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No Equal in the World: Leadership Advice for New College Presidents

06/30/2015 10:47 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

The college presidency has become a high-risk occupation. All the old challenges - fundraising, strategic planning, managing enrollment, protecting students - are all still there, along with newer trials: navigating demographic shifts and flat-lining family incomes, ensuring access, assuring compliance to growing governmental regulation, and understanding the absurdity of various rankings including those promised by the U.S. Department of Education. The list goes on and on.

It's a wonder anyone wants to do it, and yet, the ranks of new college presidents continue to swell. According to the Association of American Universities, annual turnover among presidents is 15 percent, a number that will only grow as American college presidents age (the current average is 61 years old).

As my own career as college president was somewhat guided by chance, I appreciate any opportunity to meet and help rookie college leaders transition into their new roles. Here are some of the tips I've picked up along the way; discovered by failing to do myself; or learned from my own mentors and colleagues.

Understand the difference between you and your job. Edward Penson, former president of Salem State College and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, says that effective presidents understand that "the president is not the presidency and the presidency is not the president." The presidency is the institutional office and both presidents and their boards need to be mindful that the positions are much larger than any individual. Protect the office you hold and also find a way to separate yourself from this extraordinarily rewarding but totally consuming job.

Find a friend. The opportunities and challenges of leading an institution are both energizing and daunting. It is enormously helpful to find a fellow president in whom to confide. Even presidential spouses and partners, for those blessed to have them, require time to understand the challenges. But picking up the phone and calling a colleague, the odds are you will find an ear that immediately understands. Higher education is different from most industries. While we compete, our institutions also cooperate much more than in most businesses. This allows for personal relationships with other presidents. I have leaned heavily on presidents, including the ones I've worked for, my predecessors, and others who have become great friends through the years.

Never need the job more than it needs you. Ours is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. It will consume you, if you let it. It is critical that presidents find healthy outlets knowing full well that being a president is a temporal or temporary condition. All of us had a life before we were presidents and we will in all likelihood have chapters in our stories after we leave office.

Always take the high road. The annals of higher education are filled with the perils of leadership at many levels. Even though it seems obvious and even trite, I have always found that in the most vexing or complex situations, it is helpful to remind myself that the right path forward always involves the high road. For me, the simple question is, "What's in the best interest of my institution?" Or, its slight variation, "What's in the best interest of my students?" Time after time, these questions have helped me to discern the high road.

Surround yourself with talent. The best leadership often comes not as a solo act, but as part of a trio or a quartet. Presidents almost never accomplish anything without collaborating with others. Working with smart, talented, driven people is critical to success.

Find a home outside the fish bowl. Many presidents are required to live in campus residences. These are usually beautiful homes in the heart of campus that function as part museums, part centers for campus hospitality and entertainment, and even boarding houses. When we live in a campus residence, we are truly privileged guests. One of my predecessors shared with me that finding time to escape the fish bowl is good for two reasons. One is the chance to put your feet up on your own coffee table and the second is to maintain the discipline of upholding a mortgage because you never know how long you will serve. Having a home away from campus has been the best investment I have made both financially and, more importantly, for my family.

Possess the wisdom of "The Gambler." Crises come daily in the presidential suite. Sometimes you must act quickly; sometimes it's better to wait things out. What you can count on for certain is that the challenges and the rewards will be plentiful and unrelenting. Yet, there is a shelf life for all of us. It is far better for a president to make a determination about when it is time to take up a new challenge than it is to have others make that decision. Having the wisdom to know when to hold, know when to fold and know when to walk away is invaluable.

Maintain your optimism. Make no mistake: bad things will happen and you will be blamed for many of them. It's going to be easier to take a cynical view of the world, but you can't inspire, engage or truly succeed from a place of fear, uncertainty and worry.

Joseph N. Crowley, who served a record-setting 23 years as president of the University of Nevada, Reno, knew as well as anyone the challenges we face. Academic leadership - indeed, leadership of any kind - can be difficult and daunting. And yet, as he wrote in his 1994 book, "No Equal In the World," the presidency "is still unique, still a job that demands a leader, still an office that makes a difference, still a profession that has no equal in the world."