Academic Leadership: Do You Have What It Takes?

      Share by Email   Print this article   More sharing options  

“Leadership qualities” are hard to define, but in high demand. What does research say are the key skills possessed by leaders, and how can you build these in order to attain a promotion or higher academic post?

The vision thing.

No matter what research you look at, one quality comes through: having a strong vision. Your own commitment to a goal is tangible when you discuss it, make formal presentations about it, or put the time into making it happen. It should go without saying, but being a leader is about leading people somewhere.

A desire to reach that goal (and once you’ve gotten there, the next) is what drives you on, and your own drive gives energy and momentum to the team around you. It makes you persistent in the face of barriers. Your vision should be built around a set of core academic values as well as taking forward specific projects.

People skills.

In academic life, dictators are generally not appreciated. We work in an environment that starts to fall apart when goodwill between colleagues evaporates. So while the ability to issue orders and threats may work in military leadership, and does sometimes appear on campus, it will not serve you well. You will face a mutiny—but since it’s academics we’re talking about, it may be a quiet one, in the form of your most dedicated and experienced people forming an orderly queue for the exit.

Listening is where real “people skills” begin. If your vision diverges too far from what your team desire, you may need to listen even closer to find out why. Listening will help you understand their needs and wants, and how to motivate them. Without deep understanding, even the best communicator can’t gain traction.

Another important people skill is the ability to recognise mentors and allies, and work productively with them. Historical leaders are often portrayed as leading alone, but a closer look at history will usually reveal that they were backed, informed and promoted by trusted advisors.

Translation skills.

Gmelch and Burns (1993) note that the biggest problem affecting academic leaders in their place between two different ways of working, two different ideas of what a university is and is for. This is why department heads are often stressed, and even paralysed into inaction.

Several scholars have noted that for leaders in this position, the ability to build collaboration through fostering “cross-cultural” communication is crucial. Successful academic leaders gain respect from their academic colleagues based on a different set of criteria—their strength as an academic—than they do from their management colleagues. Valuing and developing both skill sets will reduce pressure and increase your success.

Some of these skills can be taught, but most are less “skills” per se than ways of thinking and acting. You can hone them on a small scale no matter where you currently are within the academic hierarchy. Look for and align yourself with mentors and advisors who also hold your values to move higher.


Folta, Sara C. et al. (2012) “A qualitative study of leadership characteristics in women who catalyze positive community change,” BMC Public Health, 12: 383. Online at: [Accessed 14 July 2014] 

Gmelch, Walter H. and Burns, John S. (1993) “The cost of academic leadership: Department chair stress,” Innovative Higher Education, 17(4): pp. 259-270.

Jones, Sandra et al. (2012) “Distributed leadership: A collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education,” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1): pp. 67-78.

Yielder, Jill and Codling, Andrew (2007) “Management and leadership in the contemporary university,” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(3): pp. 315-328.

Share this article:

      Share by Email   Print this article   More sharing options  

What do you think about this article? Email your thoughts and feedback to us

Connect with us

method: articleAction method: setArticleToView