Leading within a college or university requires more than effectively managing staff, making sure courses are scheduled, or responding to students’ demands. Rather, leaders in higher education, department chairs to vice presidents, need to understand how to motivate and inspire their teams, demonstrate institutional commitment, be authentic, and bring people together to achieve a shared vision of student success.

This requires individuals to have a strong sense of who they are as a leader, understand the institutional mission and context, understand the students they serve, and know what motivates their team.

Through the work of SUNY’s SAIL Institute, we have identified six domains of knowledge that we believe are critical for any leader in higher education to be successful in their role. Each domain is described below, including links to related resources.


1. Know Yourself Person magnified

What is your leadership style? How do you relate to others and how do they relate to you? What do you need to do to recharge? What gives you energy and what takes it away?

An effective leader first understands who they are as an individual, as a colleague, and as a leader. Knowing yourself entails understanding what you value, what your goals are, what your temperament is, and what interests you. When one knows oneself, it leads to a higher degree of authentic leadership, greater degrees of happiness, and less inner conflict.

An important point of knowing yourself is also developing emotional intelligence (EQ).  EQ is critical for any leader as it helps them understand and manage their emotions as well as how to navigate the emotional context in which they have to operate.  To learn more about this topic, read Using Emotional Intelligence to Lead in Higher Education.

Understanding who you are can come through a combination of self-reflection and personal assessments, such as DiSC Workplace or Work of Leaders, which help you understand and appreciate the style of the people you work with based on how you respond to a set of questions. Work of Leaders encourages leaders to understand their own leadership styles and how they impact their effectiveness.


Woman Leader in a team2. Know Your Skills

What are you leadership skills? What skills are needed for you to be successful in your current role? In your future role? What skills do you need to develop? In what areas do you have strength?

As we progress throughout our leadership journey, the technical skills that we acquire to be successful as a faculty member or front-line staff member do not often translate into those skills that are needed to be effective leaders. For example, the skills required to be a successful teacher or researcher are not necessarily those that one needs to be a successful department or program chair.

Higher education leaders need to be team builders, supervisors, decision makers, motivators, conflict adjudicators, data scientists, budget managers, resource generators, and so forth. These skills are not developed overnight, but effective leaders recognize the need to grow their skills and seek out ways to develop and hone the skill sets necessary to be an effective leader.

Leadership Skills Assessments, such as the SUNY360, which invite colleagues to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, can be effective ways to learn how other see you competency in various skill areas. Links to additional readings follow.


3. Know Your Team

The members of your team, whether faculty, staff or students, are an important component to your success.  Leaders need to understand what their team members value, what motivates them, and what they need to be successful. Effective leaders are adept at understanding the perspective of others.

For example, for department chairs, their faculty each will bring different contributions to the department and also have their own characteristics in terms of how they interact with department colleagues. Some will be most motivated to produce high quality research; others to be outstanding teachers; and other to engage in service to the community. While each faculty member may be expected to perform, to a certain extent, in all three areas; understanding what they are most passionate about can help influence how you interact and engage them. it is

High performing teams have a commitment to each other as well as the larger goals and challenges confronting the team.  They share a collective responsibility to advance the collective work and interests of the team, as well as to look out for success and well-being of each other.  They understand the shared norms and values of the team (e.g., rules of engagement) and adhere to those principles particularly when tensions arise.  Moreover, they engage in extensive dialogue and manage conflict through a collaborative lens where critical feedback can be constructive.

Understanding and motivating one’s team is particularly important in higher education, which is replete with highly-educated and self-motivated professionals. In academic departments, for example, it is not uncommon for faculty to primarily pursue their self-interests, without considering how those actions may advance (or deter) from the needs of the whole. It becomes incumbent on the leader (e.g., department chair) to shepherd and advance a collective vision for the department and an environment that encourages collective action, rather than independent activity.

By knowing the skills of each member of the team and consistently seeking those skills to be innovatively utilized, leaders can honor the individual while simultaneously strengthening the team in a variety of ways.  As each of these characteristics take shape within a team, the participants are moved to a place of accountability, empowerment, and creativity, and away from being enabled, and operating in crisis-mode.

Participating in the one-day Leading High-performing Teams at your Campus workshop is one way to strengthen this domain of knowledge, which is critical to your success as a higher education leader.


Lots of people standing in a circle4. Know Your Students

Students are the central consistency of any college and university. The demographics of students is also changing significantly and quickly.  In 2014-15, there were more than 27 million college students enrolled in more than 7000 institutions across the U.S. For the cohort of students starting in 2009, 53.8% graduated with a baccalaureate degree within six years (in 2015) and for the 2012 cohort, 31.6% of community college students completed their associate degree within three years.[1] How do the completion rates of students on your campus compare?

It is also important to understand the composition of our student bodies.  For example, according to The American Freshman report, the entering class of Fall 2016 was one-third of all students were ethnically or racially diverse, with Hispanic/Latino students being the largest minority group.  Nearly 20% of students were first generation and about 75% anticipated pursuing some form of graduate degree.  In addition, up to 60 percent of enrolled undergraduates may now be considered post-traditional.  

The pipeline of student is also changing. The Knocking at the College door report shows that, nationally, the number of high school graduates will increase until about 2025 and then fall off precipitously.  Across this same period of time, the high school graduates are expected to become increasingly diverse, with the number of white students declining and the number of Hispanic/Latino students and Asian/Pacific Islander students growing significantly.

Additional Resources:

The Beloit College Freshman Mindset List.  I

Open Doors Report on Student International Mobility I

A recent (2017) webinar on the changing demographics of high school graduates in the Northeast, was sponsored by SAIL and WICHE.


Campus magnified5. Know Your Institution

An effective leader understands the larger institutional context (e.g., institutional mission, vision, strategic plan, resource strategies, value propositions, enrollment trends, etc.) and how their unit fits within that context.

Most colleges have a Fast Facts page that highlight key aspects of the institution such as enrollments, student demographics, completion rates, number of alumni, and so forth. The strategic plan can be an excellent source of information. Institutional budgets demonstrate institutional priorities based on where it allocates resources.

It is also useful to understand how the institution is organized administratively.  An organizational chart will highlight the major divisions within the institution (e.g., academic affairs, student affairs, finance and administration, information technology, communications, alumni and development, etc).  Each institution will be organized differently, though academic affairs is almost always the largest division as it houses all of the colleges, schools, and academic departments.


Graduates throwing caps6. Know Your Context

The entire higher education sector is experiencing significant amounts of change, from demographic transformations to economic upheavals to new forms of public and private resources going to higher education.  Leaders across higher education need to understand what is happening in the broader environment and to make sure their respective units are effectively responding to these changes.

2017 saw significant changes (or potential changes) in federal policy affecting higher education.  The visa bans and general stances by the executive branch toward immigration has resulted in a decline in international students in the United States. A proposal in the current Congressional tax reform effort to tax graduate student tuition waivers would create a new barrier to graduate education for many students.

However, because higher education is regulated by the states, colleges and universities are largely influenced by what happens within state borders. According to AASCU, the top 10 higher education policy issues at the state level include stagnate state funding, affordability, workforce development, guns on campus, and campus sexual assault.

There are numerous resources from higher education focused media outlets to professional organizations that track and report on the higher education context. Some of these are below:

[1] These federally reported data do not fully capture student success because of the way in which the numbers are calculated.  For a full accounting of student success, readers can learn more at the Student Achievement Measure (SAM).