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AAL Newsletter

A Reflection on Academic Leadership: What I Wish I Had Known

by Brian L. Crabtree, Pharm.D., BCPP, Professor and Chair, Department of Pharmacy Practice

Brian Crabtree

Wayne State University Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences

AAL Chairs and Academic Administrators Management Program 2013 Alumni

Life is a learning process. Everything we do, especially in the beginning, requires learning and adaptation. As we progress in new endeavors, we think about what we wish we had known when we began. It is true in education, career, and for sure in parenting and family. Some of us come to academic leadership through aspiration. For others, it is a response to a need or challenge that we face in our institution. My motivation to facilitate the success and fulfillment of others became a primary driver after a 30-year career as a pharmacy educator, researcher, and psychiatric pharmacy practitioner. What I found as a new department chair was that no matter what I had experienced previously, the learning curve is steep, and we need our own mentorship and development. Department chairs receive little or no systematic training in academic leadership before we take the reins.

My institution is a comprehensive, public, urban, research-intensive university. My department includes clinicians, translational scientists, and social-administrative scientists, supported by staff, trainees, research assistants, and technicians. Their needs and personalities are rich and diverse, their challenges and accomplishments are exciting. I summarize my responsibilities as facilitating their team and individual successes within our mission, vision, and strategic plan, and being a good steward of finite resources. Over my few years of academic leadership, there are several things I wish I had known at the beginning that could have made my path a little smoother and enhanced my effectiveness as a leader. In no particular order, here are some thoughts and suggestions based on experience:

1. Understand the difference between climate and culture. Climate is a surface indication of culture, shifting depending on circumstances. Culture is a stable pattern of ingrained and shared behaviors and assumptions that are sustained over time. Climate can be changed with quick wins or mistakes, whereas culture is harder to change and takes much longer. To create a beneficial climate, my suggestion is to say yes to everything you can, especially in the beginning. Support for things like faculty travel to key conferences, software and hardware upgrades, public acknowledgement and celebration of achievements, forming teams, thanking staff for their hard work, and nominating people for awards all go a long way toward demonstrating care and concern for their success and building support for priorities. Add in structure, clear expectations, and regular feedback, and culture will evolve.

2. Collegiality and congeniality are not the same. Collegiality is working amicably and cooperatively toward a shared goal. Congeniality is a genuine concern for the feelings and well-being of others that extends beyond the organization. Both traits are desirable and necessary, of course, but boundary-setting can be compromised by an imbalance of the two and underperformance can be indulged by an overly close personal relationship with faculty members.

3. Social distance must be managed skillfully. Of all the attributes of an effective leader, authenticity is the most important. To be authentically close to the faculty, a leader must also be somewhat vulnerable, willing to share not only strengths but also limitations. Social closeness is vital to forming effective relationships with individuals. Faculty members must know you are approachable and eager to support them. On the other hand, distance is necessary to maintain perspective and see the overall situation, to keep strategic goals in mind and paramount. Moving effectively between social closeness and social distance is one of a leader’s greatest challenges and most difficult to learn.

4. In a previous article in this newsletter, Karl Haden discussed the four domains of academic administration: leadership, management, interprofessionalism, and self-development. Maintaining balance among the domains is vital. In particular, self-development is essential to the leader’s own psychological well-being, energy, and outlook. Avoid being consumed by day-to-day management duties and plan time for your own continued scholarship and teaching engagement. Scholarly collaboration with faculty members in the department pays double dividends. Enjoy your community, establish relationships outside of work, and most of all, pay attention to family.

5. Strategic budgeting within the priorities of the organization, including the larger university priorities, is essential to success. When resources are limited, the most important priorities in the strategic plan should receive the greatest support. Items that are less important must not consume significant resources. I believe that faculty development is among my most important priorities, and that is where I invest a great deal of my discretionary resources.

6. Accept incremental desired changes as victory. As many have said, if you want to go far, go together. If you want to go fast, you will likely go alone. Enlist others in leadership initiatives. It is possible to challenge the norms, but not all of them and not all at once. See item 1.

7. Manage opposing views gracefully. Don’t see opposing views as a rejection of your leadership. Seek input from others, including those with whom you may differ. Consensus-building does not mean everyone agrees. Link decisions to strategic priorities, and remember that some necessary decisions are unpopular.

8. Work effectively within the bureaucracy. Become personally acquainted and communicate clearly and frequently with the directors of business operations, accounting, purchasing, and human resources. Anticipate delays and allow adequate time to accommodate them.

9. Read and talk about leadership every day. There is a plethora of good resources. I read a few pages per day to keep learning front and center in my own development. In addition to a reading list of books on leading and managing, I read The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education daily.

I find academic leadership to be the most challenging and gratifying role of my career. I’m glad I’m on this path. The overarching lessons are that leadership is about others, not the leader, and the leader’s fulfillment is in the successes of those in the organization.

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