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The Danger Ego Poses in Higher Education Leadership

“If the right thing were obvious, we would all be better off, but it is not obvious. Shakespeare writes about decisions being a source of endless challenge for humans.” 

– Dr. J. Peter Scoblic

I have a “no ego” policy at K16 Solutions because I have seen firsthand what ego can do to progress and innovation. I’ve seen how it can push decision-makers to make the worst possible choices based on gut instinct or consensus. Even worse, I’ve seen how ego can force decision-makers to defend those bad choices.

I know that our wonderful world of higher education can do better, and I know that egos stand in the way of us doing better. 

Below are my thoughts on what ego looks like in higher education leadership and how we can cultivate strong, empowered leaders for the future.

What does ego look like in higher education leadership? 

Ego, in its purest form, is fear and insecurity. Someone who is egotistical is fearful of taking action for the betterment of others. Instead, their main goal is to uphold their standing and protect their innate insecurities, how others view them, and/or their position. 

Someone with a strong ego has an inability to compromise, listen, and question if they might be wrong, even when presented with data.

Some signs that your higher education leadership poses an ego could be:

  1. Important decisions that could be made in days or minutes are consistently blocked and are stalled for weeks or even months
  2. Faculty needs in the classroom are not considered when making decisions (inability to listen)
  3. Allowing the person with the most “impressive” CV to heavily direct the group in most decisions, even if they aren’t the right person to be in charge
  4. Making decisions based on gut instinct or consensus, not data
  5. Intolerance of constructive criticism or interpreting criticism as a personal attack

How does ego hold higher education back?

Fear leads to decisions made by committee that uphold the position of the committee members as the highest importance, not the needs of those the committee is supposed to serve. Additionally, fear leads to endless, unnecessary CYA tasks. 

Fear will never lead to creativity, innovation, or loyalty. It will keep an institution stuck in an endless loop of the status quo, hurting everyone in the process. Universities will suffer from lower student retention rates, higher dropout rates, and higher employee turnover

Ultimately, ego will keep your institution from making the courageous decisions needed for its faculty, staff, and students at this critical point in the evolution of the degree.

Are there environments where toxic leaders thrive?

The short answer is yes. An egotistical leader is hard to follow under any circumstance, but there are toxic environments where this kind of leader thrives. 

Everything flows downstream, and toxicity that starts at the top will become present at all levels. Presidents and other top officials in higher academia have the power to create an environment where either empowered leaders or egotistical leaders thrive.

A toxic environment looks like the following:

  1. Punishment for mistakes, especially behind the scenes
  2. Punishment for taking authority
  3. Giving authority based on CV and bolstering the ego
  4. Zero risk-taking and zero innovation
  5. Making decisions based on consensus and gut instinct rather than data

If your institution exhibits these signs, all hope is not lost. There are ways to nurture better leadership; but first, let’s look at what courageous leadership looks like.

What does courageous leadership look like?

Good leaders dare to take risks, be vulnerable and humble, and admit to their mistakes. They dare to stand up and say, “there could be a better way,” and they are willing to jump in and discover all possibilities. The unknown can be scary, but a courageous leader will see that as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Courageous leaders are willing to hear and admit that they may be wrong. Their decisions are based on data, not titles, intuition, or “gut” instinct. They do not need credit for success.

“At the beginning of every decision-making process, instead of constantly searching for proof they are right, empowered leaders ask themselves, ‘what could convince me that I might be wrong?’” 

– Dr. J. Peter Scoblic

This introspective thought process will allow multiple perspectives to contribute and create more well-rounded decisions, build loyalty, and reduce risk.

How can we nurture better leadership in higher education? 

Nurturing strong leadership in higher education begins with cultivating core values. Your core values may vary, but here are some foundational values that I recommend encouraging:

  1. The courage to try new things
  2. Humility 
  3. Collaboration, not competition
  4. The willingness to listen
  5. Introspection 
  6. The ability to accept constructive criticism
  7. Taking accountability for mistakes without fear of punishment 
  8. Taking real action, not simply saying words

Once you’ve determined your core values, you must re-evaluate your hiring process and ensure your new hires exhibit these traits. At K16 Solutions, I speak to all potential hires to ensure they uphold our values because they are real goals, not aspirational ones. I am the gatekeeper of our company when it comes to maintaining a strong team of talented, humble, and ethical people. Hiring with these traits in mind saves us all time and trouble. 

Next, improve the training process for all staff based on your core values and reward members who exemplify these traits.

Finally, handle the termination process based on your core values. If someone repeatedly proves they are not a good fit for your institution through their words and actions, no matter how impressive their CV might be, strong leaders have the courage to make needed changes to the team. Employment is a privilege, not a right, that has to be continuously earned. 

Once you have followed these steps, egos will quantifiably decline. Ego simply can’t exist in an environment that exemplifies and rewards courage, introspection, and accountability.

Final thoughts

It is our duty as leaders to improve our world of higher academia. We must exemplify our core values, weave them into everything we do, and become the change we want to see. These steps are necessary if we want to make progress and innovate for faculty, students, and all in the world of higher education. A little bit of courage can go a long way.