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Qualities of a strong community college leader

Belle Wheelan

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

There are thousands of articles, books, essays, dissertations, and more devoted to leadership in higher education. All of them highlight the importance of a person “out front” who is charged with moving the organization forward and the people who follow to ensure that movement takes place. My favorite definition of leadership is not found in any publication. It comes from a plaque given to me by a human resources director during my first college presidency. It says, “Being in charge isn’t all glory.”

That plaque influenced me in many ways during my career. First, it told me I’d encounter challenges for which I very well might not be prepared. Second, it said there would be days when it seemed all of the stars were aligned against me. Third, it said leadership was not a popularity contest—on several occasions, the decisions I’ve had to make ensured I’d be unpopular. It also taught me that a certain amount of energy is required to succeed. Over a 38-year career in higher education, each of these has proved true.

As the 2012 American Association of Community Colleges Leadership Award winner, I would like to share 10 qualities that, in my mind, define what it means to be an effective community college leader.


One of the things I learned as a faculty member teaching psychology was that it was biologically impossible to laugh and grow an ulcer at the same time. I have always been a happy person. But as I climbed the administrative ladder, I discovered how important it is to seek out laughter. Once, a member of a national education committee told me the reason I was not invited to speak at a meeting was because—get this—I was too passionate about accreditation. As a leader, laughter is sometimes the only way to get through some of the more ridiculous situations you’re bound to encounter.


If the folks you’re leading don’t believe you know what you’re doing, you’ll spend a great deal of time trying to prove yourself to them and feeling like you disappointed those who had faith enough to put you in a leadership position.


Know how to assess situations for which you don’t initially have enough information. I learned this when I became a parent. Learning to hear what my son was not saying was just as important as what he was saying—or trying to say. Whether dealing with children, faculty and staff, members of a legislature, or college presidents, community college leaders must learn to understand situations in the context of limited information. Some people won’t trust you because you’re an administrator and cannot share certain information. Some folks peddle only gossip. In any case, the ability to deal with ambiguity and sift through available information to make decisions is a skill every leader must master.


Everyone in your organization expects you as the leader to make decisions. How you go about making decisions determines if and for how long those within the organization will follow your lead. This is particularly true for women. Rather than being at the top of the organizational ladder, women often lead from the middle, where they surround themselves with others on whom they depend for information. I have found people to be more willing to buy into a decision when they have had an opportunity to have some input into it.


Doing the right thing has always been more important to me than doing things right. Standing up for the things in which you believe will raise its fair share of eyebrows, but critics will find it hard to question your commitment. Trust is built on honesty and ethical behavior. It takes but one incident to topple a career. Integrity is key to success as a leader of any organization.


Throughout my career, I haven’t always agreed with what people have said, but I have always respected their right to say it. There have been many situations when I didn’t agree with comments that were made or decisions that had been passed down by my superiors, but I respected the fact that they were in charge. When I eventually became the one who was relied on to make the decisions, I continued to respect others’ positions, even when we were far from agreement. Respect is earned, especially by good leaders.


It is important to play well with others in order to achieve our goals. Not only have I learned to support the people with whom I work, I have learned to create a personal support system. It is difficult for leaders to be candid within their own organizations for fear of misperception. It is imperative for all leaders to have people off of whom they can bounce ideas. For some, that support comes from family; for others, it comes from professional colleagues in other organizations. The source of support is unimportant. What is important is that each leader has a cadre of people whom he or she can call for advice and support.


As a leader, it is your responsibility to let people know when you appreciate them and their hard work and when you don’t. Leaders must help those who follow grow. It is disingenuous to allow an unproductive employee to remain when you know that person is not able to effectively carry out his or her responsibilities. You must be honest with the employee. That doesn’t necessarily mean you must fire that person. It could mean providing professional development opportunities; it could mean a transfer to another unit or another organization. Ultimately, however, it means that you have to do something for the rest of the organization not to begin to crumble. Finding ways to reward and discipline those you lead is paramount to their success as well as that of the organization you are leading.


In my position as secretary of education for Virginia, I had but three people directly reporting to me. I was tasked with working with all college presidents, museum directors, the state’s librarian and the state superintendent of instruction, though none of them reported directly to me. Though I had been influential in making changes within other organizations, this marked the first time in my career where I was expected to effect change absent the authority to personally demand it. I became much more aware of the need to have my facts in order before I tried to secure agreements. And I learned that titles don’t always translate into power and authority. I also learned that sometimes planting seeds for ideas and providing support influences others to act and allows you as a leader to feel successful through them.


Of all of the lessons I have had to learn as a leader, patience has been the most difficult. When I want something, I want it right then, not later. I have learned it is impossible to bring others around to your way of thinking without patience. As leaders, we must provide opportunities for others to learn and grow into effective roles, and that takes time. Instead of growing impatient with them, take pleasure in and responsibility for their growth. Being a leader isn’t all glory! It is hard work, headaches and sleepless nights. But it is also glorious and exciting to watch an organization grow because of your ideas, support, tenacity, endurance and assistance. Work hard to climb that leadership ladder and look forward to the opportunities and challenges that await when you reach the top.

Wheelan is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and AACC’s 2012 Leadership Award Winner.