A Way To Lead Good to Great Teams. The Challenge of Contemporary Higher Ed.

Leadership isn’t position — it is action as Maxwell has said repeatedly. Leadership isn’t about you, your wishes or your legacy. Leadership is de facto about others and developing them to be better in what they do, unconditionally. A true leader doesn’t use their team as a mechanism to be “known” or “look good” to others. Leadership is about others and what we as leaders can do to make them look better. Of course that along the way… many will end up not being appreciative to the extra efforts that we put into it but this comes with the territory and is part of life. Don’t take it personally, I advise you. In the end, life (and leadership efforts for that matter) is about glorifying God first, as Mother Theresa once said.

If we lived in a perfect world where everybody’s skills and contributions were ranked in the 1%, folks were motivated, reasonable, committed, loyal…  leadership would then be easy and only a small variable in the mix of what makes good organizations become great. The problem, my friends, is that we live in an imperfect world where most people are not motivated to do their best, are many times unreasonable with what they say and do, are not committed to the organization and tend to backstab others once in a while instead of choosing to be loyal and follow when helped. The reality is that the majority of the people we hire doesn’t belong in the 1%. Let’s keep in mind that the bell curve does exist for a reason. You will never have a perfect team despite of how hard you try. We need to be realistic — Let’s not forget that 68% of the population belongs to the mean and that the 1% is in fact an outlier. Your goal as a leader is to find good hires and turn them into great ones.

I am an Interim Department Chair of a research intensive university in Mississippi where I work with good people who seem legitimately invested and interested in the educational development of our students. The former is a blessing that produces fruits every semester. If we were a small liberal arts teaching university, I would consider our team to be in perfect alignment with the mission and goals of the university, a good to great team. However, we work in an institution that is being quickly transformed into the heaviest category of research production and grantsmanship. These types of institutions tend to make teaching secondary and only grant tenure to a few professors who are prolific and bring funding to the department and the university and have a record of helping students to complete doctoral dissertations. Only a small number of tenure-track faculty members actually survive the cut.

Now, this is a dilemma — What would you do if your faculty doesn’t have the academic credentials to fulfill the contract of a true research university yet you really like them? It is quite atypical and certainly very challenging for any department chair to lead a department with a division 1 status planning to operate under the protocols and guidelines of an R1 university with only 25 percent of faculty trained to conduct empirical research studies. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this is a very difficult position for a department chair (and its faculty) to be in. An intervention must be planned immediately and checked often. The hope, of course, is that you don’t have to deal with accreditation along the way because if you do, life will then be a living hell for you.

This is the reality of our times. Higher educational institutions’ Carnegie classifications are changing rapidly. The operational nature of public institutions of higher learning has changed to a more lean model of “getting your own funding,” replacing tenure-track with temporary faculty, and in only committing to a very small number of professors being funded indefinitely. If you don’t have what it takes to be a college professor, e.g., a PhD, outstanding writing skills, and the ability to construct and complete empirical research studies, life will be very tough for you until you retire, pending on you surviving the transition.

I predict that folks who find themselves in such positions will have a very short tenure in higher education. The department Chair must inform his/her team of this reality and can only do so much. Remember: We live in 2017 where the support for colleges and universities are decreasing by the year. Tuition is increasing yearly to offset state funding deficits. Don’t believe me? Go and check the percentage of state appropriation that your state gives your public colleges and universities. In fact let me make your life easier. The American Council on Eduction (ACE) does cover this topic in great detail. Check it out –> State Appropriations overtime. Please refer to the graph below.


Leadership is tough. Resources are limited and decreasing. Unemployment is sky rocketing. There are no widespread unions to protect you and me. So, how do you lead an academic unit with very little funding to recruit the very best faculty members on the market yet being expected to advance the mission of the university with distinction?  Stay tuned, we are going to talk about this in a bit. Let me say something first. Are you ready? We live in a world of formal protocol. we need to follow the protocol more than ever. This is the reality, are you ready? Listen carefully and take notes : Old friends won’t be able to save you from losing your job because we are heading towards more accountability and frequent school audits especially in higher education.  The powers to be are paying very close attention to both credentials and competence.

Those used to operate in what we call “the buddy-buddy system” will struggle tremendously in this new system and will be forced into retirement by higher ups. I am a retired APSCF union member and learned by training and mentoring how to navigate and operate under a clearly defined set of higher education protocols. I had no option to even consider running anything via the “buddy-buddy system” because APSCUF makes all its standard operating procedures of its universities transparent to both administration and faculty. There is nothing to hide. There is no room for esoteric practices.  You simply learn the protocol and put the protocol into practice.

Back to the discussion of leading an academic unit with little funding to hire the best people for the job… I am still struggling to find the best answer to this question. What I do know, however, is that being a department head in some college departments these days is like having a small subway franchise operating with staff who isn’t trained in making all available subs for sale on the menu. I am not saying that the employees working in that subway aren’t capable of learning how to make subs, of course. With good training and time, many will turn out to be great subway artists but at what price to the manager?

What would you do if you lead a team of talented professionals yet may lack the basic credentials to fulfill their contracts? Some might say, “you need a new team.” Others would say, “You are the leader, do what is right.” I reply… Ok, I will do what is right. We need practical faculty to teach our practical courses! We need to keep them all. To me, this is right. However, the former doesn’t always solve all the problems. In my world, good teaching rarely pays the bills, unfortunately. By the way — Even when we increase tuition dollars, e.g., increase enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate students, tuition dollars rarely cover the cuts in yearly state appropriation. This is why, folks, hiring talented PhD’s is an absolute necessity these days if you want to transform your academic unit from good to great. The reality is that if you can’t generate your own funding, your unit will cease to exist or will be merged into another operation as the last resort to get “sh&T” together.

I do agree that as a leader of an academic unit, I must do what is right under the realities and circunstances of my authority under the recommendations and vision set by the Dean. Of course that doing what is right often means more work on the part of a leader. I am okay with that. So the question then is, “Are you ready to sacrifice your time and efforts for the benefit of your team?” This one I can answer more easily. YES! If you are not sacrificing your efforts for the benefit of your team, resign as the leader of your unit right now. Clearly, you are in peter principle. Just remember that you are not God. You can only do what is humanly possible to accomplish what needs to be done.

There are too many ways a leader can sacrifice his/her time for the benefits of others so you make them look good and give them an incentive to be extraordinary. In this article, I will share with you three approaches I take to transforming good teams into great ones.

  1. I write proposals and put their name on it. If the team wins, everybody wins including the leader. Leaders must help the team and celebrate their successes even if you have to do most of the work. This blog’s photograph was taken at the Mississippi Communications Association, a regional conference in Mass Communications that took place in Pearl, Mississippi… about 20 minutes away from our office in Jackson. Because I care and want to see my colleagues succeeding and having a job next year, I made a self sacrifice and wrote an entire panel proposal for an academic conference using data from my own research studies and included them as panel participants to talk about their specialties pragmatically. My goal was to ensure that the team had the opportunity to attend and present in an academic conference and have a taste of what is required of them to do next year as faculty members of a research university. Sometimes, leaders just have to write proposals and put their teammates’ names on it, pending on them accepting the invitation and with the understanding that next year, they themselves will do what they can do produce their own scholarship. Be inspiring and do what you can to help others.
  2. Lead by committee. We don’t live in Rome anymore. Avoid taking what I call the “Caesar” approach which can be easily spotted —  A leader making all the decisions and stating, “This is the wish of the senate and the people of Rome” when no decisions were vetted by parliament and the people had no say in the decision making process. Lead by committee instead. Team members will appreciate that and if they are reasonable, will be loyal to you. If the team isn’t capable or is unwilling to do the work then an intervention must take place even if it requires replacing people on the team. Leadership isn’t about self. Leadership is about making others great. A great team can only be great if it is already good. Give your team the benefit of the doubt and empower them to come up with solutions. If they prove to be incompetent, then an intervention is the answer. The only exception to this rule is when the department is in a state of crisis and little knowledge exists without the unit. Then, perhaps, having a more authoritative approach is the only answer.
  3. Avoid closed door conversations and despise esoteric meetings. The moment that knowledge in your unit becomes esoteric, it is only a question of time for the unit to be dismantled. It is difficult to empower others and motivate them to do great work by having selective communication. The former, in fact, can turn great working units into unproductive, dividi et impera like toxic environments. Great teams will rarely if ever come out of such places. Typically, constant closed door policies and esoteric meetings are evidence of toxicity in workplaces. There is a wide body of research to substantiate this claim. Business Insider has published a concise article in 2015 on the topic.  Bustle.com has also written on toxicity as well as Forbes.com. Having an open door policy and less esoteric meetings should be the norm not the exception. Never, under any circumstances, use esoteric meetings to plan sabotage against others directly or indirectly. The former always backfires. Be transparent and caring and do what you can to help. Transforming good units into great ones requires both talent and ethical leadership. Be careful to not lose your very best employees by being sneaky. It is going to cost you your reputation and much more. Don’t do it.

Leadership isn’t position — It is action as Maxwell has said repeatedly. Leadership isn’t about you, your wishes or your legacy. Leadership is de facto about others and developing them to be better unconditionally. Please refer to the lessons of Maxwell and his level 5 leadership teachings. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might want to consider reading his literature on the topic, immediately. If it is too much for you to handle, consider employment alternatives or retirement.

Every leader faces challenges when accepting a position of leadership. If you are in public higher education, your challenges will be many. Transforming a good team into a great one might mean seeing great people leave, for the long term health of your unit. You are going to have to make some pretty difficult decisions in order to do what is best for your unit, that’s for sure. If you want to lead, sometimes you’re gonna have to write proposals and share your victories with your team, lead by committee and avoid having conversations with a few and having esoteric meetings for self gain and aggrandizement. The former is known for destroying teams and resulting in very high levels of turnover.

Losing talent can be deadly for any organization that wants to grow and be great. If you don’t have continuity in vision, there is no leadership. Leader! It is your job to make the team move from good to great. Never forget that. If your goal is to make your unit to move forward. You need to do what is right for the benefit of the organization.  Do your part and be vigilant. You have no choice.