Effective leadership: Observations from a senior professional

by Betty J. Huff, AACRAO Consultant

I attempted to accomplish effective leadership throughout my forty years as a higher education professional.  Leadership styles, both as defined in the research literature and as measured in practice, was the subject of my graduate research.  Leadership effectiveness was a magnet for me when it appeared in the title of books and articles.  Both were always “go to” topics for sessions at conferences.  Effective leadership was always one of my personal goals.

Across time I came to believe that leadership is not as much a single definable term as it is a doorway that leads down several halls of definitions including: breadth of knowledge; integrity; personal influence; shared vision; effective management; problem resolution; and staff supervision and development.  I also believe, to be truly successful as a leader, you must throw in a little bit of acting, personal bravado mixed with humility, acceptance that you will occasionally take the wrong action, and a willingness to admit mistakes when they happen.

As I think about lessons learned in leadership across my career, there were two valuable lessons that I wish I had learned sooner rather than later.  First, a leader should be able to recognize talents within all staff members in addition to an overall talented staff member.  Second, a leader should understand the positive results of empowering staff and stepping back occasionally from the lead position.  Engaging the talents of all staff in the business enterprise at their desired level of involvement, and empowering staff to develop as leaders in their own right contributed greatly to any successes I enjoyed in my career.

 I was fortunate over the years to either inherit or hire talented staff from frontline service staff to directors of units.  For me, the key to a productive operation, as well as the personal satisfaction of leading staff, was to identify the talents that each person possessed and could contribute in positive ways regardless of the role they filled.  For example, a staff member in a customer service role may have no desire or the personal characteristics to be promoted to a higher level position, but that same staff member, who has a history of positive reaction with students and a dedicated service attitude, can be a valuable asset in staff morale building conversations and evaluation of student service delivery.  It took me several years, and unfortunately many missed opportunities, to begin to allow all staff and not just managerial staff to participate to the extent of their desire and ability in unit retreats, vision statement development, and unit decision-making, etc.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Hidden Figures.  One memorable scene from the movie consisted of a brief conversation between two of the major characters.  It summed up, for me, one of the major characteristics of a successful leader.  Kevin Costner is discussing with Jim Parsons, in subtle terms, the unrecognized capability of Katherine Johnson and the act of not empowering her as a full member of the team.  To paraphrase the comments, Costner tells Parsons that his role as a leader is to find the genius among geniuses who will cause “all of us to rise to a higher level of performance and team success.”  This statement caused me to wonder how often in my career I failed to recognize the stars within my organization who would “rise to a higher level” if I stepped out of the way and allowed them to have that opportunity.  I mistakenly felt that, as the defined leader, I had to be the one at the forefront and lead by example rather than empowering others to assume the role of leadership and challenge me to be better.

During my final year as a senior administrator in enrollment management, I spent a portion of my time reflecting on a lengthy career in the profession.  Much of that reflection was on how much I thought I knew when I was a young professional starting my career and how, as I finished, I recognized how much I learned.  We should all be grateful that we don’t know what we don’t know when we are young, and my hope is that we recognize that fact long before we get to the end.  I cannot give credit to the originator of the following quote since it was passed to someone who passed it to someone who passed it to me, but it is one of my favorite examples of the difference between words that are similar but not the same. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?  Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.   Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.  To me, learning the principles of leadership was the knowledge I acquired.  Wisdom was the much more difficult task of applying those principles effectively.