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5 ways to show your department chair how you can lead


Amid the ongoing challenges facing higher education lies an opportunity to show your department chair your potential.

According to Sandra B. Richtermeyer, PhD, CMA, dean of the Manning School of Business, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, “People who want to help are showing leadership skills that perhaps their colleagues never knew they had.”1

Here are five ways to help bring your leadership capabilities to the surface.

1 Offer creative ways to support the new environment.

Higher education is changing, from the way instructors teach and students learn to the online and on-campus environment in general. As they work to adapt, institutions are developing guidelines and procedures to create safe but effective learning environments.

With this in mind, advance new ideas to help your colleagues and students succeed as they adjust.

Here are a few examples:

  • Share innovative ways to teach a socially distanced class, such as offering outdoor learning. Or try breaking students into teams to make huge remote lectures seem intimate.
  • If you have experience in online teaching, a new terrain for many faculty members, your expertise can be a tremendous asset. Offer to hold a training session on best practices, or lead a group in your department that shares successes and failures of online teaching.
  • To keep faculty connected and engaged, propose creating a newsletter or wiki for ongoing conversation and updates.

2 Start an initiative that advances your college's academic mission.

Ultimately, your leadership should positively affect others—your colleagues, students, alumni, or the community.

Elizabeth Simmons, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of California, San Diego says: “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). And you may need to consult the curriculum committee, the department chair, and other pertinent people/groups for approval and to discuss steps to make it happen. Not only can this initiative support your college’s mission and make a difference, but you may also gain visibility in taking the lead.

3 Secure grant funding.

Grant writing to secure funding for an important research project continues to show initiative and effective communications. However, grant funding is more difficult than ever to secure, especially considering the recession and economic uncertainty before us.

“If you’re new to grant writing, increase your chances for winning proposals by thinking small,” said Lisa Chasan-Taber, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.3  “As a postdoc or a new faculty member, you are often tempted to try to land a big grant quickly,” Chasan-Taber said. “But in seeking smaller grants, you’ll face less competition, and smaller proposals don’t require significant preliminary data.”

In addition to thinking small, think new. Explore potential grants, for example, surrounding research on effective teaching methods in our current environment. This is an opportunity to take an early lead in research and develop a database of potential grants that look beyond traditional topics. 

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

4 Show empathy.

People are struggling to adapt to the new environment, personally and professionally. Be empathetic in your communications with colleagues and students and recognize them for the work they are doing to adjust to the changing academic landscape, says Juan-Carlos Molleda, Edwin L. Artzt dean and professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.4

“Our faculty, staff, students, and our student’s families need reassurance and solidarity with their individual and collective circumstances,” Molleda said. “People are juggling family and work lives, with greater pressures at home.”

Listen to your students and do your best to accommodate any specific needs or challenges they may have. Another empathetic step you can take is showing flexibility with colleagues and students whose technological issues may disrupt your working relationship with them.

Empathy can go a long way in earning trust and respect, qualities of a good leader.

5 Seek professional development opportunities.

 With so many priorities you’re already focused on, taking the time to develop leadership skills may seem daunting. But it can prove to be time well spent.

The good news is training and development is more accessible than ever through webinars and online communities.

Consider opportunities in which you learn skills directly related to your role:

  • To enhance your online teaching skills, for example, learn how to use online forums and other effective methods. Your students can benefit, and you can share what you learned with colleagues.  

“Learning how to use online class-discussion forums is probably the smartest, and easiest, thing you can do to improve your online teaching and your students’ learning,” said Flower Darby, an instructional designer and co-author of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.5

  • Pursue training opportunities designed specifically for leadership in higher education, rather than a general conference or course that is typically geared toward corporate leadership. Academic Impressions, for example, offers virtual training sessions for leading yourself and leading others at your institution. Examples include “Leading Through A Crisis” and “Cultivating Your Unique Leadership Skills in this New Environment.”6

These aren’t the only leadership-building ideas to consider, but investing time and effort in any of these five ways is a great start to demonstrate your qualities of a good leader. This will help you stand out—not just among your peers but to your department chair, too.


1. Richtermeyer, Sandra B. (April 2020). IMA Academic Leaders Offer Suggestions, Inspiration for Coping with the New Normal. Retrieved from

2. Simmons, E. (2013). Pre-tenure leadership. Retrieved from

3. Chasan-Taber, L. (February 2018). 10 tips for successful grant writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

4. Molleda, Juan-Carlos (July 2020). Lessons Learned: Leadership in a Pandemic Through the Lens of Higher Education. Retrieved from

5. Darby, Flower (August 2020). The Secret Weapon of Good Online Teaching: Discussion Forums. Retrieved from


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