Learning to be a leader

For many community college presidents, the presidency is the culmination of a longstanding career ambition, marked by ceremonies and celebrations. Yet leadership development is a never-ending process of informal and formal learning experiences.

Like our students, we learn from our successes and our mistakes, from our colleagues and from formal leadership programs.

Leadership programs run the gamut from regional or state-wide programs that focus on issues such as the environment, criminal justice and hunger and build relationships among corporate and non-profit leaders, to higher education programs offered by universities and professional associations. These programs offer a range of opportunities to grow as a leader, but only one program exists specifically for all community college presidents.

The American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Presidents Academy Summer Institute (PASI), which this year will be held in New York City, July 21–25, is designed by community college presidents, for community college presidents.

I attended PASI when I began my first presidency in 1994, and there I learned a lesson from my peers that I have never forgotten. One of our activities was a small group project, which I was chosen to lead. At the end of our time together, my group told me I had done an excellent job with the project, but, they chided me, I had done it mostly alone. I needed to learn to rely on others. I confess to having needed some remedial work in this area over the years, but I will never forget their advice.

Developing a network

Merrill Irving, Jr., president of Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, attended his first institute last summer and, like me, recognized the influence it would have on his leadership.

“The AACC Presidents Academy Summer Institute provided an opportunity to learn from experienced college presidents from across the country. I enjoyed the high level and engaging interaction. What I learned there influences my daily efforts to provide strategic leadership decisions,” Irving says.

It was many years and a second presidency before I went to another Summer Institute. I had always assumed it was for new presidents, but when I went again a few years ago, I rediscovered the value of time with other presidents to examine current issues, share problem-solving strategies and remember the vital importance of “presidential self-care.”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, the award-winning magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Presidents from large and small, rural and urban colleges exchange ideas, ask questions and offer advice in a safe, confidential environment.

At last year’s PASI, “Ready for Anything,” we heard from Rita Cavin, who had been the interim president at Umpqua Community College in Oregon when the shooting occurred there. After her searing presentation, I realized that nothing could actually prepare me for the emotional trauma she and her college endured, but I was able to take concrete steps to improve disaster recovery planning on my own campus.

The theme of this summer’s institute is “The Stories We Tell.” Highlights of what we will learn from experts and each other include:

  • Telling our college and personal stories through social media.
  • Crafting the story that makes donors want to invest in us.
  • How “legend, lore and legacies” make up the culture we must understand in order to be successful.
  • How one college and its president grew stronger after the adversity of 9/11.

Visit the AACC Leaderships Suite to see what professional development opportunities can help you in your career.

About the Author

Barbara Viniar
is the former president of Chesapeake College in Maryland and has served on American Association of Community Colleges’ Presidents Academy Executive Committee.