I was recently speaking to a youth leadership group about the topic of leadership. The question at hand was what could these young people do now to prepare to be a leader. As speakers we were to address the topic as if we were advising someone who wanted to prepare to be a leader in our field.
At first glance, one would think that someone who is serving as a president of a community college would be able to advise another person about how they might prepare to become a president. Naturally, one might even think for a second that someone should just follow the path that I followed, after all I became a president. Either thought might be reasonable if one thinks that higher education is a rather "stable", unchanging sector. Certainly you have heard the discussions about how long it takes higher education institutions to make decisions. I've seen and experienced the glacial pace of change in higher education first-hand. However, I do find community colleges a bit more nimble.
Despite the rather stable, slowly changing higher education landscape I had to acknowledge that over 30 years in education I have seen significant shifts. For example, as a college graduate in the mid 1980s I would never have been able to image completing a degree later in life entirely "on-line". I'm not even sure I knew there was an Internet at that point. When I became a department chair in the late 1990s, I could never image a day when campus security would be forefront on my mind. Then I walked into my college on 9-11-2001 and joined the massive crowd of students in the hallway watching the television when a second plane crashed into the World Trade Towers. All this to say that when it was my turn to answer I had to acknowledge that I felt that the question was rather difficult.
In an attempt to provide some meaningful advice to the group I acknowledged that at some point while I was a tenured professor I began thinking about moving into administration. I explained that I was someone who enjoyed challenges and felt I could create a collaborative environment resulting from cultivating a strong team. I believe that to begin the process one must want to be a leader and respect the responsibility that comes with being a leader before they ever cultivate the skills needed to be a successful leader. Really, my only leadership training was not formal, but resulted from many years of participating on and coaching athletic teams. I felt that I had a good understanding of what it took to bring a group of people together, set meaningful goals, and foster each person's strengths in pursuite of accomplishing a meaningful goal. For me, that is the definition of a coach. So I had the desire to lead and I understood the responsibility that comes with leadership.
I acknowledged that I did not believe there was any one path to executive leadership in a community college. However, I felt that someone had to participate in a range of experiences and leadership opportunities at various levels within higher education to gain a full understanding of how the "system works". I explained that I believed one skill that is important for a president is the ability to see issues, problems and opportunities from a variety of perspectives and to know how to invite people with those perspectives to the table to share them prior to making decisions.
I acknowledged that a president needed to be able to create, share, and reinforce a compelling vision and foster buy-in from a wide range of people who generally do not fully understand how they are interrelated to functions within the institution that are very different from their own. I explained that this trait is one that I do not know how to foster or train for. I think some people have the innate ability to be visionary and motivational. Perhaps this is instinct that comes from experience.
I mentioned that there are a variety of skills that are foundational and can be developed over time in a variety of way. I believe communication is essential. I believe that survival is dependent upon being able to delegate and create accountability to ensure those to whom something is delegated to follow through. I believe that one needs, at a minimum, a good understanding of budgets, funding, and running a business. I explained that the job involves solving problems daily, consequently, one needs to be able to gain relevant information, evaluate its accuracy and worthiness, and apply the information so as to address the problem at hand. One must also have the ability to work with people. One also needs emotional intelligence so he or she is aware of the things that push their buttons so they can control their emotions, stay in the moment, and manage the situation they find themselves in. Last, a person needs a thick skin. Learning that others' reactions are "not about you" might be invaluable. One must have mastered the skill of active listening and create an environment where they are approachable so people will open up and share information with you that you need to know.
I ended with a question to the group. What is more valuable when picking a leader for an institution or choosing a leader to follow: skills or character?
Perhaps this question needs to explored another day in a future blog.