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Leadership Mistakes in Academia

In my career, I have had a few leadership roles. Each time I sat in the "big chair" (that's a funny story about KYCO that I might share later), I thought back to my professor at Nova Southeastern's University Huizenga School of Business who said, "Every strong leader is rooted in the relationships they build with their followers!" I'm sure you've heard a statement similar to this with slightly different words over the years. In the most simple terms, it means that your followers will make or break your success! Becoming a great leaders requires earning relationships with your employees so that they trust you and know that your heart is in the right place. We all know leaders that have failed. Why did they fail? I think that the most common reasons are: broken trust, no effort in relationship building, and failure to provide vision/hope for the future.


Broken trust is one of the most difficult things to repair. It's like an antique porcelain teacup that you can try and try to glue back together, but it still leaks. Once trust is broken, it can take years to repair it or it may never happen at all. I would often describe to my faculty and staff that being the dean of a college was being the ultimate "middle manager". I knew that my faculty thought that I had lots of power and yet the the university administration proved that I had very little. So, how does a dean take care of his/her faculty while being constrained by their bosses? That is the art of being an effective dean. You have to fight for the "real needs" of your college while maintaining a proper perspective about the university's goals. This middle ground is not a fun place to be! You have to build trust by letting your team know what you can and cannot get pushed through the university's administration. Build trust by being honest with them and not overpromising what you can accomplish. If you fail, let them know. If you achieve, celebrate with them! But, never deceive or keep secrets. As I said, broken trust is almost impossible to repair.


Build relationships at all times! Always make sure that your college is a great place to go to school and a great place to work. You have to focus on both of these goals. I believe that walking down the hallway allows you to build relationships. You've probably heard the phrase "leadership by walking around". I subscribe to this idea. I made it a practice to walk the halls and stop into my faculty's offices. It would purely be a social visit, but often conversations turned to things that were important to them. This is relationship building and quite honestly, it was one of my favorite things to do. I loved sitting down in a faculty office and just catching-up with one of my team members. I was blessed in my career to also have a great spouse. My wife is very "tuned-in" to people. She was always willing to open our home to my team. We hosted countless parties and dinners at our house over the years. How powerful it is to welcome team members into your home for a meal! We did it all of the time and it became part of our culture.


"The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet," said Theodore Hesburgh. I fully agree with this statement, but I'd add to it that the vision needs to be tied to "hope for a brighter future!" I believe that the best leaders provide hope to their followers. Yes, they have to articulate a vision for how to get there, but it is important to point out at all times that better days are ahead if we work together as a team. I want to share an example with you about teamwork. When I first started at KYCO, I inherited a wordy and complex mission statement was difficult to understand. I knew from the start that we had to fix it. But, how would I get the whole college to buy in to a new mission after two years of living with the old one? Well, we did it! We did it with teamwork, open communication, focus and understanding that better days are ahead. I described the moment that we completed the new mission statement as "magic"! I had gathered my administrative team off campus for a retreat. We discussed the themes that we wanted to develop at our young school. We reviewed mission statements from different industries, different colleges, and universities. And, because we had a team that was smart, honest, comfortable, and thoughtful...the words flowed. In a matter of one morning, we created the new mission statement for KYCO! I remember when we took a lunch break thinking...that was magic! This new mission statement was adopted by the faculty right away and provide us hope for the future.


Leadership in higher education is complex...true! But, it can be very fulfilling! Look for those magic moments as you build your team. Be open and honest and never break their trust. Success is waiting for you!

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