10 Articles Every Leader in Higher Ed Should Read

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Over the past 7-8 years, Academic Impressions has designed and delivered leadership programs for over a thousand leaders across the higher education landscape. We have had the opportunity to work with academic and administrative leaders as well as presidents and provosts. The learning experiences have been outstanding because almost every participant was curious and interested in learning about leadership, not pontificating about it.

One of the protocols we use in every leadership program is the creation of a “learning agenda” that is produced by participants and is a list of highly relevant articles, books, and papers on leadership. The criteria for inclusion on the learning agenda list is that the suggested reading must be something that influenced a participant, made them think differently about how they view leadership, or had a positive and meaningful impact on how they actually lead. Participants populate the list over the course of the 2 or 3-day program. They also provide a 1-minute snapshot about the suggested book or article, with a brief rationale about why their suggestion is worth reading.

This article provides an annotated list of some of the strong recommendations from past participants. There is a lot of blather and clutter out there regarding leadership; these curated suggestions are a leadership gift. We use many of the suggested readings below in our current programs, and we hope you find the suggestions helpful.


We are sharing the list with you for two primary reasons: One is to help you in your own leadership learning journey, the second reason is to request that you send us some of your own suggested articles, papers and books for our review. We want to hear from you what you think would be valuable papers and articles for us to consider using in our leadership programs and, most importantly, to share with the Academic Impressions leadership “family” of over one thousand participants.

If you send us some suggestions, we promise to read them carefully and provide you with feedback about their potential contributions. When we publish the suggestions in future curated lists, we will attribute your suggestions so that your colleagues can see who has been helpful with their learning journey.

To get us started, we recommend the following ten articles.

1. Fair Process

Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy.” W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review, January 2003.

The authors of this article are well known for their book Blue Ocean Strategy (which offers a counter-intuitive way of not competing in the current marketplace and instead creating your own market; it is definitely worth a read). The main theme to consider from this article is the power of the “process” (or how things are done). Kim and Mauborgne found that people care deeply about the decisions that are made that impact/influence their lives, but they care even more about the process used along the way.

People can commit to a leader’s or manager’s decision, even one they disagree with, if they believe that the process used was fair. This is one of the most powerful notions in organizational leadership; the process does matter and when conducted with transparency and honesty, a fair process can build institutional trust. This guiding principle will be even more important to consider as higher education moves toward a complex and ambiguous future.

2. Change or Die

Change or Die.” Alan Deutschman, Fast Company, May 1, 2005.

Behind that provocative title is some excellent advice for all leaders. The article (there is also a book by the same author) is primarily about how very difficult it is to actually change things. One of the powerful examples the author shares is about heart attack patients who survive their severe incident (50% of heart attack patients die) and their openness to change their current lifestyle after their attack.

When the physician tells a heart attack survivor that they need to lose weight, start to exercise, or quit smoking, only one in nine will actually change their health habits. And this is after surviving a near fatal heart attack! Only one in nine.

So when leaders talk about change efforts on their campus, it’s important to leave the platitudes at home and realize that it is very difficult to really change things. It is a hard and long journey, and thankfully this author suggests some effective strategies for leaders to consider as they endeavor to create meaningful change on their campus.

3. Beware the Busy Manager

Beware the Busy Manager.” Heike Bruch & Sumantra Ghoshal, Harvard Business Review, 2002.

This is one of our favorite articles of all time, and it can be a humbling read. The author look at the “Buckets of Sweat” syndrome that many leaders get caught in, and at the pervasive busyness that tends to persist throughout our campuses. Almost everyone feels overwhelmed as the pace of change accelerates; the question is, how do we stop the “urgency” train?

The authors did extensive research on how people actually spend their time, and found that most people are “busy” but not very productive. They also provide some strategies for the reader to consider that can free us from this insidious dynamic that costs us our health, money, and happiness.

4. The Set up to Fail Syndrome

The Set up to Fail Syndrome.” Jean-Francois Manzoni & Jean-Louis Barsoux, Harvard Business Review, 1998.

Don’t be fooled by the date of this article; it is as timely today and it was when it was written almost 20 years ago. The authors unpack a powerful dynamic that we often hear about in our programs, when participants talk about “poor performers” back on their campuses. This article prompts them to think about their own role with poor performers.

The authors discuss the opposite of the Pygmalion effect (where a person lives up to great expectations), describing a dynamic where the subordinate lives down to the low expectations of their boss. The “set up to fail” syndrome begins with the boss and the subordinate in a positive or at least neutral relationship. Then something “negative” happens (e.g. an important deadline missed, or the submission of a poor proposal or paper) and the boss loses faith in the subordinate. Their reaction to this event is to supervise the person more closely, give lots more “advice” and directions, give them less challenging projects, and get more involved in their decision making.

The subordinate takes this added scrutiny as a lack of trust and confidence in them, and begin to withdraw emotionally. The process ends up paralyzing the employee into inaction and self-protection. It becomes a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing cycle as the relationship between employee and supervisor spirals downward.

Fortunately, the authors offer some practical advice for the leader to turn this insidious dynamic around. It is not an easy journey once the downturn begins, but there is hope.

5. Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Creativity and the Role of the Leader.” Teresa M. Amabile & Mukti Khaire, Harvard Business Review, 2008.

Almost everything Teresa Amabile writes is golden, and her work teaches us about the vital role of creativity in our organizations. If higher education is to meet the relentless challenges it faces, developing the creativity of our people will be an essential factor for success going forward.

Amabile tells us that you can not “manage” creativity, but you can manage for it. She suggests that leaders open their organizations to diverse perspectives by getting people together to share their expertise and perspectives. It is important for leaders to create a culture where it is safe to fail and to learn from failure. She also provides some strategies to prevent our bureaucratic institutions and organizations from squeezing creativity to death with too many policies, protocols, and procedures. Additionally, she identifies the appropriate role of criticism and rigor in the creative process. (Hint: It doesn’t come into play at the very beginning, when people are first generating fresh ideas.)

The biggest takeaway for leaders reading this article might be the notion that diversity enhances creativity. This is not a platitude, but a research-based claim. The role of the leader, then, is to create the opportunity for people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to share their thinking with each other. When that happens, creative “magic” can result in powerful, even dramatic ways.

Remember, senior leaders don’t have to be the “creative” ones themselves, but they do need to create the conditions for creativity to flourish.

6. How Resilience Works

How Resilience Works.” Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review, 2002.

Coutu was one of the first writers to discuss the notion of “resilience” and why it is important for leaders to possess the ability to “bounce back” from challenges and crises. Coutu identifies three primary characteristics of resilient leaders:

  1. They have a staunch acceptance of reality. They don’t sugar coat the potential risks and pain that a current and difficult situation holds; they tell it like it is.
  2. They have a clear sense of purpose and meaning. They believe that their life and work serves a higher purpose, and that they have a contribution to make in the world and with people. This purpose enables them to endure great difficulty, even pain, and to recognize this as part of the leadership journey.
  3. They have an uncanny ability to improvise. They take whatever they have (at times, very little) and make do with it. They don’t spend time complaining about what they don’t have. They move forward creatively and adapt to circumstances along the way.

Coutu shares many lessons and strategies for leaders to utilize as they build their own resiliency “muscles.”

Note: An additional resource for those who want to understand deeply the complexity and importance of resilience is the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli (2012).

7. A Survival Guide for Leaders

A Survival Guide for Leaders.” Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review, 2002.

These two academics from Harvard understand the challenges and complexities of leadership like no others. They have also written some books together, and these books are highly recommended reading. Heifetz and Linsky were among the first theorists to bring the idea of “adaptive change” to the leadership dialogue. An adaptive change is very different than a “technical” change, because a challenge requiring adaptive change has no clear answers, and is full of ambiguity and complexity. Such challenges test a leader’s ability to take risks; to apply creative, even risky approaches to challenges; and to learn how to “fail forward” and constantly learn you go.

Heifetz and Linsky see leadership as a hazardous and challenging journey that will test the mettle of any leader. One of their more powerful quotes is: “to lead is to live dangerously.” They also tell us that leaders’ personal self-care is important and that finding a “sanctuary” for renewal and refreshment is an essential strategy for all leaders.

The authors describe some counterintuitive notions like:

  • Leaders simply don’t have all the answers, but need to develop the capacity of their people to take on their own organizational challenges rather than just defer to the leader.
  • The importance for leaders to “manage their hungers,” such as the need for control and power and the desire for self importance. We all have these “hungers,” but we need to manage them carefully if we are to avoid being consumed by them.

These authors provide powerful and realistic strategies for leaders to consider as they manage the “enduring white water” of higher education. These authors make you really think.

8. The Failure Tolerant Leader

The Failure Tolerant Leader.” Richard Farson & Ralph Keyes, Harvard Business Review, 2002.

The authors have written a provocative and counterintuitive article (they also have a book) about the benefits of “failure.” They note that effective leaders and very successful organizations have found that failure is an essential part of the organizational learning process. Effective leaders see failure as a resource that they can learn from, not as something to be avoided at all costs.

Rather than hide our mistakes, if we have the courage to look at them and distill the lessons embedded within them, we can become much smarter over time. Mistakes are an inevitable and a natural part of leadership. Distilling the lessons learned from them and sharing those lessons widely throughout an organization can help us leverage the talent in our organizations in powerful ways.

When people aren’t afraid to admit mistakes and don’t try to cover them up, everyone benefits from their experience. This creates what Peter Senge and his colleagues would call a “learning organization,” which can give an organization a powerful competitive edge in the marketplace of ideas.

9. Embracing Confusion

Embracing Confusion.” Jerome Murphy & Barry Jentz, Phi Delta Kappan, 2005.

This excellent monograph provides another counter-intuitive notion that goes against many leaders’ natural instincts. Most of us avoid “confusion” at all costs, believing that leaders aren’t “supposed” to be confused and are supposed to have all the answers.

The authors explore the theme of the “lost leader syndrome,” where leaders face uncertain and complex situations that simply do not make any sense. Unable to discern a clear direction forward or next steps, leaders often become confused, disoriented, even “lost.” This confusion has nothing to do with the leader’s intelligence or ability, because the world is full of change, complexity, and “adaptive” challenges, where the answers simply aren’t apparent.

When most leaders get confused, they see this as a liability to be avoided at all costs, but Murphy & Jentz see confusion as a “resource” to be understood. They have created a disciplined 5-step process that they call Reflective Inquiry and Action, where the leader walks through steps that enable them to travel from confusion to clarity. This is one of the most provocative and relevant articles we have read.

10. The Seduction of the Leader in Higher Education

The Seduction of the Leader in Higher Education.” Patrick Sanaghan & Kimberley Eberbach, Academic Impressions, 2014.

These authors discuss a pervasive and often destructive dynamic where leaders, especially senior leaders, do not get honest feedback about their leadership effectiveness, because people will not tell them the truth. This does not mean that people aren’t honest and honorable; it is just difficult to “speak truth to power.”

There are several reasons for this:

  • People often have a reverence and respect for senior leaders (e.g. the President. the Provost).
  • The collegial nature of higher education prevents people from telling it like it is.
  • People may have experienced how a leader responds negatively to difficult feedback or information, and they don’t like what they see.
  • People don’t want to lose their “seat at the table,” so they go along to get along and avoid being “disinvited” to important meetings.

The reasons are many, so every leader needs to be vigilant about the seduction dynamic because it never goes away,

The authors make some powerful and practical suggestions about how to avoid the “seduction” dilemma (e.g. engage in a 360-degree feedback process; actively seek the   input of others when approaching important decisions) that will help manage the seduction dynamic and provide access to information that few leaders ever receive.

We hope that you find these suggested articles helpful in your leadership journey. Please provide us with feedback about these articles, and please suggest some of your own. Good luck in your journey!

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