How to be a positive academic leader

February 5, 2015 Jeffrey Buller

Being an author and researcher can often feel like a juggling act at the best of times, and if your role includes a management or leadership role, it’s easy to feel frustrated or overwhelmed. One of the biggest surprises to confront new academic leaders is how much conflict and negativity they're called on to deal with.  Almost as soon as people become department chairs or deans, they're thrust into the middle of ongoing quarrels, personnel problems, and dysfunctional personalities. They want to get important work accomplished, but they spend most of their time putting out fires, which can leave them with a sense that the job just isn't worth it. Surely, there has to be a better way.123214895_232985357_232985359_256224451.jpg

What is Positive Academic Leadership?

The solution is what is known as positive academic leadership. The word positive in the title comes from two traditions. The first is the movement known as positive psychology. Unlike traditional psychology, positive psychology isn't about making sick people well (or “making miserable people less miserable,” as Martin Seligman, one of the movement’s founders likes to say), but how to make good people better and happy people happier.

Positive reinforcement

The other tradition that positive academic leadership draws on is the practice known as positive reinforcement. Punishment, which causes people to suffer because of what they did wrong, only tells people what not to do.  Positive reinforcement, which rewards people for good behavior, shows people what they should do.  In the words of collegiality expert Bob Cipriano, “What gets rewarded gets repeated.”  Positive academic leadership puts that principle into practice.

Focus on strengths, not weaknesses

In short, positive academic leadership is about building on an academic program’s strengths, not fixating on its weaknesses.  It's about helping people do more of what they do well, not making them feel bad because of their limitations. To take a specific example, suppose a department chair had a faculty member who was not showing up for committee meetings, keeping required office hours, or submitting course syllabi on time. The typical administrative approach would be to view this situation negatively: as a problem that needs to be fixed. Positive academic leadership views the challenge as an opportunity: How can the chair achieve the results he or she needs without alienating the faculty member, ruining morale, or making what appears to be a bad problem even worse?

Turning challenges into opportunities

Positive academic leadership would say that what the department chair has is an opportunity to move forward in a constructive and meaningful way. For example, rather than seeing the faculty member as doing something wrong because of those missed meetings and office hours, is it possible to do something positive by filling an unmet need? Perhaps the faculty member is having problems finding or affording daycare for children, taking care of a sick parent, or going through another type of personal crisis.  Putting the faculty member in touch with the resources of an Employee Assistance Program or other agency can be a tremendous help.  Perhaps the faculty member is becoming disengaged and needs some help in renewing his or her commitment to and excitement about the program.  Perhaps there is an interpersonal issue between the faculty member and another member of the department that could benefit from mediation.  By seeing the situation as an opportunity to help a valued faculty member improve rather than a chance to punish an underperformer, the positive academic leader helps achieve desired results at the same time that morale improves and people’s commitment to the program increases.

For more practical advice, read Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference.

Image Credit/Source:cogal/iStockphoto

About the Author

Wiley Author // Jeffery L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of 'Positive Academic Leadership: How to stop putting out fires and start making a difference', as well as other titles on academic leadership.

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