Become a better leader

February 10, 2020
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Change Management
  • Competencies
  • Enrollment Management
  • Leadership and Management
  • Records and Academic Services
  • Staffing and Operations
  • Staffing Leadership
  • AM2020 Leadership
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Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

It’s as true in higher education as on a football field. People aren’t born with leadership in their DNA. Rather, they cultivate  their unique leadership qualities, mitigate their flaws, and continually learn how to empower and motivate their teams to succeed.

Whether you’re aspiring to a leadership role, graduated to middle management, or serving as an executive-level leader on your campus, research shows building the following five qualities can help strengthen your leadership skills:

1. Know thyself. There are as many different styles of leadership as there are leaders—and myriad assessments can help you determine your strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

“Authentic leadership requires a level of vulnerability—a willingness to be reflective and honest about not just your good qualities but also where you need to grow and what you need to learn,” said Philip Hunt, University Registrar at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. 

A leader who is willing and able both to model and to coach vulnerability can build a team that is compassionate, trusting, and has each other’s backs. Like any sports team will tell you, every member has a skillset to bring, and it’s important for each player to know their role and respect other’s strengths and contributions.

Hunt will further explore these perspectives on leadership in his session “Temet Nosce” at AACRAO 2020.

People aren’t born with leadership in their DNA.


2. Think strategically. Leaders need to set goals, both internally and externally, which requires specific skill sets.

Internally: “It’s important to cultivate empathy to understand the needs of your team and build their talent,” said Sandie Pitts, Admissions Program Manager at Rutgers School of Health Professions (RSHP). Once you understand your teams’ (and your own) strengths and weaknesses, you can put in place a targeted plan to develop your unit where needed. 

Externally: Setting institutional and customer-service goals requires information gathering and coalition-building. To do that, you need a seat at the table.

“To anticipate challenges and plan ahead, you need a seat at the table,”  said Bianca Thompson-Owen, Assistant Dean for Enrollment Management at RSHP. “Be proactive—advocate for yourself and be vocal, and get involved in those committees and professional organizations. Focus on breaking down silos, developing a collaborative mindset, and emphasizing shared governance.” 

Check out Thompson-Owen and Pitts’ AACRAO 2020 session “Assessment of Your Intrinsic Leadership Style: 7 Steps to Discover and Refine the Intrinsic Leader” to assess your own leadership qualities and the steps to strengthen your skills.

3. Run toward your fears. “Identifying and moving toward your fear is the only way to overcome it,” said Tammy Aagard, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Florida. Rather than letting your fear paralyze you, make it your ally.

So, what are you afraid of? Higher education leaders may feel anxiety around issues relating to the rapid pace of change, new technologies, HR and personnel issues, managing budgets, and more. But yielding to the fear only makes it worse. Identifying areas of fear can help you determine what you need to learn—and give you back your power.

Aagard and other leaders will address these topics, developing emotional intelligence, and offer more resources during the “Creating Fearless Leaders” workshop at AACRAO 2020. 

4. Strengthen your messaging. Leaders are tasked with communicating up the ladder, across campus, and with staff members. Effective communication requires (a) knowing your audience, (b) making it interesting, and (c) leading with values. The most persuasive communicators are able to tell a story in a way that’s relevant to listeners.

“Stories have context and breath and life,” said Stephen Arod Shirreffs, Associate University Registrar at Stanford University. “Narrative can help our audience understand why something matters. If you can keep your presentation lively and engaging, you’re more likely to convince your audience to care about the business of the registrar.”

Shirreffs’ “Rock the Talk: Communicating to Lead” session at AACRAO 2020 will demonstrate engaging storytelling, while imparting a trove of communication tools you can take back to your campus.

5. Create a positive work environment. To cultivate and retain a talented team, leaders need to support staff professional development, learn to give feedback effectively, and know when to stand up for your team. It’s also important to know what employees won’t put up with, specifically: being left in the dark, a lack of transparency, and being overworked (doing “more with less”).  

“Leaders need to set measurable goals and coach employees to use creativity and critical thinking to reach those goals,” said Virginia Leathers, Associate Director, Office of Admissions, West Texas A&M. “At the same time, we need to stand up for our team and talk to higher-up managers when orders are given that aren’t feasible and achievable. Middle managers, especially, need to learn how to handle pressure from leadership while working with the team implementing things ‘on the ground.’”

Learning to balance these demands is a key feature of leadership, and doing it well builds trust, community, and a great place to work.

Leathers, along with Amber Todd, Assistant Registrar, Oklahoma State University, will bring more tips for “Middle Management 101: Managing Up, Down, and Sideways,” including information about identifying and working with various managerial and communication styles, including your own, to AACRAO 2020.

Explore leadership development opportunities

“Good leadership doesn’t stop with the leader,” Thompson-Owen said. “Inspiring leaders inspire others, and that’s what we hope to do at AACRAO. We want to build some contagious energy that you can take back to campus and create a wave of positivity.” 

Learn more about Leadership development opportunities at the upcoming AACRAO Annual Meeting April 5-8, 2020, in New Orleans. Register now for the early bird discount.


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