Leadership for Change

Issued on2014-07-15 10:07:14

Lessons about leadership learned through 40 years in higher education.

Since graduating with an undergraduate degree in 1973, I have spent the last 40 years serving in six administrative roles at three different universities—each with increasing levels of leadership responsibility. For the last 16 years, I have served as President of my Alma Mater, Western Kentucky University. During this most satisfying and enjoyable of careers, I have made a point to observe effective leaders, studied leadership qualities that bring about effective change, and tried to apply those principles which cause people to perform and achieve in ways they might not have otherwise thought possible. This International Journal of Leadership and Change is the ideal forum in which to share my observations, in hopes that they might influence others who are honing their leadership style and behavior.

Some leadership traits are inherent in one’s personality. They are often a by-product of one’s personal values and environmental influence since youth. Many leadership traits, however, can be learned and applied. That learning process starts when one is diligent and thoughtful about how they act in the presence of others and embrace those with whom they work—and live. The last two words are important because leadership is not something that can be turned on when one is in the work environment and neglected in social, family, or leisure moments.

What I will attempt to do in the next few paragraphs is articulate the key variables which frame both the science and the art of leadership; that is, what is documented in long-standing theory and what is intuitive and instinctive.

Leadership Defined

Leadership is about eight things which must exist in the life of any organization, but especially in the life of a college or university.

• Vision. People expect a leader to define what their organization is capable of becoming. There needs to be consensus within the organization for what that vision can and should be, but it is the leader’s responsibility to act at all times in ways which bring confidence within the organization that the shared vision can, and will be achieved. It is the leader’s responsibility to make decisions which steer the institution toward the achievement of that vision. That vision should be clear, concise, easily understood, and bold enough to capture the energy and adrenaline of those within the organization and the interest of those who observe the institution. Vision, while a key dynamic in strategic planning, should not be confused with mission or goals. It should be bold enough to be the guiding principle in an organization’s strategic plan for a sufficient period of time to allow measurable outcomes to be documented—outcomes which can validate the achievement of that vision.

• Change. Leadership should bring observable, measurable, and tangible change within an organization. If leadership is not bringing about positive, identifiable change, then one has to question the degree to which leadership is actually being exercised. People need to see an organization grow, evolve, and change for the better. This, in the final analysis, is the measure of one’s leadership abilities.

• Ideas. Leadership is about ideas—either original or borrowed—it is important for a leader to be well read, and understand what is occurring in other similar organizations at home or abroad. Not every idea is a good idea, but a leader needs to be creative and active in the realm of new dimensions and ideas; ideas that solve problems; keep the organization fresh and evolving in ways which help achieve its vision; and, bring energy and new knowledge to the organization.

• Innovation. Innovation is brought about through bold new thinking, information, and ideas which lead to significant change. Leaders innovate in ways that most other people in the organization either cannot, will not, or choose not to recognize; or are not in a position to bring innovation and ideas to the organization’s marketplace. A leader should not be afraid to introduce new innovations in the life of the organization, just as he or she should be quick to acknowledge when feedback and information suggests that an idea’s time has not come, or it is not good for the organization. The leader, therefore, must have good instincts, which clearly signal when to pursue or not to pursue an idea, or when to pull the plug on an innovative, but ill-timed idea.

• Risk. Leaders understand the risk reward ratio in any given action. It is important for a leader to sense when the victory in a given pursuit is worth the cost and more importantly, not worth the cost. There are times in the life of any organization when ideas and strategies are in play. It is the leader’s responsibility to determine whether or not the energy being spent in pursuit of what may appear to be a good idea is becoming too costly, too disruptive, too controversial, or too consuming. A leader has to have enough strength to recognize such risks, and call a halt or change the game plan in order to maintain an appropriate esprit de corps and a high level of confidence within the organization. On the other hand, a leader must also visualize the end result and guide the institution toward the achievement of important outcomes. As long as the outcome is worthy of extended effort, than it is the leader’s responsibility to adjust the strategies necessary to achieve that outcome, even, perhaps at some cost. Understanding the risk reward ratio is a critical dynamic in any leadership continuum.

• Courage. An effective leader must be confident and act with courage. Leadership is not for the timid or the meek. A leader must understand that there will be those that will question, debate, resist, or fight against ideas, change, or action, in which they might not find agreement, or philosophical appreciation. It is the leader’s responsibility to act in the best interest of the institution, organization, or corporation; as long as he or she truly believes that the enterprise is being well served by any given set of actions—always, however, measuring the dynamics and the risk reward ratios. It also takes courage to always do what is best for the organization even when it may not be best for an individual or individuals within the organization.

• Engagement. It is critical that leaders understand how important it is to be fully engaged with the people who comprise the organization. It is the people with whom one works, who typically come up with ideas, who typically implement strategies, and who always achieve the outcomes. Seldom does the leader actually achieve the goals. It is the leader’s job to ensure that the organization is sufficiently financed; that the organization exists in a pleasant, safe, wholesome environment; and, that there is confidence within the organization that the vision can be achieved. It is the people with whom the leader surrounds himself or herself, however, who perform and achieve. The leader must communicate well, listen intently at all times, and embrace those with whom he or she works. Being fully engaged with all levels of personnel within the organization is essential for effective leadership.

• Action. Finally, action must be the defined driver of leadership. Without action, leadership is worthless, and is not likely occurring. It is action within the organization that brings about positive change, and which uses ideas and innovation to achieve a vision without unnecessary risk. Without action, the organization cannot evolve, grow, and prosper. Action-based change requires deeds worth doing. It is the leader’s responsibility to dream, and act in ways which cause the organization to achieve dreams worth achieving.

Effective Leadership

Effective Positive Leadership Requires Several Key Human Elements.

• Values. Leadership can be effective or ineffective; positive or negative. The effective, positive leader, therefore, brings values to the organization. A leader must stand for things which bring pride and distinction to the organization. Because he or she has a strong sense of personal values—values which are deep seeded, and usually a result of what the leader has learned and observed since early in life, the organization can reflect those values.

• Integrity. Integrity is critical for effective leadership. People expect its leader to be honest. A leader must be aware that nearly every action or decision is being closely observed and assessed by those within the organization and often beyond the organization—especially by constituents, customers, and the public. If integrity is lacking, or perceived to be in question, then employees and stakeholders alike will lose confidence in the leader and ultimately the organization.

• Trust. People within the organization must trust the leader to be honest, truthful, transparent, and always have faith that he or she will do the right thing. This does not mean that everyone will always agree with the leader’s decisions or actions, but they must trust that the leader has personal values, integrity, and is doing things, to the best of his or her ability, for the right reasons. Those within and beyond the organization must have confidence in and trust its leaders to handle financial, personnel, and strategic matters in a thoughtful and effective manner. Once burnt; twice shy. Trust in a leader will erode if action or the lack of action in key situations is deemed to be inappropriate or harmful to the organization or its people.

• Energy. A leader must bring great energy to the organization. He or she sets the pace. Most leadership positions do not follow the clock. People know if one’s work ethic is strong. They follow the leader in terms of how he or she pours himself or herself into the position and its duties. Sufficient rest and diet, therefore, become important if a leader is to sustain a high level of energy.

• Drive. A leader must be driven in all aspects of his or her life and work. An effective leader leads by example, works hard and smart, and is omnipresent throughout the organization. Working hard is important, but working smart is more so. An effective leader is just as driven to read, research, learn, and listen as he or she is to attack a given task and persist until goals are achieved and the vision realized.

• Passion. A leader also brings great passion to his or her work. A leader is not afraid to express his or her emotions, or exhibit great enthusiasm for the organization. This is especially true in an educational setting where people follow the example of its leader. We want faculty to be passionate about their subjects. We want students to be passionate about learning. We want staff to be passionate about the services they render. We want alumni to be passionate in their support. They, likewise, want to see great passion in the leader of the institution as well.

• Loyalty. Loyalty is equally important. People (especially students and alumni) must know that its leader is “all in.” A leader must live and breathe the institution, understand its history, understand its uniqueness, understand its traditions and values, and exudes 100 percent commitment to the organization at all times. A leader must fight for the organization, defend it, protect it, and be its biggest cheerleader. Such enthusiasm and energy, however, must be exhibited in a thoughtful, dignified manner. A leader, above all else, must earn respect through his or her actions.

• Respect. If people are to be led, they must respect the individual who leads them. A leader who has not earned respect from those within the organization, and those who track the organization, cannot be effective. Respect is earned by sound decision making, clearly defined values, impeccable integrity, honesty, and an appreciation of how one carries and presents himself or herself. Respect is also earned through prudence and dignified behavior. The earning of respect and trust, however, never ends. It can erode at any time if actions and appearances do not measure up to expectations of the position one holds.

• Prudence. One must be prudent in decision making. People form opinions and impressions based on sound judgment and character. A leader must always choose his or her battles carefully. Not every battle is worth fighting. Save the fights for matters which are worth the fight. Always trust your instincts. If, for any reason, one thinks that saying something or doing something would be less than prudent, then don’t say it, or don’t do it. A sense of humor is a valuable asset to a leader, provided the humor is tasteful, and not offensive to others.

• Balance. Balance is important in the life of any complex organization, and especially important to its leader. A leader needs to have multiple interests. Multiple interests make a leader interesting to others, and help define a leader’s personality. A leader should also be well read and well informed on matters which go beyond the organization.

• Appearance. Appropriate dress, grooming, and fitness are all important. People like to look up to a leader and be proud of how he or she represents himself or herself within and outside the organization. Error on the side of overdressing, but understand there are always times when jeans and a casual shirt might replace a business suit. It is important to know what appearance is best suited to a given event or situation, and always be mindful of one’s position and bring style and dignity to it. Exercise and weight control not only help exude a sense of self-pride, but also bring energy and a positive example of personal priorities. Finally, smile. People need to see that you love what you do.

• Humility. Leaders have egos, but keep the ego in check. Use the ego to take pride in oneself, to understand the position one holds, and always act in ways which bring dignity and respect to the position. But do not overdo it. Find balance in whether first names are appropriate, or titles are in order. Don’t be afraid to poke fun at oneself. Laugh often, but never at the expense of others. Show your personality and have fun in your work. Embrace people and they will likely embrace you.

• Community. Community is important in the life of any organization, especially in an educational institution. People within an organization, or who are affiliated with an organization, need to have a strong sense of community, of teamwork, and of a “one for all and all for one” mentality. Family can be an overused word at times, but it is an important principle within a complex organization. A leader must connect, communicate, and engage everyone within the organization; from the lowest paid to the highest paid; from those who perform important, but routine tasks; to those who perform highly intellectual and complex tasks within the organization. Creating and sustaining a sense of community within the organization is important to ensuring a strong esprit de corps among those who are expected to perform for the organization. A principle worth remembering is that no one works for anyone else in the organization; rather, everyone works with each other and for the organization.

• Place. The place itself is also critical. The leader must exhibit, at all times, a great sense of pride in the physical place in which the work of an organization gets done. This is especially true for colleges and universities. The environment in which the work gets done is essential. Buildings must be warm when it is cold outside and cool when it is warm outside. They must be well maintained. The grounds need to be well kept. Trees, lawns, and landscape are important in an organization. People must take pride in the place and value being there. When employees come to work (or when students leave their residence hall), they must love where they are, be inspired by their “home,” and enjoy a special place in which to dream and work. The same principle, in various degrees, exists in any corporate setting. If the place itself becomes commonplace, tired, and in need of upkeep, than it is a direct reflection of those who lead the organization. Attention to detail in the workplace, therefore, becomes an important trait of effective leadership.

Leadership Conditions

Effective leaders cause certain conditions to exist. A sense of urgency is important. Effective leaders need to instill within the organization that there is some urgency in the work which is being performed. Save the crisis mode for a real crisis, but don’t allow the organization to become complacent. If it is important, then it should also be urgent. Don’t analyze something to death. When there is sufficient information to act, then do so. A leader must perpetuate a mission worth achieving. Be sure that the organization’s mission is well defined. Those who are pursuing it, and those who might be attracted to it, should be compelled by its importance. Set goals that stir people and stretch their abilities. Modest goals are sometimes necessary, but bold challenges bring out the best in people. Create a spirit of teamwork within the organization. Remember, people do not work for people, they work for the organization. They work together to help the organization do amazing things. Leaders exhibit a sense of entrepreneurism. This is where the spirit of ideas, innovations, risk, and reward are all synchronized and exercised by a prudent leader. Finally, the leader must be prudent enough to create a realistic expectation that the team can succeed. Visions should be bold, but not so bold that the team becomes disheartened, or is overly dubious that the vision is achievable. Leaders need to instill confidence that the work is worthwhile, and the work is leading toward the achievement of a shared, important, and fulfilling vision.

Sustained Leadership

There have been countless studies for generations which document that leadership can be achieved through coercion or reward. Leaders can use their authority to require or force people to do things, but only for awhile. Leaders can also reward people to bring about desired results. Neither of these practices (coercion or reward), however, are likely to result in long- term, sustained performance. The achievement of a bold vision, or change that withstands the test of time, requires some critical leadership dynamics.

Long-term leadership is best achieved through legitimate authority, combined with four personal dynamics. Charisma is an important element of leadership. Charisma is a combination of distance and style. Leaders should be well known and recognized across the institution, but there is a limit to which personal relationships should exist among the leader and those he or she is seeking to lead. A little mystery is a good thing, but too much is not! It is okay for people to see some flaws, just not all of them—and not repeatedly. Charisma is often defined by one’s style and smile. Effective leaders have a personality. They are likeable. They enjoy their work and those with whom they work. Frowns should be reserved for those times when genuine disappointment needs to be expressed. The rest of the time—keep smiling! Leaders have charm. When I was hired as President of WKU in 1997, I went to a long time mentor and asked his advice on what makes a successful president, and what will ensure a long, successful tenure. He said three things. Be smart (well read), prudent (make good decisions), and charming. Charm is about confidence, comfort, and caring. People must know that you care about them personally, that you are interested in what interests them, and that you are open and transparent. Human concern is both important and essential. If you want people to care about the organization, they need to know that its leader cares about them. People will follow if they know that the leader is thoughtful, and genuinely interested in their personal well-being. One doesn’t have to personally know everyone in the organization to make it clear that he or she cares about them. Leaders need to be interesting, but it is more important to be interested. Such caring must come with enthusiasm and emotion. Enthusiasm is the adrenaline which drives the organization. It is the positive attitude which must prevail and cannot be exercised without genuine emotion on the part of the leader. Laughter is infectious. Crying is okay, if, genuine and rare. There are studies which describe emotional intelligence. Intellect and emotion are co-sources of life giving and well-placed emotional energy within the organization.

Summing it up

In summary, be bold. Be confident. Trust your instincts. Be smart. Be omnipresent. Build consensus. Focus on priorities that bring dramatic change. And, do not forget to have fun. There is an Italian word that I like, which offers a fitting conclusion to these random thoughts. Good leaders have sprezzatura—the ability to do something difficult with apparent ease. Sprezzatura is an important trait for an effective leader. Here is hoping you have sprezzatura, that you enjoy your work, and that you are leading people to achieve great things!

by Gary A. Ransdell