Leading vs. Managing by Community College Chairs

By maximizing their management efficiency, chairs can gain the time and opportunities to exert true leadership.

Academic leadership usually refers to that at four-year schools, and leadership in the nation’s community colleges is seen as an enigma, said Clarissa Craig.

Assistant dean in the science, health care and math division at Johnson County Community College KS, Craig discussed preliminary findings of her qualitative research at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Lead-ership conference held in Lincoln in October.

Community college leaders are considered a “unique body of educational practitioners” whose leadership elements are “distinct and singular.” Unlike their peers at four-year schools, department chairs at two-year colleges have roles and tasks that are critical to a school’s day-to-day success: The chair’s position delivers the educational mission.

Yet much of the literature on chairs at two-year schools simply lists the position’s roles, tasks and demographics, rather than identifying how chairs can help manage future change. Craig’s interest in academic leadership by chairs is the topic of her doctoral dissertation.

Seeing and seizing opportunities

In setting up her multi-case study, Craig sought to identify how community college administrators in both career and transfer programs describe their leadership. Participants were nominated based on demonstrating effective leadership. She collected data from multi-structured interviews with 10 administrators working at a suburban and an urban commu-nity college, five women and five men.

Most worked in both career and transfer programs; all had been classroom faculty, and all but two had job descriptions. Although their job titles, job descriptions, reporting structures, functions within their programs and departments were not alike, they shared similar responsibilities.

“Leading is seeing and acting on opportunities,” including visioning, championing and making things happen, the administrators agreed. While transfer administrators defined visioning as being visionary, career administrators saw it as seeking opportunities. They agreed that visioning involved seeking input and being open to ideas, looking at trends, emphasizing quality and focusing on the mission of the community college.

Championing was divided into external (advocating and carrying ideas forward from the department) and internal (motivating faculty and staff.) All saw themselves as having a facilitating role under the category of “making things happen,” seen as an intrinsically female leadership trait.

Leadership was also described as being “about people,” which respondents saw as including the typically female skills of connecting, empowering, supporting, teaching, learning and recognizing as critical parts of their job description.

Asked about the balance between leadership and management, respondents first noted that “leading is challenging but rewarding.” All agreed that operational communication was the main management function. Six highlighted other key functions like managing the budget and resources, scheduling, hiring and orienting faculty and managing people conflicts. Several also noted performance reviews and curriculum.

Leading rather than managing was their preferred activity, but most of the chairs’ job descriptions focused on management rather than leadership responsibilities.

Asked to describe the position’s benefits and challenges, respondents noted that involving faculty, particularly adjuncts, was a visioning challenge, as was addressing community expectations diplomatically. Other challenges included learning the time commitment to the job, recognizing challenges, management and organizational influence challenges.

Management challenges were listed as planning ahead and being organized, as well as handling interpersonal dynamics. Organizational influence challenges were resources, the organizational climate, organizational structure/layers, and the position description. Asked about their defining moments as a leader, respondents offered both positive and negative examples. “I expected them to be very positive and motivated in their position,” said Craig. “But in two cases, they were negative and related to one of those ‘people moments.’”

Negative moments included difficult personal interactions and lack of administrative support on a personnel decision. Student and faculty success represented positive moments for career administrators. For transfer administrators, positive moments included creating a new program or initiative, affecting a change in the department and recognition for a job well done.

Some observations

Based on their responses, Craig observed:

  • Administrators hold views of their jobs independent of job titles, descriptions or reporting lines.
  • Past experience as faculty helps administrators.
  • Administrators recognize the key aspects of leadership and strive to exemplify them.
  • They are managerial leaders with wider perceptions.
  • The balance of managing vs. leading depends on situations, group dynamics and organizational influences.
  • All are personally motivated by intrinsic job factors.

Craig recommended that mutual expectations of job descriptions and place in the organizational structure be clarified through dialog among colleagues, faculty, staff and instructional administrators. By maximizing their management efficiency, chairs can gain the time and opportunities to exert true leadership.

Because they execute and deliver the school’s mission, chairs may also be an underutilized resource for leading school initiatives. And recognizing chairs for both their management and leadership will enhance personal satisfaction and positive view of the position. “Examining experiences helps to bridge the gap that exists between the expectations and realities of the position, ” she noted.

Contact Craig at: ccraig@jccc.edu or 913.469.2583.

Send comments or questions to our editor/publisher Mary Dee Wenniger

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