy board structures and conflicting and vague governance rules.” Kroger suggests that the stated complexities make being a university president one of the most challenging jobs you can have. He suggests that this is because it makes implementing decisions, agendas, or meaningful change exceedingly tricky.
Undoubtedly, the head of a university should exemplify leadership traits and behaviors, and I am not arguing that the job is one of the hardest jobs. However, as one of the hardest jobs, we should ponder what sort of traits and behaviors should be required of that leader. The question is something that has been studied and considered for years.
Herein, I present several lists provided by experts of what they believe are the necessary traits and behaviors required of university leadership. I will validate each list and demonstrate common themes between them. However, I will show that individually, the listings provided are incomplete.
I will also demonstrate that individually, each list provides excellent insight and a better view of what a university should be looking for in its leadership. I will break down each trait and behavior and demonstrate why it is essential. And finally, I will show that the lists are better utilized collectively as a whole.
The head of a university should exemplify leadership through various traits and behaviors. Some experts may try to choose between Effective Communication, Flexibility, Sustainability, Integrity, Vision, Confidence, Courage, Technical knowledge, Collaboration, Persistence, and Good judgment. However, I believe that all are necessary.
The president of a university should exemplify leadership traits and behaviors. Of this, there can be no doubt. However, ideas on precisely what those traits and behaviors should be, appear to vary between experts. Granted, some of it is probably a debate in nomenclature, but while there are some expected consistencies, there are some apparent differences.
Experts such as David Turner of Delaware State University; Mary Evans Sias, director of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Millennium Leadership Institute; and Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, suggest that “the most important traits for a college president are flexibility, sustainability, and communication” (EAB, 2016). They also declare that flexibility is the most important trait or characteristic of the three. The three are a solid starting point, but it is in no way a complete listing. This is especially true in contrast to the input of other experts.
For example, in an article titled “4 Leadership Characteristics of Successful College Presidents“, written by The Change Leader, INC., the author echoes the previous list. However, they add “integrity” to that list as well. A substantial addition when considering that integrity is the consistency between words and actions. Integrity often impacts trust, satisfaction, and overall performance. The author suggests that a leader must align “his strategic plans with real-life economic, socio-political, and intellectual trends, incorporating that which best fits the campus mission” (Admin, 2017). And while integrity is a substantial addition to the list, it likely does not provide the end of the list we require. Some experts have added quite a bit more.
You will likely notice a few gaps when you ponder the previous lists and give them any real thought. The listings provided so far are consistent and accurate. However, there are a few additional traits that would need to be added to that list by any organization seeking to fill the role of “University President.” Experts such as Dr. Jeff Hockaday and Dr. Donald E. Puyear would probably agree. Hockaday and Puryear have provided a detailed listing of traits and characteristics needed by college leaders that is considerably more comprehensive.
In “Community College Leadership in the New Millennium. New Expeditions: Charting the Second Century of Community Colleges”, Hockaday and Puyear provide nine particular traits needed by college leaders. These traits are: “vision; integrity; confidence; courage; technical knowledge; collaborators; persistence; good judgment; and the desire to lead” (Hockaday & Puyear, 2000). Granted, some of these might overlap the previous lists, but this is a considerably more detailed list that provides a few more checkmarks to examine.
The examined literature has provided a robust listing of traits and behaviors to consider regarding university leadership. Collectively or individually, each listing makes sense. Effective Communication, Flexibility, Sustainability, Integrity, Vision, Confidence, Courage, Technical knowledge, Collaboration, Persistence, and Good judgment are all reasonable traits and behaviors that one could expect from a successful leader.
While some overlap might exist between some of these traits and behaviors, each listing provides a unique consideration that deserves a level of specific examination. This is especially true when you consider that a college president’s average length of service is roughly seven years (Duesterhaus, n.d.). The criterion of a potential university president is not something to be taken lightly, so the expectation of that leader should be weighed accordingly.
We have reviewed lists of three, four, and nine traits and behaviors that are suggested to be necessary for a college or university president. One can wonder which the correct list might be. Upon review, I think each list is accurate but still incomplete individually. These lists collectively provide a comprehensive and precise expectation of university leadership.
Desire to Lead
The desire to lead is first on the list. If a leader is not interested in the position, that leader may self-sabotage or, worse, be absent from their duties. Furthermore, such a desire would speak volumes about their motivation to succeed. There must be a level of drive or want to be the university president, and that drive must be easily demonstrated.
Any list regarding leadership is incomplete without “Vision.” Where are we going? What is it supposed to look like when we get there? Vision is an essential component of any leadership initiative, especially when considering the role of a university president.
Colleges and universities provide a robust service. Any potential president must thoroughly understand what that service is and how it is achieved. Having technical knowledge of the operation would be imperative for a president to ensure that the various components are being efficiently run. Furthermore, this would ensure accountability and measurability.
Effective communication means conveying the information or direction in clear and straightforward terms. A great leader is interested in results. Attempts to talk over someone’s head are highly counterproductive, and a great leader understands this. There is little value in having a vision or specialized knowledge if it cannot be communicated to others effectively.
A great leader collaborates with their teams. Collaboration is more than just building trust, keeping the team informed, and extending validation. Groups will often find issues, but those teams also tend to have innovative solutions. Collaboration allows for better evaluation of those issues, creative solutions, the inclusion of the group, and a more focused and refined action plan that can remain in line with the vision set by the president.
There is no point in collaborating with your team if you are not flexible regarding any potential solution. Flexibility is the willingness to change direction or compromise on an old way of doing things. A strong leader knows they will not always have the best solutions and must rely on their people to find the best way. This also means that different ideas will often be presented, and a leader must be willing to alter course when a better approach is submitted or when changing times dictate.
Sustainability requires abstract thought and constant pursuit. When one considers the vision of an institution, changing winds or obstacles cannot alter or deter the desired outcome. Granted, things change. However, when considering sustainability from a strategic standpoint, such change (like technology) can often be integrated or navigated while keeping the institution moving toward the stated vision. Sustainability is critical when considering how easy it would be to abandon or alter a vision due to hardship. A lack of sustainability could find an institution lost and without a solid direction.
Sustainability requires persistence. The ability to remain steadfast in pursuing the stated vision despite any difficulty or opposition is vital. Things get tricky sometimes, and a leader must anticipate this and forge ahead regardless. This does not mean a leader cannot bend, compromise, or collaborate. Quite the opposite is true. Persistence towards the vision would often require the team to help navigate the institution in the face of such adversity while the leader keeps everyone focused on the desired outcome.
Real leaders are about “doing the right thing” instead of doing things the right way. This requires integrity. Integrity is essential. It sets the standard to follow; it builds trust and demonstrates honesty. People need to know that what they are being told is real and that when a leader says they are going to do something, they are going to follow through with it. Followers also need to know that their leader is not being held to a different standard than what that leader holds the team to. The group must believe that the leader will do the right thing for the organization and the team despite any possible hardships.
Leaders must make the call and take calculated risks. When the information has been compiled, and the solutions have been considered, a leader must pull the trigger in the direction of the vision despite any fear. Doing so requires a strong belief in one’s abilities and team. A lack of confidence to move forward keeps the group and organization stagnant and ineffective. This can often result in a lack of innovation and growth.
Having confidence helps increase the availability of courage. Taking risks and making a decision that could potentially end badly requires a considerable amount of courage. A leader must be able to break free of the fear that holds them back and take action on the organization’s behalf despite any concerns.
And finally, a leader must demonstrate sound judgment. A great leader doesn’t just make decisions without weighing the pros, cons, and consequences. Leaders must consider the organization, their teams, and the stakeholders before taking action. Of course, this is often where collaboration comes in handy for good leaders. A good leader will address any potential consequences during the collaborative process. Good leaders will also ensure that everyone knows the consequences before making decisions. Such discussion would likely breed alternatives to lessen any negative result anyway.
Summary of Analysis
John Kroger likely has a strong point when speaking of the complexities of being a university president. One can imagine just how hard such a role could potentially be. This is especially true considering the size of different institutions.
If this is true, then the head of the university should exemplify leadership and be the beacon of the organization. Clearly, three, four, or even nine different traits and behaviors are not enough. The hardest job likely requires a comprehensive list of necessary traits and behaviors.
As demonstrated, Effective Communication, Flexibility, Sustainability, Integrity, Vision, Confidence, Courage, Technical knowledge, Collaboration, Persistence, and Good judgment are all essential for quality university leadership. In contrast to the several short lists provided by the experts presented in this paper, using their lists collectively seems prudent. A compiled list would undoubtedly help further narrow down any potential pool of candidates.
This is not to say that any of the lists provided are wrong. Instead, it is just my contention that a comprehensive job without an in-depth description of requirements can be dangerous. With so much on the line, a university must have a detailed list of expectations of the person in that position.
Some valuable traits and behaviors may have been missed in this analysis. Are additional traits and behaviors necessary? Would a university be able to effectively quantify some of the more general characteristics and behaviors that could be added?
Did you enjoy this article? You might also like “The Difficulty of Change and How to Overcome It.”
Admin. (2017, February 21). 4 Leadership Characteristics of Successful College Presidents. Retrieved from https://thechangeleader.com/4-leadership-characteristics-of-successful-college-presidents/.
Duesterhaus, A. P. (n.d.). College Presidency and University – Characteristics, Career Path, Roles and Responsibilities. Retrieved from https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2331/Presidency-College-University.html.
EAB. (2016, October 21). The 3 traits that make a successful college president: EAB Daily Briefing. Retrieved from https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/workplace/the-3-traits-that-make-a-successful-college-president/.
Hockaday, Jeff & Puyear, Donald. (2000). Community College Leadership in the New Millennium. New Expeditions: Charting the Second Century of Community Colleges. Issues Paper No. 8.
Kroger, J. (2018, October 19). The Toughest Job in the Nation: Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/toughest-job-nation.