That simple word still startles me. In the academy, professors rarely acknowledge they have a boss; as an assistant professor, I thought I would be the architect of my career. The department chair was a nuisance to be tolerated at best. I had little understanding of the role of university dean, provost, or president, let alone trustees!
How my thoughts have changed! I now realize that the department chair is one of the unsung heroes of a college campus. Over time, I’ve come to understand that — despite the diffused nature of authority in higher education — the professor has rather a lot of bosses: students, parents, alumni, chair, dean, provost, president, trustees.
When I became a dean, I still had many bosses, but I also came to terms with being “the boss.” There are few training programs for assuming such leadership positions, and by the time I arrived on campus, the person who hired me (my boss) was gone. I arrived on campus in July and asked my assistant to make a list of people I should get to know. And I set to work.
That essential feature of the job — working with, convincing, listening to others — has not changed. Most satisfying: over the years, I have learned a great deal about leadership, especially from faculty, who do in fact recognize that they work within an institution with a leadership structure.
From them, I have learned about three key characteristics of professorial leadership. First, the best teachers are a constant exemplar of a leader who listens to learn; time with them is filled with the learning that comes from the give and take of discussion. Second, they are always enthusiastic, seeking to know more about their subject matter. Third, they show real humility and a willingness to consider opposing viewpoints and evidence.
They demonstrate a sense of fallibility that is all too rare amongst those who lead successfully. Professorial leaders entertain counter arguments and tested their thinking as they seek to reach and then convey their conclusions. If all leaders demonstrated such an ability to listen, an eagerness to learn about context and institutions, and a sense of humility, we would be fortunate.