What Does Bad (and Good) Leadership Look Like in Universities?

I’ve been around academia long enough to have seen some truly “egregious” leaders. I selected that work, “egregious,” deliberately and very carefully. It’s a curious word. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll see that it can mean “very, very bad” and “very, very good” at the same time, making it the perfect passive-aggressive insult.

Let’s start with the question of what an egregious (viz., “a very, very bad”) university leader looks like. The worst kinds of leaders are those who are ineffectual, but completely oblivious to the fact that they are ineffectual. They go to work every day under the impression that they excel at their job and imagine that they are highly respected by faculty, but, in reality, they are viewed as incompetent and grossly underqualified. I’ve known plenty of leaders like this and, frankly, I don’t always blame them for their incompetence. The real culprit is the senior executive who hired and entrusted them.

Poor leadership is endemic to universities because most university leaders are academics, or former academics. As an academic myself, I can be self-deprecating of our capacity to inspire, motivate, and execute. We’re quite good at bringing out the best in ourselves, but, on the whole, quite deficient when it comes to bringing out the best in others.

When university leaders are underqualified for the role (as is often the case), they cause much more harm than good. The key litmus test for leadership is simple: does the leader attract and retain high quality academics, or create an environment in which high quality academics jump ship? Let’s face an obvious reality. Only high performers can leave. Low performers will stay because they have nowhere else to go. If a department or, even worse, a university begins to hemorrhage its high performers, then the leader has failed, plain and simple. Everyone who can leave, leaves, and those who can’t, stay.

“The key litmus test for leadership is simple: does the leader attract and retain high quality academics, or create an environment in which high quality academics jump ship? Let’s face an obvious reality. Only high performers can leave. Low performers will stay because they have nowhere else to go. If a department or, even worse, a university begins to hemorrhage its high performers, then the leader has failed, plain and simple.”

Poor leaders turn a blind eye to the bullying of faculty, and even poorer leaders orchestrate and co-ordinate bullying. They ooze toxicity and are fiercely jealous of younger faculty who outperform them, especially in research. They encourage faculty to “voice” their opinions, but what they really mean is that faculty are free to share opinions that align with the leader’s vision. Dissonant voices are stifled and repressed.

What does an egregious (viz., “a very, very good”) university leader look like? The same, exact litmus test applies to good leaders: are you, or are you not, attracting and retaining high performers? If the environment is, at the same time, challenging, rewarding, developmental, equitable, meritorious, and motivating, then a leader has succeeded, plain and simple. The best university leaders will listen intently, empathize deeply, and inspire consistently. They’re not threatened by high performers and they always first look for structural reasons for low performance, rather than blaming the individual.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with egregious leadership. Instead, I think we need more egregious leadership at universities.

Prof. Andrew R. Timming
Editor-in-Chief

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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