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What Prevents Greatness in Higher Ed. Leadership

Higher ed. leaders

One of my favorite things about coaching executives in higher education is their love for reading and learning. Most leaders regularly go to leadership conferences and read leadership books. Their hunger for knowledge makes my work all the more enjoyable and rewarding.

In fact, they know so much that when we start working together, my most valuable contribution to them isn’t necessarily sharing more knowledge but removing blocks to implementing what they already know. I am not here to lecture but to close the gap between what they think they “should” do and what they actually do.

Knowledge and intention without implementation are worthless. When higher ed. administrators don’t walk the talk, the issue is rarely laziness or lack of accountability. In most cases, they are already doing their best. Something is preventing them from doing better. Reading more books won’t make any difference.

What’s missing? Personal development! You can’t grow as a leader without growing as a person. People tip-toe around it and often avoid it altogether because they don’t have the courage to feel vulnerable, especially if they don’t have the support of a skilled and caring professional who will make them feel safe during the process.

There is a reason for everything

I often hear statements such as “my boss says he wants us to take more initiative but if we do anything without running it by him first, he gets angry and yells at us”, or “my boss keeps changing her mind about what she wants because she tries to please everyone and it’s very confusing for us”, or “my boss tells us to have work-life balance but she seems to work 24/7 and I feel obligated to do the same”.

Leaders give instructions and guidelines based on what makes logical sense to them. After attending so much training over the years, they could give lectures on effective leadership practices. They know that good leaders empower their direct reports, foster employee engagement, encourage creativity, show trust and appreciation, set and communicate a clear vision, and so on. Their conscious minds know it, but their subconscious minds won’t allow it.

We have to stop thinking of leaders as embodiment of characteristics and behaviors and remember that they are human first and foremost. I suspect that a high percentage of leaders have gone through some sort of trauma. Behind a controlling boss may be someone who was raised by parents with substance abuse issues, and who needs to seek control to feel safe. Growing up in an unstable environment will cause a child to seek stability and predictability in their adult lives. It can also impact their ability to trust others.

A little girl raised by parents who expected her to always please everyone can become a leader who struggles to make difficult decisions, to say no to people, or to assert herself because that would conflict with her core values. A little boy subjected to verbal abuse is likely to speak harshly to his coworkers if he hasn’t learned a better way to handle conflict. If someone was taught that their personal worth depends on how hard they work, they will be a workaholic because anything less would make them feel unworthy.

And of course, trauma at an adult age changes people too. Some people may lose a loved one to suicide, or get a devastating diagnosis, or experience all kinds of losses and stresses that will lead them to develop coping mechanisms that may be unhealthy in the long run. In addition to that, it is very common for people to feel they are in a toxic work environment, leave and take a new job, but a part of them still expects the same poor treatment from their new coworkers. Their stress, anxiety, and negative expectations make them unable to trust others and to have a positive outlook on the present and the future.

What can we do about it?

Obviously, if someone wishes to work with a therapist or a life coach to address deep issues, that is fantastic. But it’s not necessary to revisit the past to become stronger leaders. When I work with my clients, they often choose to share information that I didn’t ask for, because it’s part of their backgrounds and they want me to know where they are coming from. I hear briefly about their past but we don’t stay stuck there. We focus on two things (1) self-awareness and (2) self-empowerment.

Self- awareness: No change can happen from a place of denial or avoidance. Becoming self-aware is the first step. Once clients understand what they do, and why they do it, it becomes easy to change what is no longer wanted.

Self-empowerment: We don’t waste a moment blaming people or things or events. We focus on creating a clear vision of what the client wants to see happen and a strategy for success. We examine patterns and triggers so that the person can learn new ways to deal with uncomfortable situations and doesn’t have any knee-jerk reactions anymore. We find new perspectives and expand their ability to problem-solve from a higher level of understanding and wisdom. I love helping my clients also gain a much better understanding of how other people’s minds work, so that they can develop more empathy and build quality relationships on campus. The benefits are endless and nothing short of life-transforming.

This type of work is deeply personal and requires trust, expertise, neutrality, and absolute confidentiality. Since it can’t happen in a workshop setting, one-on-one coaching is the most effective and the safest way to unlock leadership genius. But don’t just take my word for it. I invite you to click here to schedule a complimentary call with me and discuss how we can team up. Don’t let the past control your future. Unleash your full potential.


About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset. For more information, visit