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Leadership Needs by Institution: One Size Does Not Fit All

When it comes to academic leadership, some traits are universal. All presidents must have management acumen, communication skills, vision, and mission; however, a president who is ground-breakingly successful at one institution could be an abject failure at another. Four questions should guide colleges as they consider a new leader.

  1. Where Are You Headed? Institutions first need to consider their futures. Where are they now and where do they want to be? The rule of thumb used to be to think of the next 5–10 years. I now advise schools to look at the next 1–5 years. Through considering the pressing challenges, the opportunities for innovation, and long-term trajectory, schools can better understand the type of leader they will need at the helm.

  2. Where Are Your Weak Points? Colleges need to be self-aware of where there are gaps in their functioning and leadership. If a school needs to grow enrollment, they should be looking for someone with a demonstrated track record of enrollment growth. Most schools can identify their strengths. It can be more uncomfortable to pinpoint weaknesses. Such squeamishness will only hurt colleges in the long run.

  3. What Size is Your School? The characteristics that make a president or provost successful at a large university do not necessarily translate to a small college. Institutions should have a clear understanding of the way in which their size influences their leadership needs. Leaders at small colleges have to be nimble. They have to be able to recognize the need for a change and make it quickly—all while maintaining transparency and communication. They do not have the luxury of taking 3 months on a decision that should’ve been made in 3 days. Leaders at large universities will have many similar traits, but must deal with increased complexity due to size. They are responsible for steering the overall direction of an institution and less involved in day-to-day operations. They must be able to maintain a clear understanding of challenges, opportunities, and functioning of a school and articulate it to stakeholders.

  4. What Are Your Values? Each college has a rich legacy that informs its present and manifest itself in the school’s values, initiatives, and personality. All successful leaders have an appreciation for the mission of an organization and a vision to carry that institution forward. They are not superimposing their own values on a school. Rather, they understand the unique history, priorities, and strengths of a college and help it flourish.

Through thoughtful consideration of key criteria, colleges can select leaders that are not just quality professionals, but excellent fits for their specific institutions. They can build on the best in colleges’ legacies as they chart a dynamic new future.