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6 ways to show your department chair how you can lead


You want to show your potential for educational leadership to your department chair, but it can be a challenge to know how to put your qualities of a good leader on display.

Here are 6 ideas for showing and growing your leadership skills in higher education.

1 Fundraising

Look for creative ways to demonstrate and develop leadership skills. Start by simply asking your chair how you can provide support on a specific initiative, or about leadership opportunities more generally. This could lead to the chair trusting you to head a small project where you develop skills and build your confidence. For example, leading a meeting with alumni from start to finish could help you learn how to manage a budget, work with food vendors, develop relationships with stakeholders, and gain other significant experience.1

2 Show your
individual impact

Joining a faculty committee is a great step, but that alone won’t show your chair that you have the qualities of a good leader. Be sure to demonstrate your individual involvement that produces specific accomplishments as part of the committee. “When considering whether a junior faculty member is demonstrating leadership, I do not just enumerate the committees they have joined or titles they have held,” said Elizabeth Simmons, Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at the University of California, San Diego.2 “Instead, I scan to see what that committee accomplished and what parts of that success are attributed to the individual. I look for evidence of initiative and impact,” Simmons said.2

3 Start an initiative that advances
your college’s academic mission

Ultimately, you want the initiative and impact of your leadership to positively affect others—your colleagues, students, alumni or the community. You might consider taking the lead on creating or revamping a course, lunch series, student group, or research collaboration. Said Simmons: “For a pre-tenure faculty member, demonstrating the kinds of leadership skills that will translate, post-tenure, into significant service to the department, university, and profession can and should be undertaken through efforts that also contribute to your teaching and scholarship.”2 For example, if creating an online syllabus archive, you should be able to say why (e.g., other faculty members requested it) and how it will help instructors (e.g., offers a quick, convenient reference). You’ll need to consult the curriculum committee, the departmental chair, and other pertinent people/groups for approval and to discuss steps to make it happen

Securing grant funding for an important research project shows initiative and effective communications, key leadership traits.

4 Go for
grant writing

It can often take a back seat to other faculty responsibilities, but grant writing shouldn’t be overlooked. Securing grant funding for an important research project shows initiative and effective communications, key leadership traits.

Grant funding is more difficult than ever to secure, which underscores the importance of taking steps to set you up for winning proposals. To begin, start early in your career and with smaller proposals, said Lisa Chasan-Taber, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“As a postdoc or a new faculty member, you are often tempted to try to land a big grant quickly,” Chasan-Taber said.3 But in seeking smaller grants, you’ll face less competition, and smaller proposals don’t require significant preliminary data. This will increase your chances of securing a grant award.

5 Earn trust
and respect

When you think of how to be a better leader, keep in mind the value of effective soft skills. According to Harvard Business Review, one of the top characteristics of a strong, competent leader is the ability to create an atmosphere of safety and trust.4 Some ways to achieve this include:
  • Maintaining a positive attitude and cool demeanor amid the adversity and challenges that faculty often face. This can inspire and earn the trust and respect of colleagues, including your chair.4
  • Leading with ethical and moral standards, instilling confidence in others that you will always do things the right way.5

6 Seek professional
development opportunities

Opportunities for developing leadership skills can include attending a workshop on leadership or joining a professional network where you can learn from fellow academics. You can also seek out a mentor, such as a senior faculty member within your department or at another institution.6 Pursuing these opportunities puts you in a strong position to learn from others and develop key leadership skills, such as communications, coaching and collaboration. These certainly aren’t the only leadership-building ideas to consider, but investing time and effort in any of these six ways is a great start to advancing your educational leadership abilities and demonstrating your potential to your chair.
1. Developing formal and informal faculty leaders. (2010). Retrieved from
3. Chason-Taber, L. (February 2018). 10 tips for successful grant writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
4. Maryville University. 6 tips for leadership in higher education. Retrieved from
5. Giles, S. (March 15, 2016). The most important leadership competencies, according to leaders around the world. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from
6. 5 qualities needed for academic leadership (March 29, 2018). Retrieved from
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