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8 Essential Traits for Effective Leadership in Higher Education

Industry Advice Education

It is both an exciting and challenging time for leaders in higher education. The field of higher education administration is growing, with an estimated 13,000 jobs to be filled at more than 7,000 institutions of higher education by 2028. What’s more, innovation is increasingly impacting education as the industry takes a more entrepreneurial approach to the way that students learn, professors teach, and administrators collaborate both on campus and in their communities. 

At the same time, trends in higher education point to a range of challenges such as raising funds, meeting the needs of a diverse student population, preparing graduates for an ever-changing workforce—and, in the wake of COVID-19, transitioning students and staff to working and learning remotely seemingly overnight. 

Now more than ever, it’s important for leaders in higher education to work across departments to prepare their institutions for present and future success. 

Here are eight critical traits that define effective leadership in higher education.


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Top 8 Skills for Higher Education Leaders

1. Financial Acumen

In a 2017 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, nearly two-thirds of college presidents ranked fundraising, alumni relations, and donor relations among their top three priorities. Respondents also said that fundraising was the most important leadership skill they needed to further develop. This is especially true for public institutions, as state and federal aid have steadily decreased since the 1970s.

Fundraising is certainly a critical part of the job for a college president, as private funding pays for employee salaries, faculty research, capital projects, and student financial aid. However, financial acumen is much more than fundraising. Leaders in higher education need experience in developing budgets, overseeing endowments, and creating financial plans at a time of economic uncertainty

2. Collaboration 

The concept of collaborative leadership in higher education emphasizes “bridging the gap” among various internal and external stakeholders. Within the institution, for example, a collaborative leader would view laboratory research and classroom teaching as complementing each other rather than competing. Collaboration also means bringing departments together for opportunities to learn from each other, whether it’s a better way to teach an online course or a more efficient way to clean a building.

Outside the campus, this type of leadership involves mutually beneficial partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Collaborative initiatives could include scholarship opportunities, internship job placement programs, or ongoing conversations with government policymakers about community issues such as housing, transportation, or conservation. Colleges and universities are often among the largest employers in their communities, and a collaborative approach to leadership in higher education can reduce the stigma of the institution as an isolated “ivory tower.”

3. Building New Leaders 

Successful leaders in any industry recognize the importance of providing development opportunities for mid-career or middle-tier professionals with both the potential and the desire to take on a leadership role of their own. This helps the organization strengthen and expand its pool of candidates for leadership positions while allowing staff to progress in their careers at their current institution.  

Leadership training and mentoring programs enable leaders in higher education to empower faculty and academic staff to develop their own leadership skills. This provides two benefits: It allows current leaders to support those who have expressed interest in becoming future leaders, and it enables leadership to focus training and professional development on the most critical needs of the institution. 

4. Communication 

Just like executives in other industries, leaders in higher education must be effective communicators. They must be comfortable engaging with a wide range of audiences both on and off-campus and in both public and private settings. Over the course of a single day, for example, a leader may meet with faculty members, employees in support roles, donors, other senior leaders at the college, government officials, current students, prospective students, members of the community, or the press.

There are five steps to effective communication

  • Start with what’s most important.
  • Set expectations up front about what you need.
  • Actively listen and take body language into account. 
  • Provide constructive and specific feedback.
  • Address concerns immediately and, if possible, in person.

5. Strategic Planning 

Making the transition to a leadership role in higher education means taking on additional responsibility for strategic planning. Whether you lead a single department or an entire institution in your new role, you must assess what your team and its assets are doing well, where there is room for improvement, and what it will take to get there. You will need to consider short-term plans that can be executed quickly and with little disruption as well as long-term plans that will have a broader and deeper impact. 

Understanding and using data is an important part of strategic planning. Data provides empirical evidence for making a decision, whether it’s choosing a new bookstore vendor or creating a new academic department. In addition, data influences and enables collaborative leadership. Data gives all relevant stakeholders access to the same information as they develop a plan, which allows multidisciplinary teams to build a consensus and come to an agreement.

Data plays a key role in budgeting and financial planning, but data utilization also supports operations, policy development, curriculum development, and student and staff recruitment. Leaders in higher education should strive to build a culture where staff and faculty are encouraged to use data to create strategic plans and monitor their progress.

6. Change Management

Higher education can have a reputation for being resistant to change. It’s not just because some institutions are hundreds of years old. Change in higher education can be slow for a number of other reasons, including loosely coupled organizational structures and large representative committees debating decisions. In addition, institutions that receive public funding may be wary of how governing bodies will respond to their decisions.

But in today’s environment, change is inevitable—and it is increasingly happening very quickly. Rapid change can easily lead to conflict. Effective leaders prepare for this conflict so that change can be managed in a sensitive way and the needs of all stakeholders, including the institution itself, are respected and heard.

Here are a few steps for achieving change management in higher education leadership:

  • Interpret the necessary data and evaluate what will happen if change does or does not occur.
  • Collaborate with all necessary stakeholders who will be impacted by a change.
  • Make a decision that takes into account everyone’s best interests. Develop an action plan.
  • Develop a communication plan. Tailor messages to different audiences wherever necessary.
  • Communicate early and often. Provide context for the decision. Striking a balance between the urgency that’s required to take action and the incremental process for taking action. 
  • Humanize the decision by bringing it as closely as possible to an individual level. 
  • Solicit feedback. Alter the action plan as necessary.
  • Take accountability for the decision and its impacts.

7. Commitment to Diversity 

Across all stakeholder groups in higher education—from the student body to the faculty to the leadership team—institutions benefit from the representation of diversity based on factors such as race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background. This representation allows institutions of higher education to better reflect the communities they serve and to prepare students for careers that increasingly require a global and multicultural perspective.

For leaders in higher education, it’s critical to be aware of the needs of diverse groups and to understand how those needs may intersect. This awareness helps leaders provide the appropriate support and make the necessary improvements to an institution’s efforts in improving diversity through outreach to prospective students, on-campus activities, hiring and promotion practices, and long-term planning initiatives.

8. Intellectual Curiosity

For many leaders in higher education, becoming a dean, an academic department chair, or a chancellor means more time in meetings and less time doing the hands-on work that attracted them to academia in the first place. 

However, leadership success in higher education requires intellectual curiosity. It enables leaders to absorb new information, master new disciplines, and better understand and respond to the needs and challenges of a diverse group of stakeholders. Leaders should be prepared to learn something new every day—and to use that information to become better leaders and build a better learning environment at the institutions they serve.

Improving Your Educational Leadership Skills 

For leaders in higher education looking to transform their institutions, Northeastern’s Doctor of Education program offers the opportunity for students to incorporate practice-based research into their professional lives while completing a doctoral thesis that explores an educational organizational challenge. This coursework, combined with connections to faculty members and fellow EdD students, will help prepare leaders to develop the plans and make the decisions that set up their institutions for long-term success.

To learn more about how an EdD can help you create change, download our free guide below. 


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