Effective Community College Leadership: Six Attributes
No quality is more vital to the success of today’s community college than leadership.
Leadership is the ability to influence the behavior of others, and the successful college requires just that. No president, dean, or department chair conducts the work of all or a part of the college alone. It is, rather, the shared work together toward institutional goals that signals successful leadership and makes the achievement of institutional excellence possible. Much has been written about vision, but it is “shared vision” that leads to successful attainment of the college’s vision for itself.
There are many misconceptions about excellence in leadership, so it is appropriate to talk about and make clear what leadership is not. Leadership is not a personality style. One’s trying to emulate someone else cannot develop it. Rather, to be successful as a leader, one must develop one’s own style. In fact, personality is formed by the time a child reaches the age of five or six. It is a serious mistake to try being someone else when taking on the critical tasks of leadership. The key is learning to be as effective as you can be, given your own personality and aptitudes. However, it is important to remember that one can learn much from the excellent examples of others.
What are the qualities of a successful leader? In our more than four decades of research on this topic, we have discovered at least six attributes that emerge from watching and recording the work of exemplary community college leaders.
First, successful leaders have the ability to build a context for success. Leadership theory stresses the importance of creating an environment where you and others can do well. Each of us has watched colleagues move from position to position. Although mobility is often an effective way to move up the professional ladder, we have witnessed very successful leaders who are ideally situated in a local context aspire to risky, new positions. A president, for example, may leave a small community college, where he has spent ten or 15 years building trust and communication within the organization. In the much larger and more complex college, he may be unprepared to lead. He has departed an institution where his personality and leadership style are particularly effective and moved to an environment where he may not succeed. It is crucial to measure accurately when and where you work most effectively and to remember that institutional size is not correlated with institutional quality. Bigger is not always better!
Second, successful leaders have set high expectations and standards for themselves and others. There is a powerfully positive relationship between the standards leaders set and the tenor of the organizations they lead. If leader expectations are high and well understood, and if the leader “inspects what he expects,” the college will have terrific opportunities for institutional success, serving students and the larger community.
Third, successful leaders have the ability to model the behavior they expect by others in the college. I remember well the example set by Hans Mark, chancellor emeritus for the University of Texas System. During his time as Chancellor, he taught a class each semester in a different subject and on a different UT campus. His devotion to quality teaching and his decision to find and take the time to teach set a powerful example for all administrators throughout the system — that teaching and working with students was a top institutional priority. If chancellors of multi-billion dollar organizations give teaching such a priority, both by expectation and their own behavior, then others are more likely to follow their example.
Fourth, successful leaders personally recognize and reward the accomplishments of outstanding faculty and staff. It is especially rewarding to see individuals on campus respond, for example, to being honored at a public ceremony for consistent high-quality service to students and community. Many community colleges have maintained long traditions of faculty recognition. If our faculty represents “the heart” of the college, then our support staff surely represents “the soul” of the institution. Unless faculty are directly involved in student recruitment or community outreach, they may be the last employees to have direct contact with potential, “would be or could be,” or entering students. It is the college “worker bees” who convey the critical first impression to students and the larger community. Telephone operators, ground crews, housekeeping staff, parking and security personnel, admissions and registration staff, business office and financial aid staff, bookstore employees, and the like, all have initial contact (and create critical first impressions) with entering students. Their interactions and engagement with students have major impacts on student retention and degree completion. Colleges should have reward structures and systems for every employee group.
Fifth (and closely tied to four), successful leaders demonstrate a persistent willingness to discourage unproductive behavior. Without doubt, mediocrity will win out unless there is consistent, persistent insistence on excellence and commitment. Skirting difficult issues and looking the other way when behavior is irresponsible are common human tendencies, but strong leadership will not permit these behavioral luxuries in their colleges. In any organizational unit, the staff and faculty who work there know well the difference between those individuals who are truly committed and dedicated, and those who only go through the motions. It is important not to reward those employees who do very little, lest those who make positive differences in the lives of students realize and, rightly, come to resent the fact that the college rewards all employees equally (pay raises, overtime teaching, summer pay, travel to meetings, etc.), regardless of the quality of their performance and service to students and the college. Such a poor reward system is a guaranteed process for destroying the motivation and disparaging the hard work of successful employees.
Sixth, successful leaders are consistent. Leaders who practice what they preach gain respect. They are firm and fair, on a consistent basis. One of the best leaders with whom and for whom I worked was Lorrin Kennamer, who served as dean of UT’s College of Education for many years. A week never passed that I did not receive a clipped copy of a newspaper or journal article, or reference to a book he was reading — all of which would speak to my immediate interests. He made this practice a standard for how he often communicated with all of the faculty members in our college. This practice communicated to all that the dean was thinking about them individually and about their unique interests. Like Mark, Kennamer also taught a course each semester; moreover, he invited faculty colleagues to observe his classes and offered to do that for them as well. He was always open and available for meeting with faculty departments and individuals.
These six attributes are some of the most dramatic qualities and behaviors of successful leaders. Of special importance is that most of the behaviors associated with effective and strong leadership can be taught and can be learned. The key is that the leader aspires to be a leader worthy of emulation by others. Thus it is that, without any doubt, leadership is the quality most associated with excellence in our community college world.
John E. Roueche is president of the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University and director emeritus of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column. For more information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.