February 21 2017 0Comment

4 Leadership Characteristics of Successful College Presidents

We know a good leader when we see one, but what qualities are most likely to translate into success?  

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has spent years thinking about leadership and even written a book on the subject, counseled Donald J. Trump before he took office and has visited with the president and his close advisors since. Gates observes that that while President Trump seems cogent during personal interviews, his “jarring” tweets cause people to lose faith in him.

“I think it’s important for the folks in White House to realize,” Gates notes, “that credibility is important, not just with their own base, but also with the Congress and with foreign governments. When the president speaks, he has to have credibility, . . . particularly in . . . moments of crisis.” It doesn’t matter how calm or rational a leader’s decision-making behind the scenes may be; public perception is what shapes trust.


Effective Communication

Gates eludes to a quality that is absolutely essential to college campus leadership, being able to communicate effectively on all levels, not just in private meetings but with various stakeholders.

College presidents are accountable when crises strike, and in an era where a story can go viral in a matter of hours, public perception is reality. College presidents who are reactive, who delay addressing a crisis, and who lack transparency miss opportunities to manage incidents before they turn into overarching narratives about the university.

An effective university president is a thought leader, who uses her voice to help shape the future of higher education. When they speak, they must inspire. But the message will be lost unless a president can express it in language that is attuned to their audience.



Being flexible is another one of the most important leadership characteristics a college president must have. Regardless of how innovative some of the individual research projects being done in an institution are, universities as a whole tend to be conservative – people get trapped in their silos and resist change.

It’s a college president’s job to encourage flexibility, embracing new strategic plans that can improve efficiency and growth. Dr. Christopher Howard, named one of the “20 Most Interesting College Presidents” in 2015 by The Best Schools, calls it “contextual awareness.” In a recent Inc article, he points out that “successful leaders are constant students of their changing environment and understand that what allowed them to succeed in one set of circumstances may not work in another.”



In a recent article published by the Education Advisory Board, David Turner, board chair of Delaware State University and member of the Association of Governing Board, remarks that a college president must have a vision that incorporates both short- and long-term goals for the institution. He says that it is essential for leaders “to build a sustainability program with [many] revenue streams,” including graduate study, distance learning, international engagement, and private public partnerships.

With institutions of higher education being hit financially in several different directions, developing strategic plans that lead to long-term sustainability is the goal. A successful college president must deliver.



When Trump tweets that he lost the popular vote in the presidential election due to massive voter fraud, he shores up his base of supporters who don’t care about the accuracy of his remarks but understand the sentiment of exclusion that underlies them. Misrepresenting facts comes with a long-term cost for leadership, and that is the loss of integrity.

In order to be an effective leader, one must be accountable on two levels, both to one’s underlying principles – in the case of a university president, to the campus mission statement – and to the evolving set of circumstances that intrude on and shape campus life. A leader with integrity doesn’t have to bend reality to fit his narrative. Instead, he aligns his strategic plans with real-life economic, socio-political, and intellectual trends, incorporating that which best fits the campus mission.

Ultimately, a successful leader navigates that sometimes narrow path between what the college stands for and what it is up against. When that essential alignment takes place, leadership capacity is boundless.