Six Steps to Effective LeadershipVolumes have been written about leadership, but on many questions, there is no definitive answer. How should leadership be defined? How does one acquire the ability to exercise it? Do women practice leadership differently from men? Is there a distinctive African American style of leadership? Is leadership in the academy different from leadership in other sectors of American society? I will not wrestle with these questions here. What I offer instead are six principles that are important for effective leadership in higher education or any other arena.
1) Surround yourself with colleagues who are as good or better at their responsibility than you are at yours. Of course they should be loyal to their leader. But loyalty must never be a substitute for competence. When leaders surround themselves with mediocre staff, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain excellence in the organization. One sign of a good leader is the ability to hear and learn from top-notch colleagues.
2) Delegate authority and require results. Youngsters sometimes hear from their elders: “By the time I show you what to do, I could have done it myself.” That may be true, but it is also true that like leaders of organizations, elders who try to do everything themselves inevitably experience burn out. And how can anyone learn how to get things done if they are never given the opportunity?
In delegating authority to one’s staff, a leader must also be clear about the results that are expected, the rewards for well-executed work, and the consequences that follow when work is poorly done.
3) Model the behavior you expect of others. When caught doing the very thing a youngster was told not to do, more than one adult has responded: “Do as I say do, not as I do.” That is a poor response to a youngster and an equally poor message from a leader to his or her associates. From punctuality to ethical behavior, what is required of staff should be no more and no less than what leaders require of themselves.
4) Believe in and inspire positive change. Throughout the academy, just as in other sectors of American life, some colleagues stick to doing something a particular way because: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” It is not easy to counter such resistance to innovation, but effective leaders are often able to do so by demonstrating their own respect for traditions while presenting the advantages of doing things differently. Inspiring an effective combination of continuity and change is surely a hallmark of strong leadership.
5) Never take yourself too seriously. Successful leaders carry out their work as if it is the most important task on earth. But they do not behave as if they are personally more important than the work. Healthy doses of humility and good humor help a leader to avoid fatal mistakes such as adopting the attitude that it is the leader’s way or no way, and that without the leader, the organization would cease to exist.
6) Serve others, not one’s self. Every leader of an educational institution, corporation, faith-based institution, political constituency or social service agency must clearly and consistently articulate how the mission of their organization will be carried out. This must be done in the interest of the stakeholders, not for the leader’s own aggrandizement, whether in terms of improper use of funds for private gain or the abuse of personal power. Recent scandals involving some corporate leaders highlight the dangers of violating the trust of the very individuals one is to serve.
Guided by these six principles of effective leadership, when the time comes for leaders to move on — and every leader should know when that time has come — they should be able to say, with joy, that they have left an institution better than they found it.
— Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole is president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.
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