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Lessons on university leadership

As a university president, at the end of the day, you want to feel that you have made a difference and left your institution in a better place than you found it.
FEB 17 2021

Lessons on university leadership

As a university president, at the end of the day, you want to feel that you have made a difference and left your institution in a better place than you found it.


In her new book, Enhancing Your Higher Education Presidency: Fifteen Lessons on Leadership, former University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon argues that the pace of change within the higher education sector is accelerating and that the expectations placed on universities continue to grow. Given these trends, she says, strong leadership is paramount. Her 15 lessons, while directed at university presidents, are relevant to anyone aspiring to become an academic leader. In this excerpt from her book, we present three of her leadership lessons.

1. Don’t fall into the hero complex

Unfortunately, academic institutions often reward individual performance through incentivizing strong teaching, independent research, and service activities within the institution or community. Although the lone scholar model is being challenged through team research grants, partnerships within and among institutions, and evolving performance assessment systems, many academics generally operate quite independently with loose connections within their department, faculty, or discipline. Their team usually consists of their graduate students and other scholars in their research group, but the accountability for performance generally falls on their shoulders alone.

Once an academic is appointed to an administrative position, the concept of team changes. Support staff and other academic leaders become part of the equation, and the need to develop relationships with others to perform work increases. Many tasks and initiatives require expertise from numerous people, and this collective expertise must be woven together to achieve the desired results.

For a higher education president, the concept of team is further amplified. As the saying goes, “You will be judged by the company you keep,” so building a strong team that is aligned to your — and the institution’s — vision is crucial. No matter how much energy you have or how strong your vision is, you need abundant leadership capacity to effectively manage, let alone transform, an institution. Trying to be a hero by being a “one-person show” does not work since your success as president will come through the success of your team. Your job is to lead by enabling others.

“You will be judged by the company you keep.”

There are two key dimensions to having an effective executive leadership team. The first is building the team and the second is nurturing the team. They are equally important. Getting the right people on the bus who can add functional and strategic skillsets at the executive table is paramount. However, assuming that your role stops at recruitment is a fatal mistake, regardless of how strong and talented the people are. The maxim “You need a championship team and not a team of champions” applies to businesses and academic institutions alike. It is your job to both recruit and coach a championship team.

As a new president, once you have confirmed the structure of your executive team and their portfolios, be intentional in the selection (or retention) of team members by knowing what works for you. Identifying and recruiting your team is probably the most important decision—and often the one most under your control—that you make. Having complementary leadership and management styles around the table creates a diverse and dynamic team to lead the institution. Using management and leadership profiles as part of the candidate assessment when recruiting your team can help determine if someone is a good fit for the role, the rest of the team, and you. Extra diligence at the beginning eliminates problems down the road.

Once your team is in place, you need to actively nurture it. A higher education president’s team is unlike any other within the institution because of the significant interdependencies among members. Unlike a dean who may have associate deans who have distinct, and generally non-overlapping, portfolios or provosts who have vice-provosts for defined areas of responsibility, a president’s team must work together. There are few issues or opportunities that can be managed within one portfolio alone. This means that the cohesiveness and trust around the table need to be solid. If your team is performing well together, this will be apparent to their teams and, ultimately, to the rest of campus. Academic communities feel anxious if they sense that the executive team is not aligned; therefore, continually investing time and energy to bridge differences and create unity pays significant dividends.

As president, you need to commit to team building, often with the support of a leadership coach to elevate the team’s performance and hence their impact on the organization. This will strengthen not only the relationship between the president and individual team members, but also, and importantly, relationships among team members. Your team needs to know that you “have their backs” while being held accountable to deliver. Your efforts build loyalty that will be tested in difficult times. The bottom line is that if your team is not functioning well, you have only yourself to blame. As a leader, your team can be your greatest source of satisfaction and pride or the greatest drain on your energy.

In addition to team building, you also need to invest in individual team members by inspiring, motivating, and challenging them. Providing mentorship, guidance, support, and advice to each person allows them to develop and harness their leadership capacities. This will bring out their best to the benefit of the institution. Some members of your team will be potential successors of yours or will take on a presidential role at another institution. Helping prepare them for further leadership opportunities is one of your responsibilities and an expectation of the board with respect to succession planning.

2. Build a healthy organization

A president needs a clear and compelling strategy in order to evolve or transform their institution. The process of developing such a strategy engages stakeholders who share the president’s perspectives and ambitions and working together shape a vision that drives decisions and impacts. Although this process holds true for virtually all higher education institutions, culture can differ vastly between organizations. Institutional culture is made up of the traditions, norms, and behaviours within an organization and has a major impact on its ability to drive performance to meet its strategic goals.

Institutional culture is a component of a broader concept of building healthy organizations. In higher education, a healthy organization is one that integrates the well-being of faculty and staff into the institution’s strategy through tangible support systems, policies, and practices. The development of a healthy higher education environment is driven by the president, and their commitment will set the tone on how this is received and implemented within the organization.

A healthy organization is the essential foundation of a transformative strategic plan since all stakeholders need to feel committed, engaged, and willing to invest discretionary efforts into the institution’s future. In fact, most experts in the field of organizational culture argue that without an effective culture, the probability of implementing a successful strategy is low.

A healthy organization is the essential foundation of a transformative strategic plan since all stakeholders need to feel committed, engaged, and willing to invest discretionary efforts into the institution’s future.

Talking about institutional culture and healthy organizations can be uncomfortable for some presidents. Specifically addressing norms, values, and behaviours can lean into an emotional space that can be perceived as being at odds with an academic culture underpinned by critical thought, open debate, and collegial governance. However, higher education institutions are like most organizations in that they consist of people. And it is a universal truth that people need to feel valued, respected, and recognized for their contributions. Being deliberate about the values that shape the organization is important, and these values need to be reflected and reinforced throughout the institution.

Building a healthy organization starts at the top, and the president needs to both model and lead in showcasing desired behaviours. If progress is to be made and maintained, an accountability framework for leaders within the organization to invest in and improve the culture in their faculties and units is also needed. Employee engagement surveys do not measure organizational health or institutional culture directly, but they do provide important quantitative and qualitative information that can also be helpful. Employee engagement refers to employees’ commitment to the organization and the level of discretionary effort they are willing to invest, whereas enablement encompasses employees’ perceptions of whether they have the resources and support needed to function in their roles. Having this information measured over time in units and faculties provides rich data that can be used to determine where the organization is healthy or not and whether actions eventually lead to improvement.

During unexpected disruptions or crises, a strong and effective culture serves as a shock absorber. A high level of trust in the institution’s leaders, a united campus community, and a belief that stakeholders are respected and valued need to be leveraged by a president to lead and manage during tough times.

In today’s globally competitive landscape, a healthy organization can truly make an institution stand out relative to its peers. It can impact who is recruited and who will be retained because they believe in both the strategy and their ability to contribute to its success through a supportive environment.

3. Know and use your political capital

Higher education presidents have little power. The nature of collegial governance in a bicameral system does not lend itself to top-down decision making. What makes the role interesting is that rather than being directive, you need to inspire, engage, communicate, cajole, and create incentives in order to have any influence on stakeholders and the organization as a whole. As someone once said, “Being a higher education president is like being in a cemetery … lots of bodies under you but nobody’s listening.”

Some of a leader’s ability to influence is related to their position. Just having the title of president does carry weight. However, a much broader and deeper ability to influence is related to their political capital. What is political capital? It’s all the components, such as their reputation, credibility, and network, that allow a leader to get a job done.

Political capital must be earned. It is gained through every interaction, decision, and compromise; you build trust as well as comfort with your values and leadership style. It works like a piggy bank. Over time, political capital is accumulated in the piggy bank as a precious resource. In fact, there are many piggy banks since the amount of political capital you have with one person or stakeholder group may differ greatly from another. Building political capital takes time and must be grounded in the development of genuine and authentic relationships. Being transactional in your approach to relationship building may give you a false sense of your political capital.

The real value of political capital is its use. It must be spent to be useful, and it should not be squandered. A higher education president has limited time and capacity to move their organization forward, so they must skillfully use their political capital at the right time to make tough decisions, resolve complex issues, or make key changes. Deploying the right mix of carrots and sticks, while not compromising your basic values, allows you to build bridges and fulfill your vision for the organization while staying true to yourself.

Political capital must be earned.

Political capital can also be used to drive opportunities since your voice and opinions may particularly resonate with, and be respected by, strategic stakeholders. You can use your capital to gain traction and benefit for your institution or the broader higher education sector. A president needs to manage upside value and downside risk, and political capital is a necessary ingredient for doing this effectively.

Every time political capital is spent, it must be replenished. The key is knowing how much political capital you have at any time and with whom. Being able to assess, build, and use your political capital relies on strong emotional intelligence. This includes knowing how you are perceived by others and being personally and organizationally aware.

A common mistake many leaders make is assuming they have more political capital than they do. Making difficult decisions when the piggy bank is nearly empty can have significant consequences, especially in a higher education environment that can be unforgiving at times. When you have to make a particularly difficult decision to make, it is helpful to have people in your organization you can trust to let you know how you are perceived and your level of credibility.

Finally, when you take office, there is a honeymoon period that should not be confused with political capital. During this period, which could last three, six, or twelve months, you are often given the benefit of the doubt. You might be able to make tough decisions without significant pushback. However, take care to build the piggy bank of political capital, or stakeholder patience and support may quickly fade.

Excerpted from Enhancing Your Higher Education Presidency: Fifteen Lessons on Leadership (RENSAR Publishing, August 2020) by permission of the author.

Elizabeth Cannon
Dr. Cannon is president emerita of the University of Calgary, where she served as its president and vice-chancellor from 2010 to 2018. An engineer specializing in geomatics engineering, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2019.
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  1. Ian Newbould / February 17, 2021 at 14:11

    I always thought that presidents have, at most, three magic bullets. They must be used sparingly and wisely.