What Helps a Senior Leader to Thrive?

Thriving in Leadership: Strategies for Making a Difference in Christian Higher Education


Discussions about male and female leadership styles often perceive a dichotomy between the more transactional and “agentic” (ability to get things done) style of men and the “communal” (collaborative and relational) style of leadership that is characteristic of women.

The disconnect between what women value and offer to organizations and how men define effective leadership has contributed to the exodus of highly-talented women, according to researchers such as Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson in their 2010 book The Female Vision.

A compelling case to value what women bring to a leadership team comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A 2013 Jossey- Bass publication by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio describes The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like them) Will Rule the Future.

What can we learn?

As editor, I wanted our 2012 book Thriving in Leadership: Strategies for Making a Difference in Christian Higher Education to take a fresh approach to documenting the contributions of women in senior leadership. It answers the question: What can we learn from the lived experiences of women who are or were highly effective senior leaders about “thriving” rather than simply “surviving” in leadership?

Although each of the 14 chapter authors is a woman who has earned her spurs as an effective institutional leader, the book is intentionally not written specifically for women. Rather, it seeks to illustrate what all leaders can learn from the experiences of 14 women who have led in ways that are consistent with women’s traditional priorities and values.

Educator and activist Parker J. Palmer captured the book’s unique contribution in his cover blurb:

Here is a book on leadership that is practical and spiritual, grounded and inspiring. These essays by seasoned leaders in the academy shed light on “secrets hidden in plain sight” that all academic leaders should find of lasting value: the importance of “showing up” as a whole person; the centrality of tenacious relationships; the vital role of rich, transformative conversations with all stake-holders; and the courage it takes to lead in ways that do not always conform to our cultural model assumptions about how leaders should act.

Chapter authors are resource leaders at Women’s Leadership Development Institutes sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, a Washington DC group.

Unique writing process

Writing Thriving in Leadership was a collaborative experience that cemented an emerging “constellation of developmental relationships,” which mentoring scholar Kathy Kram identifies as key to one’s professional advancement.

Chapter author Shirley Showalter, former president of Goshen College IN, blogged about the experience of writing together in a retreat setting near the Canadian border in Washington state:

After a Women’s Leadership Institute on Courage and Calling concluded, about 16 women remained at Cedar Springs to plan the book and to write drafts. We wrote and walked and talked and wrote and sang and prayed and ate great food together in a lush, gorgeous natural setting. By the end of the week, most people had completed their first drafts of chapters, which would eventually become a book.

The authors divided “thriving” in leadership into three major sections, which form the book’s structure. Thinking forward The foreword by Dr. Gordon T. Smith, author of the inspiring book Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential, challenges readers to consider whether their gifts and passions align with administrative leadership, which he notes is a “higher” calling that offers broad possibilities for contributing to our institutions.

Why take on administrative roles?

Because these institutions matter. And the people who make up these institutions matter. Those with a true calling to academic leadership know this profoundly. They do their work not for glory, not for the chance to exercise power, not to be the boss.

Rather, they work so that the collective wisdom, influence, talent and calling of the people who make up the institution are engaged in a common cause, with shared values and commitments.

Chapters can stand alone

Each chapter starts with a vignette related to the leadership experience of its author and concludes with a series of discussion questions. Highly readable, the book draws upon more than 200 sources in the leadership literature to document insights and recommendations.

Dr. Laurie Schreiner of Azusa Pacific University opens the section on “The Interior Life of Thriving Leaders” with a chapter titled “The Role of Resilience and Relationships.” This foundational chapter articulates the importance of perspective taking and how to “reframe” situations as keys to better understanding institutional dynamics.

She offers four strategies that distinguish a flourishing leader:

– She is able to rise to the challenge.

– Each is able to realize her potential.

– She can relate to others.

– Each works to reach forward.

Dr. Mary Kate Morse of George Fox University OR offers a chapter on “Leading from the Center,” which emphasizes the importance of authentic leadership and the thoughtful use of communication and “space” as key to leadership thriving.

Dr. Deborah White, now a strengths consultant with The Gallup Organization, provides a chapter titled “Honoring Giftedness: A Strengths Approach to Leadership.” Based on Gallup research, thriving individuals build their lives and leadership around awareness of their natural talent patterns, building teams that reflect complementary strengths: “The highest potential for reaching personal and professional effectiveness, in ourselves and in others, will occur around those areas of natural talent,” she wrote.

The second section of the book, “The Social Intelligence of Thriving Leaders,” addresses the key dimensions of relational competence in leadership effectiveness.

Dr. Patricia Anderson, former provost at Azusa Pacific University and Fresno Pacific University, articulates the compelling nature of story-telling as a way to capture the hearts and minds of audiences. She describes and provides examples of four archetypes: “Who I Am,” “Who We Are,” “Leading through Challenge” and “The Vision Story.”

Dr. Shirley Hoogstra of Calvin College MI contributes a chapter titled “The Difference Trust Makes,” describing the vital role of building and sustaining trust in individual and institutional thriving. A culture built on trust stands in stark contrast to the negative ripple effects in a fear-based culture that lacks trust.

Dr. Deana Porterfield of Azusa Pacific Online University CA, in “Orchestrating a Life of Influence,” advocates that “…relationships are foundational to the future development and movement of individuals within organizations. The relationships we form over our careers are pivotal and provide the foundation to (lives of) influence.”

She offers five non-negotiables to being influential:

– Understand what matters to your organization.

– Understand your organizational culture.

– Deliver what you are asked to deliver.

– Be someone others can trust.

– Be a truth teller.

Dr. Carolyn Dirksen of Lee University TN shares insights gained from 25 years of academic administrative experience to explore the relational dynamics between faculty and administrators. In a chapter titled “Inside Faculty Culture,” she explains the process of the “academic socialization” of faculty that can contribute to “hair-raising stories of conflict between faculty and administration.”

It offers six recommendations (such as know where key faculty members stand on crucial issues and let the faculty know that you appreciate them) that can contribute to healthy relationships between administrators and faculty.

Dr. Shirley Showalter contributes a chapter titled “Building a Powerful Leadership Team.” Drawing from wisdom gained from her mentor Max De Pree and her commitment to strengths-based leadership, she advocates for a “Leadership Covenant.” Her presidential experience of crafting such a covenant with the cabinet at Goshen College IN offers insights into personal and institutional thriving.

Dr. Jeanine Varner of Abilene Christian University TX addresses the relational side of thriving leadership in terms of an obligation and opportunity to mentor the next generation. How can senior academic leaders identify those with potential to become future leaders? Scout continuously, observe carefully, experiment cautiously and encourage lavishly.

The book concludes with five chapters on “How Leaders Can Shape a Thriving Organizational Culture.”

Dr. Marie Morris of Anderson University IN notes that “metaphors matter” in expressions of leadership and shaping the culture. Some operate on a factory metaphor, a train metaphor (“board this train on the track we’re headed down or disembark now”) or a warrior metaphor.

But Morris advocates otherwise: “The organizational culture of the successful university of the future is best built on a web of relationships, understanding that our primary purpose… is to help students engage others and the world in constructive and redemptive ways.”

Dr. Rebecca Hernandez of Goshen College turns to developing an institutional culture that welcomes and celebrates diversity in her chapter “Beyond Hospitality.”

While many predominantly white institutions strive to welcome students of color with a host-guest metaphor, Hernandez envisions the campus as a “World House of Learning” where all students and faculty can feel supported and be successful.

Dr. Carla Sanderson draws upon her years in cabinetlevel leadership at Union University TN to identify strategies for helping campuses to develop and “work the vision” that is grounded in a compelling institutional mission. Her chapter, “Toward a Distinctive, Christ-Honoring Campus Culture” concludes with ideas to help campuses to “work the vision,” including:

– Exceed expectations.

– Tend the social fabric.

– Give stretch assignments.

– Know what an excellent student experience looks like.

– Monitor the toll that doing the work is taking.

Dr. Carol Taylor of Vanguard University CA contributes insights on developing a thriving organizational culture by recounting her experiences in “Leading a Turnaround and the Joy of a Third- Class Ticket” during her presidency. In the 1800s, travelers with third-class tickets on a stagecoach were expected to roll up their sleeves to push it out of the mud or uphill if necessary; effective leaders do the same on behalf of their institutions.

Dr. Lee Snyder, former president of Bluffton University OH, discusses “Leadership in the Fifth Dimension.” Leaders must be able to stand above the fray through awareness of “another reality” similar to the “balcony view” advocated by leadership scholar Ron Heifetz. At the same time, thriving leaders nurture and sustain relationships that develop from “a shared sense of purpose,” as articulated by leadership guru Margaret Wheatley.

Epilog distills the message

President emeritus of Whitworth University WA, Dr. Bill Robinson (author of Leading from the Middle), distills insights from the chapters and overlays them with five leadership characteristics.

He offers ideas to improve campus climates for leadership, including:

– Work positively for positive change.

– Be honest about privilege.

– Consider leadership diversity more as quality than equality.

– Think holistically.

We are thrilled that Thriving in Leadership required a third printing within a year of its release.

An email from a male dean of students noted:

I just finished reading “Thriving in Leadership” a second time. It is a great collection of wisdom. My only frustration is that this book was not written 25 years ago! I just got done ordering 10 more copies to distribute to our faculty and staff who I perceive to be on a trajectory toward senior leadership in higher education.

Contact Dr. Karen Longman at

Longman, Karen (2013, July). What Helps a Senior Leader to Thrive. Women in Higher Education, 22(7), 13-14.


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