There are two things I wish college and university leaders would understand.

First, almost any single college in the country can be wildly successful.

Second, because of declining resources and changing demographics, all cannot.

The difference between success and failure is not dependent on budget or location or institutional type.

Rather, the difference between success and failure is almost wholly dependent on one variable: leadership.

If you read our blogs and white papers, you know this is a theme on which Stamats has frequently written. Yet this theme is of such importance, we thought it might be time for another go at it.

Having worked with hundreds of colleges and universities in all kinds of circumstances, we believe that the successful leader will have five essential qualities. Briefly, they are:

First, she or he has a compelling vision. Notice the word “compelling.” It is not about being unique or even different. It is all about being compelling in ways that will attract resources, and the resources colleges need most are: 1) talent, 2) full- and fuller-paying students, and 3) donated dollars.

For more on visions, read “What is Vision?” by my colleague Bob Sevier.

Second, the successful leader will build, empower, and protect a truly effective senior team. Effective teams are rare in higher ed. Too many colleges are being led (and I use this term loosely) by team members that seek to advance individual fiefdoms rather than the institution’s vision. As a consequence, progress is shackled by fits and starts, doom loops, and uncertainty.

While successful teams have multiple qualities, I want to quickly mention three: 1) a commitment to collaboration and cooperation, 2) focus, and 3) a sense of urgency. Those three attributes are essential.

For more on building a senior team, go to and take a look at Bob Sevier’s recent book, Row: Trust, Teams, and the Essentials of Leadership – A Primer for College Presidents and Their Senior Teams.

Third, the successful leader understands the need to help the college develop one or more competitive advantages. Not distinctive competencies (which appear numbingly similar to prospective students and donors), but true sources of competitive advantage that are built on a keen understanding of who your customers are, what they value and will pay for, and the colleges with which you truly compete for precious resources.

For more on competitive advantage, take a look at a presentation we just developed:

Fourth, the successful leader needs to be decisive. From our perspective, decisiveness has multiple dimensions:

  • Decisions based on solid data
  • Decisions that are timely
  • Decisions that focus on resources
  • Decisions that are more concerned with advancing the vision and institution than in being perceived to be fair

Finally, the successful leader understands that the qualities and paradigms that served the institution in the past will likely not serve the institution in the future. Successful leaders look forward, not back. They are not interested in being apologists. They are comfortable, just as students and donors are, with transitioning between paradigms. You might call them disruptors or innovators, or, depending on your point of view, pariahs. We will call them, simply, successful.

I know this only scratches the surface. At the same time, I hope I piqued your interest. Question, comments? Drop me an email or leave a note below.


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  1. Ginny Coombs

    Nice piece. Succinct the and to the point.

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