After three decades of holding various leadership roles at the University of Iowa, recently retired vice president for student life, Tom Rocklin, offers lessons he’s learned along the way.
Rocklin has held a wide range of positions including faculty member, director of the teaching center, associate provost, provost, and most recently, vice president for student life. To help those like him who never formally studied leadership or management, Rocklin identifies six things he wishes he knew before he started.
Assess the problem before you prioritize. Problems are an everyday occurrence for leaders, writes Rocklin. While “some come in hot and others come in cool,” don’t take the issue’s temperature at face value, he writes. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to assess whether the problem is an emergency or not. To prioritize an issue, Rocklin recommends calling a meeting on short notice or reassigning responsibility to address it. To deprioritize, ask for more information on the issue before proceeding. Over time, Rocklin says that your team members will have a better understanding of how to classify the issues that arise.
Be a skeptic. It’s a fact of life that people on your team will likely to lie to you, writes Rocklin. In his experience, lies usually stem from a misunderstanding or an omission of a crucial detail, rather than malicious intent. Leaders must be skeptical of answers that “seem implausible until they see convincing evidence,” argues Rocklin. One way to draw out the truth is to ask good questions. The better questions you ask, the better your team members will get at “giving you good information,” he notes.
Focus on the mission. Keeping your team focused on the mission requires discipline, writes Rocklin. Distractions from the mission are most likely to occur when team members come up with ideas for new programs or “moneymaking possibilities,” writes Rocklin. To evaluate these “shiny objects,” ask your team how these ideas may detract or contribute to the mission. In addition, Rocklin writes that repeating the mission “over and over” provides a sense of purpose that makes work more rewarding for the team.
Manage the budget. To accomplish your priorities, you must be able to manage the budget effectively. While you may be tempted to completely hand over the budget responsibilities to managers, only you “can keep the budget aligned with the mission and the team’s priorities,” warns Rocklin. As the leader, you should have final say on “how managers spend ‘their’ money to keep the budget aligned,” Rocklin writes.
Beware of over-simplification. Rocklin argues that “nothing is ever just one thing.” In other words, oversimplifying an issue paints an incomplete picture and limits your understanding of it. Instead, leaders should embrace the many perspectives that color and complicate a problem. For example, Rocklin notes that approaching sexual assault as just a law enforcement issue only highlights law enforcement solutions. Instead, leaders must examine an issue under multiple lenses to “open up a whole new set of strategies” to address it, writes Rocklin.
Maintain your integrity. To be a good leader, you have to know what you stand for. Rocklin recommends that you frequently consider “what you would refuse to do (or insist on doing), even if it cost you your position.” By frequently reflecting on your own principles, you can keep yourself in check and “recalibrate your integrity meter,” writes Rocklin. If you lead without principles, you’ll likely have an unsuccessful team and unhappy employees, he warns (Rocklin, Inside Higher Ed, 7/26).