Some of the things that we assume will help us get ahead and be effective as academic leaders may in fact thwart our efforts, alienate colleagues, and lead to burnout. The following is a list of commonly held academic leadership myths and the corresponding truths I’ve learned as an academic leader.
Myth: Working hard will bring you success.
Reality: Talking hard will bring you success. Leadership is setting out a vision of where you want to go and encouraging people to follow you. The other thing is being extremely positive, almost to the point of ignoring the negative. As long as you are talking, people tend to focus on you, and you appear to be contributing something. If someone listening doesn’t understand or agree, that person will probably think it’s his own fault, especially if you’re very positive. Setting a positive tone and repeating your vision help get people to buy into it.
Myth: Always saying yes will make you popular.
Reality: Always saying yes will make you a patsy. You are usually better off saying no at first. Then if for some reason you change your mind, you are a hero. If you say yes to a request and then find out you can’t comply, you’ve reneged on a promise. Give yourself a day or two to think about it before you respond. Don’t be like me. Don’t be too eager to please just because it sounds good at first blush.
Myth: You need to be the smartest person in the room.
Reality: A lot of smart people don’t succeed. Your job is to be the most emotionally mature person in the room. Bureaucracies are supposed to be rational organizations. Emotions and anger lead you down an irrational path. Everybody’s smart—well, almost everybody. The trick is to manage emotions and egos toward a positive and collegial outcome. Every time I indulge my ego or go off on somebody, I become part of a problem that somebody has to solve.
Myth: Your position and formal authority are your most powerful tools.
Reality: Your interpersonal relationships are the source of your influence and power. It’s only through others that we get things done. If you poison your relationships with others, they’re not going to go out of their way to help you, and they may not help you at all. The other problem is that once you order somebody to do something, you need to beware of what I call “malicious conformity.” Think, for example, of a union “slowdown,” when people may follow (all) the rules but do so in such a way as to subvert your intent. You really need to tend to those relationships and make sure that you never have to say, “Do it because I’m the dean [or vice president or whatever], and you need to do it, or else.” Especially when you’re dealing with tenured faculty, your options under “or else” are pretty limited.
Myth: Meeting a deadline is not as important as getting it right.
Reality: Good is good enough. Don’t let perfection become the enemy of the good. You will run out of time before you run out of information relative to the task at hand. Also, your boss and the people who set these deadlines probably have deadlines of their own that they need to meet, and they’ve got to get your input before they can do what they need to do. Remember, until you turn something in, you’ve got zero quality.
Myth: It’s best to always check your email first thing in the morning.
Reality: You should review your schedule, priorities, and deadlines first thing. The problem with email is that it sucks you in and becomes a time waster. Most emails are asking you to do something, to respond to something. Before you know it you’ve spent an hour reading and responding to your email, your next meeting is about to start, and you don’t have time to look at what your boss is asking you to do or what you want to accomplish that day. One of my issues is that I don’t always align my priorities with my supervisor’s. This frustrates him. What I need to do is not what’s in my inbox; what I need to do is what my supervisor asked me to accomplish.
Myth: Work gets done in meetings.
Reality: Assignments are made in meetings. You don’t get anything done in meetings. Meetings are held to share information, to explore issues and problems, and—with any hope—to agree on a course of action. However, someone still has to be tagged to carry out the plan of action, and the work is hardly ever actually done in a meeting. You’ve got to give faculty any and all information you have, and one of the ways to do that is through meetings. Maybe there are exceptions where we sit down and hammer out a policy or whatever. But most of the time you’re sharing information, exploring issues, and making assignments to follow up on problems and issues.
Myth: Swift decisions are critical to effective administration.
Reality: Don’t believe in your own divine inspiration. Almost all decisions are more complicated than you realize and may lead to unintended and possibly horrifying consequences. My boss is the most collaborative decision maker I’ve ever met. That doesn’t mean he won’t make a decision, but he’s really one of the best at not making kneejerk decisions. Sometimes you have to tease out an answer that you hadn’t thought of before. You need to consult those who are affected, take a little time to think about it, clarify what’s going on, and let it percolate for a while. If it’s an important decision, give yourself a couple of days to let it work through your subconscious. We all want to appear to be in control, but that first reaction is probably not the best one. Let your critical thinking kick in and ask, “What’s the opposite side of the argument?”
Myth: Competence is your most important professional trait.
Reality: Loyalty to your institution and your supervisor is more important than competence. Don’t be a competent jerk or sleaze. Unless something’s illegal or immoral, you need to do what you’re asked to do by your supervisor. Trust the coin of the realm. Don’t ever be in a situation where your supervisor questions your loyalty. You may not agree, but you need to support your boss. Of course, if it’s illegal or immoral, then you’ve got an obligation to say, “I can’t do this,” “This is not something I am comfortable doing,” or “We need to check with the attorneys.” Once a decision is made, follow through on it. Competence is important, but I’ve seen cases in which people were very bright and competent, but they just weren’t people you could trust.
Myth: You could probably do your boss’s job better than he or she can.
Reality: You don’t know what your supervisor is dealing with. It’s always wise to give him or her the benefit of the doubt regarding motivation, competence, etc. You really don’t know what it’s like until you do the job for awhile. When I took my current position, my associate dean asked me if I knew what I was getting myself into. I said, “Absolutely not. I have no clue what I’m getting into.” Give your supervisor the benefit of the doubt.
Myth: Your job is to do things.
Reality: Your job is to get other people to do things. Yes, there are things you need to do. However, your most important tasks are to model appropriate values, set a positive tone, articulate a vision, and put the right people in the right places. I probably spend too much time on what I call “routine operational functions.” Our assistant to the president said, “Larry, you’re filing that? You don’t have time to be filing things. You’re a leader.” You can’t get too involved in the details. Your job is to think positive, set a vision, get the right people, get them motivated, etc.
Myth: The more assignments you take on, the more successful you will be.
Reality: The more selective you are about the assignments you take on, the more successful you will be. Some of the people I respect the most tell me, “No, Larry, I don’t have the time.” I think that’s important. Leadership positions will take all the time and effort you choose to give them and more, so pick your projects carefully and thoughtfully.
Myth: If you work late and on weekends, people will respect your commitment.
Reality: If you work late and on weekends, people will think you can’t get your job done. You really can’t work 10, 12, or 14 hours a day six or seven days a week long term. You’ve got to find a balance among work and family and your own private passion, whatever that might be. Your inbox will still be full the day you quit, retire, or get hit by a bus. So you’re never going to get it all done. You need to set limits so you can remain a healthy and sane person. We all do overtime. I understand that. I do it. I don’t have a big problem with it. But you’ve got to have a limit.
Myth: If you make nice, other people will make nice.
Reality: Things that motivate people to behave in certain ways are too deep, well-ingrained, and complicated for you to change them very much. No matter how difficult a conversation might be, you’re always better off being courteous and respectful, but don’t expect others to reciprocate. It’s not always going to happen.
Larry Edwards is vice president for academic affairs at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted from “A Tongue-in-Cheek Look at 14 Academic Leadership Myths” in Academic Leader 26.4(2010)4,5 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.