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Academic Leadership: A Practitioner Perspective of Wholeheartedness

Higher education has reached a critical moment of opportunity for re-valuing academic leadership. In an Inside Higher Education article titled “Producing Academic Leaders,” Pierce (2011) describes the looming crisis that will be created by increased retirements of presidents and no one in the pipeline who is willing or able to fill the void. Across the country, searches for academic deans, chief academic officers, and other academic leadership positions go unfilled, and institutions of higher education languish for authentic, qualified academic leadership.

For aspiring academic leaders whose bookshelves are filled with many tremendous books on principles and practice of effective leaders and for those who have participated in highly regarded leadership training in anticipation of pursuing academic leadership roles, the truth of academic leadership in today’s higher education environment is that many leaders, both formal and informal, have run aground in the reality of the actual practice of academic leadership. Too many leaders have run headlong into the reality that, as is most often attributed to Peter Drucker, culture really does eats strategy - for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The culture of higher education in today’s world is a result of many environmental conditions. Academic leaders today are asked to wrestle daily with increased public scrutiny, public demands for accountability, declining budgets, turnover in leadership at the top of the organization, internal politics and personalities, conflicted governance structures, competing and highly demanding initiatives, less prepared students with greater senses of entitlement, and, last but not least, sometimes overwhelming day-to-day management responsibilities. As result of the demands on academic leaders, these same leaders often spend time in self-doubt, wondering why nobody told them what academic leadership is REALLY all about.

Despite their passion for the academic enterprise and their commitment to teaching and learning, today’s academic leaders often wonder why they are not as effective as their hearts and minds tell them they should be and as their institutions need them to be. Out of necessity, compromises and concessions often rule the day. The reality is that academic leadership is incredibly demanding and complex work that requires skillful expertise and courage balanced with vulnerability and imperfection. As has been said of parenting, academic leadership is not for the fainthearted. Rather, academic leadership for today is for the wholehearted, those who are willing to continue to provide purposeful, engaged leadership focused on designing learning experiences that make a difference in the lives of learners.

To be an effective leader, follow the rules for wholehearted leadership.

Rule #1: Be courageously vulnerable.

Perhaps one of the significant changes in the face of leadership over the years is the face of imperfection and vulnerability. While those are not typically the first traits that come to mind when identifying the kind of academic leader to look for, these leadership qualities are not new aspirations. Talking with TED talk audiences about connectedness and worthiness on two different occasions, Dr. Brene Brown (2011), well known author, public speaker, and research professor at University of Houston, described the connection between wholeheartedness and vulnerability and described vulnerability as the “birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Brown has shared the wisdom of her research experience in The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Daring Greatly (2012). At the beginning of Daring Greatly, she draws upon the words of Theodore Roosevelt (and who would question his recognition as a leader?) to describe the qualities of leadership to aspire to – namely, “striving valiantly” and “daring greatly.” She quotes from Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech in 1910:

It is not the critic who counts;

Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles

Or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,

Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;

Who strives valiantly;

Who errs, who comes short again and again,

Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;

But who does actually strive to do the deeds;

Who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;

Who spends himself in a worthy cause;

Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement;

And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,

So that his place shall never be with those cold

And timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown (2012) draws upon her years of research to lay out ten guideposts of wholeheartedness. All ten guideposts describe letting go of attitudes and behaviors that keep us from engaging in the world around us from a place of worthiness rather than a place of completeness and perfection. Instead, she suggests that we cultivate, among other goals, meaningful work. She describes vulnerability as the “most accurate measure of courage.”

Those in academic leadership roles need to be courageous, to draw their strength from that place in their hearts that motivated them to aspire to the challenge of leadership. People who enter leadership roles are often surprised when they move from faculty or staff roles where they are highly regarded experts in their field of study to roles that require them to engage in a new set of responsibilities. In organizations of all shapes and sizes, the first year of academic leadership is often about being introduced to the scope and nature of the work at hand and the gamut of responsibilities that must be carried on behind the scenes of academia in order for an organization to retain accreditation status, operational efficiency, and quality service to students. A second year is often required to understand fully how the cycle of the academic year actually has a pattern to it. By the third year, too many leaders have already grown frustrated and disheartened with the complex and unanticipated roles they have to play. As academic leaders practice or learn new skill sets that are part of academic leadership roles, their sense of worthiness for previous areas of expertise can often seem diminished as they struggle to do their new roles as well as possible. Courage is required to filter decisions in new ways and to rely on solid principles for effective leadership.

Rule #2: Recognize and draw upon your “true powers.”

Wholeheartedness has also been brought to light in recent years by poet and corporate advisor David Whyte. In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001), Whyte writes of his encounter with his friend and priest, Brother David. Listening to his friend read poetry about the way an awkward swan allows itself to relax into the water that cradles it, Whyte, almost at the point of exhaustion himself, seeks his friend’s wisdom and nearly pleads to Brother David, “Tell me about exhaustion.” Wisely and patiently, his friend replies that the answer to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness. His friend goes on to explain that he is tired because “a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life….You need something to which you can give your full powers.” Brother David tells his friend, that to survive and thrive, he “must do something heartfelt,” must let go of all the effort, and must let himself down awkwardly into the waters of the truly gratifying, energizing work he desires for himself.

In today’s culture and environment of higher education, exhaustion can be all too common. The urgent work at hand in academic leadership all too often crowds out the important work that needs to be done to ensure an optimal experience for learners. Though much of what is done in an institution of higher education is necessary in order for the organization to remain viable, a good half of what academic leaders do has little to nothing to do with their original academic pursuit, their vision of how learning can optimally occur, or their passion for learners that drove them to choose a career in higher education in the first place. As leaders try to meet the demands on their time, “initiative fatigue” has reached epidemic proportions. Unfortunately, the true powers that drive academic leaders are often diminished by demands that require the diversion of energy to endeavors other than those that energize.

Within institutions of higher education, knowledge, experience, and talent are boundless. The challenge is to accommodate work that enables people to contribute by drawing on their true powers. The opportunities for academic leadership are also limitless, and the need for qualified leaders grows greater every day. To avoid exhaustion from the sometimes overwhelming work of academic leadership, a love for a subject, love for teaching and learning, and love for students must be balanced by a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the many administrative tasks required in this day and age for organizations to survive. Both forces together must balance each other to serve as a single driving force that enables academic leaders to walk what often feels like a balance beam of academic leadership.

To be an effective leader, find your coalescing vision.

So, the question to academic leaders, then, is what compels us toward leadership? The deep wells of vulnerability where “creativity, innovation, and change” (Brown, 2012) emerge can best forge themselves into energy when they are exercised within the context of a coalescing academic vision – a vision that drives academicians to be engaged in the design and delivery of a truly excellent learning experience for students.

Rule #3: Anchor your vision.

In 2012, the American Association of Community Colleges published its vision for the future of community colleges. Reclaiming the American Dream: A Report from the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges tells us that, to meet the imperative of preparing learners for the future, academic leaders must 1) redesign students’ learning experiences, 2) reinvent institutional roles, and 3) reset the system. The report tells us that the American dream – the opportunity to pursue a better life, most often through education - is at risk.

Those in academic leadership in 2014 must be “in the arena,” as Roosevelt said. The challenge for education to deliver on its promises for a better life is under scrutiny for higher education, and it requires leaders who are all in, who are wholehearted. Without knowledgeable, visionary leadership and without vulnerability and a willingness to take risks, the pathway to the future for higher education is not navigable; and the casualties – namely, the future of the learners that need to be served – are too great. The culture and environment need academic leaders who sense their own worthiness to contribute to the vision, even if imperfect or incomplete, for the future of higher education – leaders with both heart and vision.

Rule #4. Courageously engage in reimagining the student experience.

Last year, the Community College Journal published a trilogy of articles (McClenney, Dare, and Thomason, 2013; McClenney and Dare, 2013; McClenney and Dare, 2013) that addressed the 21st Century Commission’s directive to redesign students’ learning experiences. This trilogy focused on one of the 21st century commission’s goals – namely, redesigning students’ learning experiences.

The academic pathways model presented in the articles is a research-based, holistic approach to change that is focused on the way students’ actually experience learning, as opposed to the way educational institutions have historically structured learning. The model calls upon academic leaders to reimagine and recreate the student experience, this time from the students’ point of view as well as within the context of what it means to ensure academic quality and integrity. Instead of delivering the educational experience – from start to finish - from silos that have grown stronger over time, the model asks academic leaders to develop a new model that is more structured with fewer options, fewer opportunities for students to get lost along the way to their career and educational goals.

The model asks leaders to change the nature and context of the entering student experience. It challenges institutions to provide students with appropriate information that enables them to select an academic pathway early in their educational experience. The model also aligns and integrates all aspects of the learning experience along with the necessary support both inside and outside of the classroom. The academic pathways design also addresses the “developmental diversion” and the need to accommodate learning that has occurred beyond the traditional classroom.

More importantly, the model is drawn from essential design principles. Recognizing that no institution has accomplished redesign perfectly and that all redesign efforts truly are works in progress, the second article of the trilogy focuses on principle-based approaches to reimagining the student experience.

Drawing on survey results from over 5.4 million students from 710 colleges, the design principles include:

  • A strong start

  • Integrated support

  • High expectations and high support

  • Intensive student engagement

  • Pathways, not mere course sequences

  • Learning in context

  • Acceleration of student progress

  • Design for scale

  • Professional development

Thus, the challenge to academic leaders is to apply those design principles, to enter into the arena of reimagination and redesign, to know that the work ahead is difficult and dirty, and to bring worthiness (including knowledge, expertise, experience, successes, and failures) to the task of redesigning students’ learning experiences.

Rule #5: Recognize you are part of a larger whole.

Twentieth century Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen once wrote “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Academic leaders must resist the natural inclination to focus on the immediate (the classroom, the discipline, the department, the division, etc.). They must resist the temptation to isolate themselves and, therefore, run the risk of exhaustion that results for isolation. They must see their areas of responsibility as part of the larger whole, as part of how students participate in the entire learning experience - from start to finish and across the silos of educational institutions. The reality is that even the most excellent teacher or the most favored subject or the excellent club experience is not the entirety of the students’ experience. It is only part of the larger whole.

Where does real leadership come from? What kind of leadership skills will it take to make a difference as we think about redesigning academic pathways as the vision for the future? Every day of academic leadership is either a game of dodgeball or a firm commitment to living out a coalescing personal and professional vision with vulnerability and courage. Every day of academic leadership is knowing the rules to live by and practicing wholehearted leadership. Building on sound leadership principles laid out by Senge, Maxwell, Covey, Collins and other gurus of change and leadership, academic leadership for 2014 and the years ahead will require engaged leaders who are willing to strive valiantly, dare greatly, and risk failure to forge success. As David Whyte (2001) writes, the “greatest mistake is to act the drama as if we were alone,” because “everything is waiting” for real academic leaders to rise to the opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead.


American Association of Community Colleges. (2012, April). Reclaiming the American Dream: A report from the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. Washington, DC: Author.

Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Gotham Books. New York.

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden. Center City, MN

Brown, Brene (2011, January 3). The Power of Vulneraility. Retrieved from

McClenney, K., Dare, D., Thomason, S. (2013). Premise and Promise: Developing New Pathways for Community College Students. Community College Journal. April/May, 2013. American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, DC.

McClenney, K., & Dare, D. (2013). Designing New Academic Pathways. Community College Journal. June/July, 2013. American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, DC.

McClenney, K. & Dare, D. (2013). Reimagining the Student Experience. Community College Journal. August/September, 2013. American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, DC.

Pierce, Susan Resneck (2011). “Producing Academic Leaders,” Inside Higher Education, January 26, 2011. Retrieved from

Whyte, David. (2001). Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. Riverhead Books. New York.

Whyte, David (2003). Everything Is Waiting for You. Everything Is Waiting for You. Many Rivers Press. Langley, WA.

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