Find the Right Leadership Style for Higher Education

The role of higher education in society is constantly evolving. The functions, responsibilities and approaches of higher education leadership change and evolve accordingly. Understanding these ongoing shifts and the attributes and styles of influential leaders is essential for those who aspire to leadership positions.

The William Paterson University (WP) Master of Arts (MA) in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in Leadership Studies online degree program focuses on developing the vision and skills needed for such leadership positions. Coursework in higher education management, leadership studies and emergent issues help degree candidates develop the expertise and leadership styles they will need for successful careers in their chosen field.

How Can Earning an MA in HE Leadership Help Me Develop My Leadership Style?

Underlying one’s leadership style is a foundation of leadership skills, knowledge of organizational needs, goals and structure, and an understanding of the current environment. Along with an individual’s natural strengths, traits and those of staff, colleagues and stakeholders, these elements all inform one’s approach to leadership.

Hence, developing a personal leadership style is a multifaceted process with many determinant factors. Building the essential skills needed for any organizational leadership role is a logical first step. WP’s higher education leadership studies emphasize developing professional traits and skills like critical thinking, reflective thinking, communication skills and conflict resolution methods.

Leadership roles in higher education tend to be purpose driven. They require a combination of organizational management competencies and a deep understanding of why and how higher education systems have evolved to support student learning and growth. WP’s HE leadership program accordingly covers an array of theoretical and practical topics ranging from HE history, finance, law and policy to student behavior and development in the college environment.

These studies provide professionals in higher education leadership roles the competencies and knowledge needed to carry out their responsibilities effectively. But leading involves more than the fulfillment of duties. Leaders bring people together, motivating and inspiring them to achieve shared goals. The summation of leadership skills, knowledge, organizational goals, personal attributes and experience shape an individual’s unique leadership style.

What Are Common Leadership Styles?

Leadership styles are generalized in numerous ways. Some commonly referred to techniques focus on process, consisting of managerial decision-making and responsibility-delegation. A Forbes article delineates these styles as:

  • Authoritarian leadership: Top-down, autocratic control and decision-making
  • Democratic leadership: Inclusive, team-based input and decision-making
  • Laissez-faire leadership: Group-based decision-making with very little input from leadership

Several other leadership styles focus on the relationship between the leader and the follower. The Edvocate highlights “servant” leadership, “transactional” leadership and “emotional” leadership as common in the higher education environment.

The servant leader supports and focuses on the interests and needs of the followers. The transactional leader has a businesslike relationship with followers, exchanging the likes of pay, promotions and accolades for the followers’ work. The emotional leader motivates followers through positive emotional engagement.

The Edvocate also highlights “transformational” leadership. This style is unique because it can incorporate elements of numerous other leadership approaches, both relationship-based and process-based. Essentially, transformational leadership focuses on motivating followers through a shared purpose and vision, amalgamating approaches to best achieve that vision.

How Do These Leadership Styles Apply to the Higher Education Environment?

As noted in an Inside Higher Ed article on leadership, “A leader’s vision should never reflect a personal agenda but rather address the institution’s collective needs.” Thus, a leader’s style can be fluid, combining various approaches depending on an organization’s needs and situational context.

This flexibility in leadership is especially important given the current higher education environment. Colleges and universities are braving the pandemic’s many disruptions along with ongoing issues like low enrollment, tenuous financial solvency and racial inequities for staff and students.

Accordingly, leaders at all levels of a university’s organizational structure have had to be dynamic in response and action. The immediacy of crisis response and mitigation of outbreaks and shutdowns requires quick, decisive action and the followers’ trust in leadership’s management skills and competency.

Such situations demand elements of authoritarian decision-making and transactional task delegation. But students and staff must also trust that leadership is acting with the whole community’s interests and well-being in mind, meaning servant and emotional leadership also play a role in crisis response.

Addressing issues of inequity also requires a combination of leadership approaches. Leaders must be both democratic and strategic in decision-making, eliciting diverse, inclusive input and empowering others to assume leadership roles and responsibilities. Being responsive to community concerns necessitates a servant leadership mindset. Synthesizing all these approaches calls for transformational leadership focused on motivating the entire higher education community to work together toward creating a diverse, equitable institutional culture.

WP’s higher education leadership master’s program includes a course devoted to examining emergent issues. Another core course focuses on accountability, exploring how leaders can analyze, assess and improve institutional effectiveness. Through these studies, degree candidates can learn to use dynamic leadership styles and skills to solve complex problems facing higher education institutions.

Learn more about William Paterson University’s Master of Arts in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in Leadership Studies online program.

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