Reflections on Leadership in Ten Steps

by Robert A. Scott

Senior level executive sitting and smiling.

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In Part I, we discussed the importance of knowing the history of the institution, the campus president as chief purpose officer as well as chief executive officer; being visible on campus; meeting with campus tour guides; and asking faculty, staff, and students “What is going well?” “What do you wish we had changed last week?”

Here are five more lessons and insights from my 30 years of experience.

Sixth, a leader is not a “lone ranger.” An effective leader has a team and creates special teams for unusual challenges. Teams benefit from diverse perspectives and the confidence to give honest opinions. They also benefit from laughter and joy, such as celebrating birthdays with a cake and candles. The leader who thinks they have all the answers may find that others will not call attention to pitfalls. One effective way to involve a team is to sit at a round table or on two sides of a rectangle one. In this way, no one is at the “head” of the table, and all are expected to contribute to discussions. Another way is to design and execute a “tabletop” exercise that simulates an unusual event such as a bomb threat or an active shooter on campus, and discuss the steps needed to handle the situation. Still another technique is to gather the senior staff plus select others to discuss an incident or scandal at a different university and ask, “Could this happen here?” The answer is rarely “No.”

Seventh, the skills, abilities, and values ‚Äč‚Äčrepresented in the lessons noted above benefit from taking the time for reflection. By asking oneself “what can I learn from this?” event or incident, we can fill what I call our “well” of experience. Whenever we confront a problem or challenge, we should not only ask others for advice and ideas, but also reflect on our own experiences for lessons and insights on how to respond. The memories brought forth may be decades old but still relevant.

Eighth, one of my favorite quotations is from a former university president with whom I met occasionally over the years. He would say, after asking me about my plans, remember, “Secure your footing before you extend your reach.” This is good advice for decision making as well as for mountain climbing. Another helpful quote is from James Baldwin. He said the role of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by answers. So, when someone proposed an answer or a solution without first clarifying the question or the problem, I would quote Baldwin.

Ninth, an effective leader does not hesitate to ask for help and advice, whether from a consultant, coach, or mentor. While we do not want to engage in “paralysis by analysis,” it does help to have outsider, as well as insider, perspectives on issues. I formed President’s Advisory Councils at Ramapo and Adelphi to help gain perspective on plans and “rehearse” ideas that I would present to my team and to the board of trustees. I found that I could form a diverse council easier and faster than I could a diverse board.

Tenth, be a mentor. As with teaching, being a mentor is a good way to learn as well as to assist future generations of leaders. Support professional development programs; urge team members to attend conferences and read higher education, as well as local, national, and world news; and encourage them to write for publication and seek an advanced degree. This will not only help sharpen their minds, but also assist their career advancement.

These ten steps towards reflective leadership outlined in Parts I and II are among the first to take towards effective leadership.

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