9 Virtues Blog

Leading from the Middle

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


Even in relatively flat organizations, leadership always includes the responsibility of “leading up” to those who have more authority and control over resources. In the middle, people who report to you look to your vision and guidance as you enlist them in the achievement of collective purposes and goals. In academia, perhaps no position better exemplifies leading from the middle than that of the department chair.

This summer, the Academy for Academic Leadership (AAL) welcomed nearly 50 department chairs and other academic administrators to the Emory University Conference Center for AAL’s fourth annual Chairs and Academic Administrators Management Program (CAAMP). The participants represented seven different health professions, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, allied health, public health, and veterinary medicine. Prior to the start of CAAMP, we surveyed the participants about the top challenges facing academic programs in their profession. The responses were similar across the seven professions, with the top four as follows: (1) faculty recruitment and retention; (2) diminishing financial resources; (3) pedagogy, including meeting the needs of a new generation of learners, technology, curricular change influenced by new accreditation standards and emerging models of clinical practice; and (4) the growth of new programs and schools.

These challenges are the environment within which chairs must lead, educate, foster research, provide clinical care, and engage the broader community. In the middle, department chairs wear many hats. As a team leader, the chair supports the dean and other administrators in the greater good of the school, college, and university. As an advocate, they represent the needs of their departments and individual faculty members to those who control resources. As a mentor, the department chair is called upon to help new faculty establish career plans. Department chairs serve as counselors to mid-career faculty, particularly those who feel type-cast in their associate professor roles. They are business managers overseeing the finances of their academic enterprises. Add to the list of responsibilities: mediator, negotiator, teacher, researcher, and often health care provider. To make the matter more interesting, consider balancing family and personal life with these work responsibilities. It’s a tough job.

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