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Career Advice

Five mistakes made by poor academic leaders

Good leaders listen more, assume less, and listen more again.


Leadership is vital for academia. But you’re not a good academic leader just because you think you are. While even entry-level university job adverts overflow with leadership buzzwords, academic settings are uniquely different and challenging. These five most common mistakes of academic leaders can be used to play “bad leadership” bingo in your workplace. Better still, avoid these common and costly mistakes yourself.

Mistake 1: Doing the wrong things right

Good leaders visibly work long and hard, promoting confidence through their decisiveness and urgency. But leaders can be prone to defining themselves by inputs, particularly hours worked or volume of tasks done. They may be simply doing the wrong things right. These intense efforts – however well-intended or correctly done –may contribute nothing to actual results.

Real effectiveness comes when leaders take time to prioritize their actions strategically. Efforts may focus on subtle aspects which stop small problems from becoming big ones or get to the heart of problems by addressing underlying issues. As strategy expert Richard Rumelt summarizes in his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, instead of rushing to act in complex situations, leaders should first ask “what is going on here?” and focus efforts strategically on where and how to make the biggest difference to what matters most. This means focusing on what you want to achieve and then working backwards to set the right strategic priorities and goals to get it done.

Mistake 2: Using role-power and authority first

It’s easy and tempting to rely on authority and its symbols, even in more egalitarian organizations like universities. This makes us feel more special in the moment and even gets things done – but at a huge cost. As Peter Drucker and John Maxwell caution: leadership never starts with a position or a fancy title but from your approach and actions. Given that almost all the enduring benefits of good leaders arise from and through the actions of others, their leadership authentically values and respects others. They give feedback often and openly, and lead by their own example. Such leaders value relationships before roles. This requires a delicate mix of confidence in your current skills but also wariness of over-identification with the leadership label for psychological reassurance you are correct, powerful, or ethical. Good leaders retain the ongoing ability to remain open to being wrong and to see themselves, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work indicates, as massive works in progress in need of ongoing learning and refining.

Mistake 3: Thinking “they” are the problem

Leadership is not simply about trying to impose control on difficult people or situations. Instead, focus should mostly be on yourself and truly owning your conduct. Can you be truly nonjudgmental and supportive to a person you work with who lives by markedly different values to your own? Can you listen with true respect to the perspectives not only of those people with whom you identify, but also to those with whom you have had past heated disagreements? Leadership does not cast others as the problem but is more about challenging yourself to be open and empathetic, and to do the right thing no matter what. This means taking real ownership of how you see things and what you choose to do.

Mistake 4: Trusting your perceptions implicitly

Being decisive is cast as the hallmark of the strong leader. To have a strong and ready read of people and situations, to know intuitively how to solve complex problems, and always be that vital step ahead. Having strong faith in your own reading and judgments of situations and people feels good – but can be absolutely wrong. As Matthew Syed explains, history is replete with clever well-qualified people comfortable with making pressurized decisions, who based on their faith in their own skills and experience crashed airplanes, prosecuted innocent people, or killed patients.

Research shows that academic leaders are as prone to cognitive biases as undergraduate students but can be more dismissive of their own biases. Recently, Bill Gates reviewed historian Archie Brown’s book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, which observed that the most successful leaders don’t talk loud or have charisma but ask questions and listen. As former Manchester United football coach, Alex Ferguson, noted:

“Humans are given two ears and two eyes but only one mouth for a reason. Good leaders listen more, assume less, and listen more again.”


Mistake 5: Thinking you are the smartest person in the room

Sometimes those in leadership positions feel threatened by colleagues or staff who also possess leadership traits and are strong and successful in their roles. This can lead to claiming others’ ideas as your own, not promoting or backing those who deserve your support, or worse yet, letting these people go.

Great leaders, who at times might also have these feelings, recognize that there are benefits to surrounding themselves with people they perceive as being “smarter” than them. These colleagues can challenge good leaders to grow personally, as well as provide both support and outputs that will not only reflect well on themselves but on the leader. There are few things more fulfilling as a leader than mentoring and supporting others to be able to step into leadership roles in future.

Alexander Clark is associate vice-president, research, at the University of Alberta. Bailey Sousa is director of the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology, also at U of Alberta. These tips were adapted from the authors’ new book, How to be a Happy Academic, published by SAGE Publications, available now.

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  1. Traveling Professor / September 8, 2018 at 21:05

    A great article!
    Having been working at multiple universities for decades, I fortunately met very supportive, nice, and amazing department chairs who gave me a great amount of advice; they constantly encouraged me and made me confident and strong. Even now, whenever my work does not go well, I always recall those nice chairs. However, I also worked with awful department chairs who were control freaks; and they took all credits to themselves; they blamed that all faults were mine regardless how much efforts I make. Working with those awful chairs, really feel hopeless.

  2. Dan Weeks / September 14, 2018 at 21:21

    Nice article. I believe the quote you attributed to Alex Ferguson goes back a few more years to the Greek philosopher Epictetus.