Leadership Training for Humanists: What’s the Point?

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Emerging Leaders Institute

Leadership training, such as The Graduate School’s Emerging Leaders Institute, is about more than just learning how to manage others.

This week, the application window for The Graduate School’s Emerging Leaders Institute opens. Like so many calls and announcements that show up in your inbox, you may already have decided that this doesn’t relate to you. You are, after all, writing up a dissertation prospectus, applying for fellowship funding, developing a new course.… Besides, isn’t leadership training for people who go into the corporate world?

While formal leadership training is an import from outside university walls, there’s a reason why colleges and universities increasingly provide it for tenured faculty. Faculty who thrive as scholars and teachers will inevitably be expected to play a larger role in department and university governance as their careers progress.

Many graduate students wish to emulate the scholarly and teaching careers of their favorite faculty members, without considering all the administrative hats they wear. Who is serving as director for graduate studies or running the institute that awarded your last graduate fellowship? What does your department chair do all day, or the dean to whom she reports?

Universities are now finding themselves in the position of having to import or create leadership programs, because traditional doctoral training (especially in the humanities) does not sufficiently prepare scholar-teachers to run anything more complicated than a large lecture class. According to Walter Gmelch (Department Chair Leadership Skills), nonacademic professionals gradually move into more complex leadership roles over a decade or two. By contrast, tenure-track professors are (on average) 16 years into their careers before taking on any significant managerial responsibilities.

That’s not a learning curve; it’s a vertical plane.

It may be hard to think so far ahead into your academic career when you haven’t finished chapter three of your dissertation yet. The skills you hone in leadership training, however, also have more immediate benefits. The most important thing you learn in a good leadership program (and reinforced by sustained professional experience outside of academia) is not how to manage people, but simply how to get along with them. And the foundation of getting along with others is a robust self-awareness.

But wait! I hear you saying. I get along great with people and I’m self-aware! I’m a humanities scholar and I reflect deeply on everything! If I were more self-reflective I would implode!

Well, yes. Those things are likely true, but leadership training takes you out of your head, circumvents some of the blind spots we all have, and provides more information about how others see you. As graduate students, part of your professionalization furnishes insight into how you are viewed by students as well as senior colleagues in your field. The first set of teaching evaluations and the first reader’s report typically bring critical and painful moments: part of the challenge of moving toward becoming a full-fledged faculty member.

Evaluations and peer reviews provide you with information about two things—how well you teach, and how well you do research. An intensive leadership feedback exercise, however, is usually called a 360, because it aims to give people a comprehensive picture of how they work and interact with others. Looking back at my faculty career, I realize now that I rarely, if ever, got feedback on anything I did outside the classroom (or beyond the reader’s report). It never occurred to me to wonder how persuasively I spoke in a committee meeting on a topic I cared about, or whether I demonstrated negotiating savvy when I lobbied my chair for a course release.

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… academic culture allows a level of dysfunction that would never be tolerated in a healthy organization elsewhere. Developing your leadership skills can help you navigate this landscape more deftly …

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My one experience with a 360 came just four months after I left tenured faculty life, as part of a weeklong training experience designed for midlevel managers. Twenty of my current and former colleagues filled it out. Much of the feedback I got was (mercifully) very encouraging, but the granular details of the information—and my realization of how much my colleagues noticed about me—took my breath away.

I had a nervous laugh.

I looked at my watch too much.

I had a habit of breaking eye contact mid-sentence, and looking off into the distance to finish a thought.

Although these things may sound petty, people noted them because they found them distracting. And long after the formal training was over, and I plunged into my new administrative role, I gained a new appreciation for how much thought and energy it took to work well and effectively with very diverse group of people.

Because if people don’t get along, work is slow and inefficient, at best.

This focus on teamwork and organizational productivity represents a major departure from the culture of academia. Humanities scholars are trained to work in isolation, so a faculty meeting going off the rails is hardly a surprise. (More meetings get scheduled to Finish the Important Thing).

An older, long-tenured colleague can’t work with anyone, so people don’t invite him onto committees. Other people Get the Thing Done, and the curmudgeon sits in his office and happily writes another book chapter.

Meanwhile, in another department across the quad, there are two perfectly lovely and civic-minded colleagues who sit on committees—but never the same one, because they more or less hate each other.

Simply stated, academic culture allows a level of dysfunction that would never be tolerated in a healthy organization elsewhere. Developing your leadership skills can help you navigate this landscape more deftly, and avoid political landmines that could derail an academic career. As the boundaries between academia and the rest of the world become more porous, strong leadership skills—along with excellent scholarship and teaching—have greater purchase within the academy.

The vibrancy of the humanities is sure to depend on the leadership and problem-solving capabilities of the next generation of scholars, teachers, and administrators. Are you ready?