Top 10 Leadership Tips for Women on Campus

Here are the strategies I have found most useful in guiding my behavior when in leadership positions

Ed. note: Dr. Vicki Lord Larson, who received the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Women in Educational Leadership at its fall conference, gave tips on leadership after more than 30 years in higher education. 

Here are the strategies I have found most useful in guiding my behavior when in leadership positions as department chair, dean, provost and interim chancellor.

1. Know your leadership style. You must know yourself and your dominant leadership style. Begin by asking ques-tions. Who am I? What life experiences have molded me into who I am? What are my values? Knowing oneself means separating who we are and who we want to be from what the world thinks we are and what it wants us to be. How do you objectively find out about yourself? Ask people you trust to tell you your strengths, weakness and leadership style.

Before I became dean of the Graduate School and Research, I asked a dear friend to look at my strengths and weaknesses as well as what I perceived my leadership style to be. I thought my leadership style was participatory-decision making. Much to my surprise, she did not agree. She told me that I was a “participatory decision-maker,” but sometimes a “benevolent dictator.”

Another strategy for getting to know yourself and your leadership style is to read about leadership. I like Stephen Covey’s books, including, First Things First, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership. Read autobiographies and biographies of great leaders.

Another strategy is to keep a journal. Codifying one’s thinking is an important step in inventing oneself.

The confidence required to lead comes from learning about yourself—your skills, prejudices, talents, shortcomings and leadership style. Confidence develops as you build on strengths and overcome weaknesses, which comes from having goals, taking risks, holding to convictions and building an arsenal of small successes and failures. Our successes con-vince us that it is possible to succeed. Our failures teach us that it is possible to fail yet go on.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” She was right. Having the confidence to experience life’s failures and successes is critical to those in leadership positions. Ultimately, leadership development is self-development.

2. Learn about your organization’s history and culture. Take time to understand the organizational history and culture. Don’t assume. Listen and learn. Then act. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Leaders ask difficult questions and disturb the silence. Martin Luther King stated: “The greatest tragedy of our social transition is not the noisiness of the so-called bad people; it is the appalling silence of the so called good people.” Dare to ask questions and disturb the silence. But listen first and then act.

3. Begin with the end in mind. State the results you expect in a clear and measurable way. Leaders must be strategic thinkers. Leaders know where they want to end up and work backward. Once you have the vision, communicate it to those who will help you get there.

4. Hone your communication skills. You must be able to communicate in a way that inspires others to help you reach your goal. If you do not inspire others to join you in your mission, you are not leading. If you look over your shoulder and no one is behind you, you are not leading.

Communication involves both good speaking and effective listening. Being able to listen to different voices and bring about consensus or resolution is an important skill in leadership. Listen first, and then act. It will take more time than acting as a benevolent dictator but in the long run it will be far more effective.

Communicate your direction, mission and vision frequently, clearly, concisely and consistently. Share your vision verbally and in writing. The written word remains long after the spoken word has been spent. According to Goldman, Boyatzis, and McKee in Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2002), communication is the one skill that generally separates mediocre from exceptional leaders.

5. Learn to negotiate. Women often do not negotiate salaries, time management and family obligations. Learn what salaries and assignments you should ask for by investigating what others are getting. Sometimes we are so grateful to get the job that we forget to negotiate.

6. Say what you are going to do and then do it, fix it and try it. Integrity is the one principle you never want to jeopardize. Every decision I make, I ask myself if I can justify it on the front page of a newspaper. What’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.

If you make a decision based on sound principles, values, guidelines and data, most people, even those who disagree with you, will trust and respect the decision. Be passionate and optimistic. Don’t listen too long to the naysayers – listen only long enough to hear their perspective but not so long that they immobilize you.

As a speech-language pathologist, I held Helen Keller as one of my heroines. She once said, “No pessimist ever dis-covered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land … or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.” Helen Keller overcame physical obstacles that most of us can’t imagine. Although she was blind, she was a visionary. Although she was deaf, she listened with her heart. Despite many hardships, Helen Keller possessed a positive spirit. And it was that positive spirit that freed her from physical limitations and helped her discover a world full of possibilities.

7. Help create future leaders by taking time to mentor and/or be mentored. It’s been said that the key to surviving in today’s fast-paced, global economy will be the ability of leaders to create organizational cultures in which they can generate intellectual capital (Bennis, 1994). Intellectual capital means encouraging the know-how, expertise, brainpower, innovations and ideas of the people within the organization. Intellectual capital is the ability to help people release their brainpower. This requires an environment or culture that is focused, flexible and friendly; a culture where people have fun and feel free to express themselves.

We all need to identify, develop and nurture future leaders. Take time to mentor and to be mentored. There is a Chinese Proverb that says:

If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain.

If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees.

If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.

8. Empower people at all levels. To me, empowerment means that I will hand over the power, influence and infor-mation to someone else and make them responsible for the task. When you empower someone, you share power and information with others. No one person can do it all.

A caveat: When you empower someone, make sure they are capable, ready and willing to be empowered, not someone who can’t or won’t do an important task.

9. Develop your networking skills. Spend time networking and connecting with like-minded people. Also, connect with people who think differently than you; people who throw you into a sense of cognitive disequilibrium. Your network of colleagues may open doors for you or collectively you may bring about change. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Network to help bring about change and for your own advancement.

10. Keep your sense of humor. Take issues seriously but don’t take yourself so seriously. See and seek the humor in situations. Often times, humor provides a balanced perspective to life. Your leadership journey will not always be easy but it will be challenging, interesting and exciting. I wish you well.

Contact Vicki Lord Larson at

Back   |   Read Archive