I have been asked this question many times: “What’s your leadership style?” I’ve given it a lot of thought, and my response is, “It depends.” I know that runs the risk of someone immediately jumping to the conclusion that I have no idea what I’m talking about or that I can’t possibly be “leadership material” but I’m sticking to my response. Let me explain:
The Primary Role of a Leader
In addition to creating a vision for the future, developing a strategic plan, and setting high but attainable expectations, the role of a leader is to motivate and inspire others; to model effective and ethical practice; and to facilitate leadership development in other team members. I think there is a difference between management and leadership in an educational environment, but they are intertwined on many levels. Successful management of projects or departments is one piece of advancing the institution’s mission. Typically, a manager is assigned to oversee a specific department, or a specific project within that department to meet a defined goal or need. It is his or her responsibility to ensure success with direct accountability to a leader–often a dean, provost, or vice president. A leader must be an effective manager, but from a macro level—when leaders micromanage departments or projects, it signals a lack of trust to managers; it breeds confusion and suspicion and ultimately, reduces efficiency and success. A project or department manager, on the other hand, must be able to facilitate success as defined by the leader by guiding his or her team as needed. So, in my opinion, those assigned to roles of responsibility must be both effective managers and effective leaders. How one goes about leading others is dependent upon several factors.
Leadership Style Factors
I believe one’s leadership style is dependent upon several factors, including:
- The mission of the institution: The mission of an institution often drives the culture and influences the leadership styles of those in charge. For example:
- Is the institution faith-based?
- Is this a for-profit company?
- Is this a non-profit but highly competitive institution?
- The purpose of the project: The leadership style taken will be influenced by parameters such as:
- Is this project part of the overall five-year strategic plan?
- Is the project planned and expected?
- Did the project catch the institution off-guard due to a new regulation?
- Is the project in response to a crisis situation?
- Timeline for completion: The length of time available for completion of a goal or project obviously influences the leadership style needed. Some examples include:
- Does the team have 18 months in which to complete a self-study report for accreditation renewal?
- Has the institution received an immediate “cease and desist” order from a state?
- Is this a report that is due at the same time each year?
- The quality and experience level of team members: The overall quality and experience level of one’s staff makes a big difference regarding appropriate leadership style. For example, if the team is largely inexperienced or insufficiently trained, it will require much more prominent presence and clearer guidance from the manager or leader. Examples may need to be provided; steps to completion and stopping points along the way may need to be identified. And, depending on the situation, it may be necessary to motivate the team, either individually or as a group.
Essential Skills All Effective Leaders Must Have
An effective leader must be truly committed to academic excellence. By setting high expectations for ethical practice and academic outcomes, a leader can inspire others to achieve great things.
An effective leader must be an exceptional communicator, both verbally and in written form. It’s not enough to have great ideas—one must be able to communicate them to others to have those ideas come to fruition.
An effective leader must be an exceptional listener. When one person is doing all the talking, he or she rarely learns much from others in the room. By actively and purposefully listening to others, a leader shows respect to others; gains a better understanding of a given issue; receives suggestions for tackling a problem; and builds a stronger sense of trust.
An effective leader must be competent. We cannot all be experts in everything, but if we are to lead others, we must have a solid command of the subject matter or the field. We must stay current with relevant literature, research, patterns, and trends.
An effective leader must have confidence. It is difficult to lead others when we don’t communicate that we truly believe the path being taken is the right one.
An effective leader must ensure proper recognition of managers and other team members for their contributions, particularly in the context of a significant or particularly challenging project. It’s necessary to motivate and inspire, but we must also show appreciation and recognition.
An effective leader must be fair. Showing favoritism, even the suggestion of it, can quickly diminish team morale and motivation. A leader must make it clear that all members of the team will be treated equally.
An effective leader must be prepared to make tough decisions. There are times when institutions must face difficult budget shortfalls and steps must be taken to reduce expenditures. There are also times when one or more staff members are not performing up to expectations. An effective leader must be willing and able to make the decisions necessary to ensure the overall quality and well-being of a program, a department, or an entire institution. Decisions may not always be popular, but they are necessary, and if a leader fails to make them he or she simply is not doing the job that individual was hired to do.
The Bottom Line
So, there are lots of ways one could respond when asked, “What’s your leadership style?” However, there is no one single “best answer” because it really does depend on a lot of variables. The bottom line though, to me, is that an effective leader must wholeheartedly believe in the cause he or she is leading—must be completely committed to success—and must treat others with respect and appreciation.
How would you answer? What’s your leadership style?