Dean Chronicles: Six Leadership Lessons from the First Weeks

I just finished my third week on the job as an Academic Dean. Is it challenging? You bet! I am writing this post to explore some “Leadership 101” skills and dispositions that came into focus my first few weeks at USC Upstate. When I reported for work, I thought I was more than well prepared. I had valuable, relevant experiences at a large public institution. Here I come!

Well, sort of. Although my experiences had helped me develop as a leader, nothing prepared me for the job except the job. These are some of lessons I learned as a brand new Dean.

  1. Accept that you will make mistakes. Paraphrasing Brene Brown, it’s not if you will fail–you will–what is important is how you bounce. That is hard to think of as you mess up.
  2. Accept that you don’t already know everything you need to be doing. Yes, I had to hit the ground running, but it took a month to know the right questions when I was appointed Interim Dean of the Honors College at my previous institution. My rule of thumb is to find out who people are, what they do, and where the money is. That isn’t meant to sound crude–show me the money!–it’s just that I am a steward of public funds. Hard earned tax dollars that I’m entrusted with to educate our region’s people. It’s an important part of my job to appreciate and manage it well. Sometimes, it means spending it–spending responsibly and justifiably. I owe that to the people whose money it is.
  3. There is no shame in making mistakes if you are determined to learn from them. See number 1, above.
  4. You have a Leadership Team. USE IT. If you don’t have a Leadership Team, form one. If you have a bad feeling about the Leadership Team you inherit (I did not), then spend some time observing and figure out how to fix it. In my first two weeks, I expanded the existing LT from 4 to 6, which added to the diversity of the group and incorporated directors of accreditation and clinical experiences. An effective leader welcomes different perspectives and opposing viewpoints.
  5. Your actions have consequences; you can affect people’s lives. I made a quick decision, without seeking feedback–in spite of having my new Leadership Team–and I ended up stepping it back. It was not necessarily a wrong decision, but it fell under the “not the hill I want to die on” category. Since it happened during my “honeymoon period,” the cost was minimal, and I think changing my decision helped, too. I also learned about myself from this episode that I can make difficult decisions; I can overcome feelings of pride and failure to make something right; I’d rather do just about anything than cause extra work on administrative assistants. I learned that getting in a funk and simmering in self-pity is absolutely a waste of time. I did it anyway, but I’m committed to doing better. I will add to this lesson: be careful not to “dig in” over situations and actions that aren’t worth it.
  6. Keep reading! Keep learning! Our University Chancellor (President) assigned a book for his cabinet to read for our retreat, Aspire: Seven Essential Emotions for Leading Positive Change No Matter Where You Are by Reiner Lomb. Lomb had been his Executive Coach, and the Chancellor brought him in to conduct a workshop with us. It was powerful, and it was something special to work such a renowned Coach as Reiner. This demonstrated the importance the University’s top administrator placed on professional development for his Leadership Team.

Overall, I learned the most important lesson of all (to me, anyway). That I do not have to do everything immediately, and I do not have to do the work alone. In fact, if I try either of these examples of really poor leadership, well, see the above. By the end of this week, I will have been Dean of the College of Education, Human Performance, and Health for one month. I’ve worked hard at listening, getting to know my colleagues, meeting partners and future partners, navigating negotiations and justifications for increasing faculty, examining programs and processes indigenous to the College. I’ve gotten approvals to the systems that get people paid and approve spending money. I’ve examined the budget. I’ve already spent a fortune of my own money in the campus bookstore on branded stuff. I’ve decorated my office–surrounding myself with books and items that make me comfortable (Bobble Head Buddy Lee, I’m looking at you!), which is how I work best. I’ve spent three weeks getting a sense of the culture and appreciating it. All of this helps me be an empathetic leader and build trust, and that is surely the first lesson in Leadership 101.


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