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Matching leadership theory with practice

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Commentary
​Sherry Zylka

​What does it take to be an effective leader in community colleges today? That’s a question often asked as people contemplate their own potential as a leader or the future generation of leaders at their institution. Given the anticipated turnover of higher education leaders in the next five years, acquiring the competencies found in effective leaders has become increasingly important.

As an intern at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), I have had the opportunity to observe various leadership styles not only at AACC but those of community college leaders across the country. The Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, where I am a doctoral student, has identified competencies that are essential among effective leaders. Although these competencies are broken into the three major categories—leadership, informational and decisional roles—they are interlinked.

These competencies have provided me with a lens through which to view the various skills in action and whether they align with the practices of leadership at U.S. community colleges. (AACC is in the process of updating its own competencies for community college leaders. It will be interesting to compare the revised competencies with the current ones when they are released.)

Fulfilling the leadership role

Effective leaders serve many functions—visionary, motivator, figurehead and liaison—that are on display during myriad connections with internal and external constituents. On any given day during my internship, interactions take place with various organizations associated with AACC that often focus on sharing or seeking information about current and future trends. Having a strong commitment to the vision of the organization and carrying it out is important to implement the direction determined by board members.

The AACC convention April 20-23 will include several sessions on leadership, including "A Check Up on Your Leadership Skills and Capacities" and "Can Colleges Survive Current Challenges: New Leadership Needed."

It has been informative to observe the AACC executive leadership team and community college executives participating in the 21st-Century Initiative and apply their individual leadership styles to advance their tasked objectives. Each person brought their own knowledge and expertise to the table that translated into a unique way of collaborating to achieve their goals.

As an example, members of the nine 21st-Century Implementation Teams were asked to be bold in their vision of the future of community colleges. The participants that I have interacted with at these meetings have the ability to paint a picture of the community college of tomorrow and stand ready to champion its cause.

Communication is key

Informational competency is critical to the success of any organization. Whether it is monitoring and disseminating information or acting as a spokesperson, a leader must be prepared to serve as the voice of his or her organization. In my role as intern, I’ve had an opportunity to witness many examples of effective communication both internally and externally at AACC. Whether it is responding to a natural disaster such as Superstorm Sandy, monitoring legislative issues or addressing violence on campuses, AACC shares information among its stakeholders through various forms of media and technology. 

Member institutions have a valuable resource in AACC as a way to connect with other colleges in similar situations. AACC is in the unique position to assist its constituents in making connections and to communicate accurate information relevant to topics of importance. These interactions provide a national venue for robust engagement of stakeholders across the profession. This becomes increasingly important in today’s rapidly changing dynamics of higher education. The collaboration between AACC and its constituents allows for a more nuanced response from our segment of higher education. 

Doing more with less

The decisional role of today’s leader has become more essential to the success of an organization. This competency category addresses resource allocations, negotiations, revenue-generating opportunities and strategic planning. Given the current funding situation—or, more precisely, the lack of it—that most community colleges across the nation are experiencing, many decisions are being made relative to how to work more effectively with fewer resources. 

At the same time, accountability has moved to the forefront of the higher education agenda, creating greater scrutiny of the work being done. Those in community colleges must attend to the needs of their stakeholders effectively and efficiently with the resources at hand.

In order to get more creative in generating new revenue streams, organizations are becoming more entrepreneurial. As a result, tough decisions are being made as to what to keep, what to abandon and what to modify as institutional leaders move their organizations forward. All this must be done in a constantly changing context and environment.

A foundation for good leaders

Leaders today must be able to function effectively to address the increasingly complex situations and ever-changing dynamics that are part of today's community college. Having the opportunity to observe the executive leadership team at AACC and community college leaders from across the nation practice the competencies that are being taught in my program affirms the match between theory and practice. No matter what level of leadership a person holds within his or her organization, the three skill set categories of leadership, information and decisional are as relevant today as they were when they were first established.

Zylka is in a semester-long internship at AACC through the community college doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin.

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