Department Chair Call for Leadership: Part 2

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Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin

Adapted from Department Chair Leadership Skills (2nd edition) by Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin

What Do Chairs Do?

No doubt you keep busy as department chair. Endless meetings, stacks of paperwork, constant interruptions, and fragmented encounters on a multitude of topics set a frantic pace. But to what end? All the memos, meetings, phone calls, drop-in visitors, and confrontations represent means, but do these activities produce the desired ends?

You must understand that effective chairs influence the futures of their departments. It is the focus on results that successfully moves departments through these changing times. Virtually every managerial book ever written lists and exults the tasks, duties, roles, and responsibilities of administrators.

Lists specific to department chair duties range from the exhaustive listing of 97 activities identified by a University of Nebraska research team (Creswell et al. 1990), to the astonishing 54 varieties of tasks and duties cited in Allan Tucker’s classic book Chairing the Academic Department (1992), to the 40 functions forwarded in a study of Australian department chairs (Moses and Roe 1990). The genesis of these lists can be traced back to Siever’s 12 functions, expanded to 18 by McCarthy, reduced to 15 by Hoyt, and expanded again to 27 by Smart and Elton (Moses and Roe 1990).

Typical faculty manuals at colleges and universities provide a list of the chairs’ duties and responsibilities, such as organizing and supervising curriculum, distributing teaching/research loads, supervising department funds, recommending promotions and salaries, and so on. Check your college manual for your own local listings! While these numerous lists appear refined and comprehensive, they continue to represent fragmented activities without focus on what’s most important—the results.

The Four Roles of Department Chairs

Which roles are critical for department chairs who want results? In answer to this question, four main roles emerge from the popular literature and converge with current research: the Faculty Developer, the Manager, the Leader, and the Scholar (see Gmelch and Miskin 2004 for further discussion of department chair roles).

The role of Faculty Developer is viewed by department chairs as their most important responsibility. It involves recruiting, selecting, and evaluating faculty, as well as providing the sort of informal leadership that enhances the faculty’s morale and professional development.

Acting as Manager, the second role, is a requirement of the position, but often least liked by chairs. Chairs spend over half the week in departmental activities. Specifically, they perform the upkeep-functions of preparing budgets, maintaining department records, assigning duties to faculty, supervising non-academic staff, and maintaining finances, facilities, and equipment.

Leader best describes the third role of department chairs. As leaders of their departments, they provide long-term direction and vision, solicit ideas for department improvement, plan and evaluate curriculum development, and plan and conduct departmental meetings. They also provide external leadership for their departments by working with their constituents to coordinate department activities, representing their departments at professional meetings and, on behalf of their departments, participating in college and university committees to keep faculty informed of external concerns. Chairs seem to like this role, because it offers opportunities to help others develop professional skills, to stay challenged, and to influence the profession and department. Those chairs who enjoy such leadership activities spend more time performing them—not a surprising revelation! It is our hope that not only do department chairs enjoy this role, but that they take it most seriously when assuming their administrative position. Since it is the most critical role in achieving success, the entire second section of this book is devoted to the call to leadership.

In contrast to the managerial nature of the three previous roles, chairs also try to remain a Scholar. This includes teaching and staying current in their academic disciplines and, for those at research universities, maintaining an active research program and obtaining grants to support it. Chairs enjoy and feel most comfortable in this role, but express frustration with their inability to spend much time on their academic interests. Many would emphasize scholarship if they could, but find it virtually impossible. In fact, 86% of department chairs significantly reduce their scholarly activities while serving as chair; for some, scholarship more or less ceases (Gmelch and Miskin 2004).

Where do your primary interests lie? Spend some time assessing the degree to which each of these four roles is important to you and rank their importance to you. Then, identify the most important tasks by which you obtain results within each role. Is your perception of your job in line with the reality of the results you get? If not, you may have to realign some of your time and energy to maximize your results. These adjustments should be made consciously as you assume the administrative role of department chair. The transition from the professorial role to that of department chair is vital to your success.

The Development of Academic Leaders

As noted earlier, one of the most glaring shortcomings in the leadership area is the scarcity of sound research on the training and development of leaders. Given this scarcity, how do we send a call out to awaken the latent leaders in the academy? How do we make some academics aware of their leadership potential? How do we make leadership feasible, tolerable, and inviting for academics? Rather than search for answers in specific training programs, we outline three spheres of influence that are essential to the development of effective academic leaders:

  1. conceptual understanding of the unique roles and responsibilities encompassed by academic leadership
  2. the skills necessary to achieve results through working with faculty, staff, students, and other administrators
  3. the practice of reflection in order to learn from past experiences and perfect the art of leadership (Gmelch and Miskin 2004).

These three spheres and their intersections serve as our analytical framework for determining what is needed to develop department chairs.

Conceptual understanding. Conceptual understanding is the ability to see leadership in terms of mental models (Senge 1990), frameworks (Bolman and Deal 2003), and roles (Gmelch and Miskin 2004). These categories will allow chairs to grasp, cognitively, the many dimensions of leadership (Conger and Benjamin 1999). The most important challenges addressed by these categories are:

  1. As managers move into leadership positions, the concept of the job shifts. Academics moving into the role of department chair start to perceive themselves differently. For example, using Lee Bolman and Terry Deal’s terms (2003), department chairs initially think in terms of their human and structural frames of leadership; as they gain comfort and confidence, two new frames demand greater attention: the political and the symbolic.
  2. Institutions of higher education have unique challenges not typical of managers and leaders in other organizations. The position of department chair has been characterized as without parallel in the business world. Department chairs cultivate external/political relationships, manage college resources, promote internal productivity, attend to personnel matters, and engage in personal scholarship. Some of these roles are unique to the academy (e.g., personal scholarship) while others represent new responsibilities that chairs accept when they move up the hierarchy.

Whether it is in terms of frames, roles, responsibilities, models, or tasks, chairs need to understand the dimensions of their position. Universities typically teach others to understand leadership conceptually. The time has come for us to teach academics how they can become leaders in their own domain. Chairs, especially, need to define academic leadership for themselves: what does it mean to build a community, empower others, and set direction? Of course, while a conceptual understanding of department chair roles is a condition of leadership, it is not sufficient without the application of appropriate behaviors and skills.

Skill development. In order to perform their roles and meet their responsibilities, chairs need to hone their skills. To this end, a recent proliferation of books on department chairs suggests tips, techniques, and promising practices (see Buller 2006; Chu 2006; Lee 2006; Wheeler et al. 2008). Reading often reminds leaders more than it instructs them, but department chairs can “formally” learn to develop their leadership skills through clinical approaches: seminars, workshops, and lecturettes. These approaches impart principles that chairs can put into practice through simulations, case studies, role-playing, and action planning. Some skills, such as communication, performance coaching, conflict resolution, negotiation, and resource deployment are more readily teachable than complex competencies, like strategic vision, that have a long gestation period and involve multiple aptitudes (Conger 1992; Westley 1992; Wheeler et al. 2008).

Many training programs for academic leaders are off-site, last three to four days, and are designed for institutions’ mid-managers. While these can instill key ingredients for skill development, research has shown that it is more effective for work teams to attend the same programs as their supervisors, such that each supports and reinforces the other’s skill-building efforts (Conger 1992).

Formal training is only one part of acquiring key skills. Individuals often require on-the-job experience to translate their understanding of a skill from intellectual to personal, after which they can apply the skill practically. Recall the aphorism of the Chinese philosopher: To know and not to use, is not yet to know. Experience is critical to skill building and takes many forms, such as experimenting, receiving feedback, coaching, refining, and perfecting (Ericsson and Smith 1991).

Reflective practice. It’s not enough to understand the roles of a department chair and the skills required to be successful. Leadership development, often the most difficult part of professional growth, is an inner journey. Self-knowledge, personal awareness, and corrective feedback must be part of chairs’ leadership journey. Moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions are necessary for the journey’s completion. Leadership development is very much about finding one’s voice (Kouzes and Posner 1987). Because credibility and authenticity lie at the heart of leadership, finding one’s own guiding beliefs and assumptions lies at the heart of becoming a good leader. By providing structured feedback, promoting reflection, and developing self-awareness, we can create conditions in which reflective leaders flourish.

In his book Reflective Practitioner (1983), Donald Schön asks: What is the kind of knowing in which competent practitioners engage? Reflection-in-action is central to the art by which leaders cope with the troublesomely divergent situations of practice. When practitioners reflect in action, they become researchers in the practice context.

Times change, as do the constructs and skills needed to lead. Some of the major professions in universities are disciplined by an unambiguous end—health, law, sciences—and operate in stable institutional contexts. Chairs, on the other hand, are embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests. Reflection-in-action helps chairs deal well with situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.

For this reason alone, reflection-in-action is critically important. We must develop strategies for reflection that place technical problem-solving within a broader context of reflective inquiry. Chairs’ isolation from one another works against reflection-in-action. They need to communicate their private dilemmas and insights, to test them against the views of their peers. Leadership development does not take place in a vacuum (Beineke and Sublett 1999). It flourishes best within a group or with trusted colleagues who can act as mentors, partners, and coaches. Do you meet with your fellow chairs alone, without the dean present, to reflect and to support one another?

The development of leadership ability is a long and complex process. The influence of family, peers, education, sports, and social activities in high school and college impact individuals’ ability to lead and their need for achievement, self-esteem, power, and service (Wolverton and Gmelch 2002). If experience is such an important teacher, and the motivation to lead is rooted in one’s past, and leadership skills are indeed so complex and related to one’s work and past, what role can training hope to play? (Conger 1992, 34).

Leadership development must incorporate all three approaches: conceptual development, skill building, and reflective practice. Each integrates and builds upon the other. Nevertheless, development of leadership rests with individuals’ own motivation and talent, and with the receptiveness of their organizations to supporting and coaching their skills. In part, leadership is passion, and you cannot teach people to be passionate.

Walter Gmelch
Dean, School of Education
University of San Francisco

Val Miskin
Director, Graduate Programs, College of Business
Washington State University


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