3 reasons why higher education needs optimist leaders

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have little in common politically. Moreover, they think about how to make decisions differently. I was fortunate to attend an event recently where both men talked about leadership (full video is at the end of this post). While they offered great specific advice, one point constantly struck me:  they are both optimists. Much of the higher education world is filled with doom and gloom from reduced funding, waning public support, and criticism about costs and outcomes. Given all the challenges facing higher education, I want to share 3 reasons why higher education needs optimist leaders.

Photo credit: Reuters

Presidents Clinton and Bush faced numerous crises during their administrations. The address problems using a different ideology, management style, and decision-making philosophy.

Both men have what I think many of our leaders from both parties have possessed: an optimism about the future of America. Voters are attracted to an optimistic vision and approach to leadership.

In thinking about higher education leadership, I believe we need to more fully embrace optimism.  Specifically, there are three reasons that higher education leaders need to be optimistic.

1.  Optimists see opportunity in the face of challenges.

We can all think of numerous challenges facing higher education today. To confront these, we need optimistic leaders that can embrace the opportunities available. When things look down and pessimism reigns, the optimist leader forges ahead when others freeze or give up.

To build a stronger higher education system, leaders need to leverage the current problems facing institutions into initiatives to strengthen institutions, improve research, and help students learn.

2.  Optimists see the big picture.

In addition to thinking about how to leverage problems into new opportunities, optimists are able to see the big picture when charting a course forward. It is easy make decisions as if today’s reality will be tomorrow’s. Likewise, it is easy to decide on a path as if there won’t be more choices in the future.

I’m not advocating a pollyanna approach, but rather one that considers the past, present, and future. For example, no recession or funding cycle is as bad as it seems in the moment. And even if it is, we have to remember that it is still a moment. Colleges and universities have been around for hundreds of years. Do we really think that the challenges today are greater than any other century.

Do you think technology and online education is impacting higher education and fundamentally altering what we do? Think people thought the same thing when the printing press was invented? Sure, things will change, but there is a reason higher education has been around so long. Optimists are capable of considering this big picture.

3.  Optimists can communicate and rally people.

Colleges and universities need leaders that can communicate and rally people behind a shared vision. We need leaders who can communicate with external stakeholders about our values, assets, and needs.

Optimists are able to express a vision of the future that can get people to rally around a common goal. Moreover, optimists often have a positive enthusiasm that can bring people together by communicating their vision for the future. With all of the pessimism in higher education right now, I believe institutions would welcome a positive vision for the future.

Be more optimistic

I would be the first to admit that I can occasionally see the proverbial glass as half empty.

Yet, the lesson that I took from Presidents Clinton and Bush is the necessity for optimism. Both have seen the best and worst of humanity from political fights to terrorist attacks. They have sent men and women into battle. They have been tremendously popular and downright hated. However, they have a fundamental belief and optimism about the future of our country.

I think this is one of the great sources of their leadership. My goal is to try to be optimistic and I believe my leadership will be better.