Women Succeed as Authentic Leaders on Campus

As the
number of
women leaders has risen,
models of leadership have
given increasing attention
to collaboration and

Dr. Kathy ThornhillDr. Kathy Thornhill

While Dr. Kathy Thornhill was pursuing her PhD in educational leadership at Colorado State University, she was also working toward a certificate in Women’s Studies. After a class discussion of women’s ways of knowing, she’d attend a leadership class about transformational leadership for the 21st century: relational, authentic and empowering, preferring power with instead of power over.

It’s the same thing, she realized. While the leadership classes didn’t put it in terms of gender, the “new” models for leadership are the same styles that women have been using all along.

That parallel led her to focus her dissertation on authentic leadership among women campus leaders. She described her research at the Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln NE in October 2013.

To be included in her qualitative study, leaders had to be women at the level of director, dean, VP or president at universities in the western United States. They must have been at their schools for at least a year to understand the culture and climate. Each interview lasted one to two hours.

“I was so amazed and impressed that women who did not know me immediately responded, Yes, I would be happy to help, she told WIHE. Although authenticity was not among her criteria, the seven who agreed to be interviewed exemplified women’s authentic campus leadership.

Four components

Authenticity is a fairly new construct in leadership studies. It involves aligning outward behavior with inner values and convictions. Avolio, Walumba and Weber (2009) described authentic leadership in terms of ethics, transparency and the involvement of followers.

Authentic leaders are trustworthy and true to their core beliefs. The researchers identified four components: selfawareness, balanced processing, relational transparency and internalized moral perspective, which Thornhill calls “authentic action.”

Self-awareness. “Leadership starts with self-awareness. Understand yourself and what matters to you, and then follow that passion to make a difference in the world,” she said. To be true to yourself, you have to know yourself. One of the women told her, “I think you learn things about yourself all of the time and I’m not done learning.”

Balanced processing. Authentic leaders reflect honestly on events and decisions, neither overstating nor understating their skills. One told her, “My mission statement has changed as I’ve learned more about myself and think differently about what it is that I want to do.”

Relational transparency. They are open and forthcoming with information, letting others know the process by which decisions were reached. This openness nurtures trust on campus. “Things you do mean a whole lot more than you think they do,” one said.

Authentic action. These leaders act according to their values and work toward worthwhile goals. They emphasize involvement by their followers, with whom they build relationships marked by honesty, integrity and respect. “It is important to me that I’m facilitating their success, whatever they are trying to accomplish,” according to one.

Growing into leadership

The seven women inspired her as humble leaders, though confident in their ability to get things done. Several had not sought leadership but were encouraged in that direction by others. “I feel somewhat humbled by that opportunity, and feel like I really want to make a difference,” one told her. Another realized only in retrospect that her role as a consensus builder was a form of leadership.

Once in leadership, they discovered unexpected forms of positional power. All were very aware of their effect on others. As role models, they took seriously the importance of leading by example.

Some noted the importance of showing up. Even if they went to an event just for personal reasons, the leaders’ presence elevated the event in the eyes of others. Thanking someone or sending an email mattered more because it came from someone in a leadership position.

Several mentioned the need to deal with problems promptly as they arise. It isn’t always fun but if you don’t, they fester and get worse. The leaders’ willingness to address issues reinforced other people’s willingness to trust them.

Women bring other life experiences to their campus leadership, such as what they have learned in parenting. “Women don’t tend to compartmentalize their lives,” Thornhill said. Rather than strive to balance work and family, women integrate the elements of their lives, modeling a healthy lifestyle for others.

And they engage in lifelong learning, acknowledging mistakes and enhancing their skills as they grow in the job. They read to keep up in their fields. They watch how others lead and then adapt to their own personality and style. Self-awareness and self-reflection are central to growth in leadership.

Empowering others

As the number of women leaders has risen, models of leadership have given increasing attention to collaboration and empowerment. The women she spoke with emphasized the importance of their relationships.

Aware they wouldn’t have gotten where they were without others, they spoke of being intentional about keeping a variety of mentors for various issues. “Mentoring was a huge component for them,” she said. The mentors helped them to grow and be the best that they could be.

Having had this experience, they went on to mentor others. They used the power of their position to elevate and empower their followers. Everyone should be preparing each member of her staff for their next position.

“My job is not to do all the work; my job is to engage people to feel good about the work. My job is to be a cheerleader, it’s to be visionary, it’s to be dependable and stable,” one said. “It’s to listen to the people that aren’t speaking and to be a voice for them.”

Another stressed the importance of keeping her leadership focus on people. “Anytime I’ve gotten in trouble—I’ve not done something well—it is because I’ve got too busy with the stuff and failed to think about the impact and the people that are being impacted and having to do the change.”

They involved others in strategic planning; people who help create the goals will contribute to their success. One found if she was collaborative and invited input, people would accept the plan even if they didn’t like it. They were relieved that at least somebody had a plan. People like to know where they are going.

They tried to put the right people in the right positions, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each. One spoke of trying to hire people whose strengths complemented her own. It takes courage and humility to hire people who are stronger than the leader in critical ways. Effective leadership has little place for ego.

Passion for higher education

All seven mentioned their commitment to higher education and its mission. One said she wanted so much to work at the university that she took a part-time job just so she could work there. “I’m working for what I believe in. I believe in higher education,” one told her, adding that she worked hard not for praise but for the students. “I believe in this magical thing we’re trying to develop.”

Another, the first generation of her family to attend college, said she could see a difference between family members with higher education and those without. A college education empowered them to interact successfully with the world.

The women viewed every person on campus as contributing to the mission. The janitor cleaning bathrooms in a residence hall contributes to the success of the students who live there. Thus it was important to the mission for people to want to come to work. “They really wanted people to be happy at their work,” Thornhill said.

“I think the greatest joy I have is . . . seeing people excited about what they do,” one told her. “I think if you’re positive, then people around you are going to be positive and it’s going to make for a more positive work environment.”

They draw meaning from the difference that they make in the lives of individuals and the broader picture. Meaning also comes from family. Most had children of their own, either grown or still at home; those who didn’t embraced a larger vision of family to include their nieces, nephews and friends.

Again, personal and professional are intertwined. One said she had taken her daughter to a company picnic. Afterward the daughter told her, when I grow up I want to work at the university and work as hard as you do.

Thornhill continues to feel inspired by these authentic women leaders. “I would sit and listen to these women talk and just be inspired,” she told WIHE. “I learned so much from them about leadership and about myself.”

Dr. Thornhill is assistant director of undergraduate programs at Colorado State University’s college of business.

To reach her:



Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, December). Women Succeed as Authentic Leaders on Campus. Women in Higher Education, 22(12), p. 1-2. 

Back   |   Read Archive