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Leadership with Individuals

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For this reason, dismissing an individual appointment as “just a casual conversation” is rarely a good idea. At best, you may miss an opportunity to discuss ideas that can advance your area. At worst, you will be unprepared for a situation that could turn disastrous (or at least unpleasant) because you hadn’t taken the time to prepare.



The posting below looks at some core principles that are needed in leadership interactions with individuals.  It is from Chapter 9 – Leadership with Individuals, in the book The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, by Jeffrey L. Buller. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick reis

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Leadership with Individuals


In some ways, the very concept of exercising leadership with individuals seems a contradiction in terms. In chapter 8, I adopted Peter Northouse’s definition of leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common good” (2013, 5, emphasis added). So if leadership always involves a group, how can we be said to be leading when we’re interacting with only one other person? The answer lies in the difference between the purpose and the process of leadership.

In terms of its purpose, deans and provosts lead their academic programs by having an effect, direct or indirect, on all the stakeholders of those programs. Moreover, as Don Chu notes in The Department Chair Primer (2012), that group of stakeholders is a lot broader than we sometimes believe. We get in the habit of thinking of our programs as closed systems: all of the stakeholders, like the faculty and the students, are internal members of that system. But higher education actually functions as an open system: its stakeholders include a lot of people who are outside the system: parents, legislators, accrediting bodies, professional organizations, and the like. When provosts and deans lead, they have an effect on all these groups.  They don’t merely lead downward, as occurs in a hierarchical organization like a corporation or military unit. They also lead upward, laterally, and outward, engaging in a process that I’ve called centrifugal leadership (Buller, 2013). But none of this means that academic leaders always interact with all these stakeholders all the time. The process of leadership sometimes means large assemblies, working with midsized committees, chairing small work groups, and meeting with people one-on-one.

Some of the most challenging meetings on the academic leader’s schedule consist of individual appointments. One-on-one meetings might include regular appointments with supervisors, unexpected encounters with a faculty member or student who comes in to lodge a complaint, formal meetings with the parent who wishes to talk to the dean or provost about a serious issue, interviews with a candidate who is being considered for a position, tense sessions with an employee who is being reprimanded or dismissed, and a wide variety of other such interactions.  Most of these conversations are relatively routine, a part of a normal day’s work. But some of them are extremely stressful, emotion filled, or simply uncomfortable. In certain instances, the other person in these meetings may be angry, and you may even feel threatened by the intensity of the antagonism being displayed. At other times, emotions are simply vented because the two of you are alone, and pretense can fall when there is no audience.

In light of all these forms that the one-on-one meeting can take, what’s the best way to prepare for these encounters? Moreover, how can you demonstrate leadership in such situations, guiding the focus to the issues that are important to you and your programs even as you address the other person’s problem or concern? Leadership with individuals becomes much more effective if you can keep in mind the following ideas.

Plan Carefully

Whenever it’s possible, plan as carefully for one-on-one meetings as you do for formal presentations before large groups. There’s a tendency, when we see individual appointments on our calendars, to treat these conversations as somehow less critical than the formal meetings with committees, boards, and similar groups. After all, individual meetings occur all the time, so how much preparation do we require simply to talk to someone? In fact, some of the most important – and anxiety-producing – meetings take place in one-on-one conversations. Without others present, people say things that they may never admit in a public setting. They also feel free to bring up the “truly important” matters that they are reluctant to broach before groups of people. For this reason, dismissing an individual appointment as “just a casual conversation” is rarely a good idea. At best, you may miss an opportunity to discuss ideas that can advance your area. At worst, you will be unprepared for a situation that could turn disastrous (or at least unpleasant) because you hadn’t taken the time to prepare.

At the level of the dean or provost, it’s probably a bad idea to walk into any meeting when you’re unaware of the topic to be discussed. Issues that reach your level tend to be so important and so varied that you need time to refocus your attention from the last topic of concern to the issue at hand. Even more important, there may be documents or types of information that could clarify matters quickly that you’ll want available, and you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t know the topic of the meeting in advance. For this reason, ask your staff always to request the purpose of a meeting when placing it on your calendar. Even a brief notation, such as “10:00am: Prof. Jones (re: salary concerns),” can help you prepare for the conversation and make the meeting time more productive.

Whenever possible, consider in advance what you’d like your basic message to be in the one-on-one meeting. Reflecting on this central topic in advance doesn’t mean that you’re going to be inflexible, ignoring any valid points and observations your interlocutor might raise. It’s merely a way of reinforcing your initial starting point so that the other person’s passion or rhetoric doesn’t catch you completely off guard. All too often, if we fail to reflect on what we hope our central theme will be in a conversation, we fail to have any theme at all and end up allowing others to set the agenda for us. A conversation is, of course, always a matter of give and take, and some well-considered reflection on the thoughts you will contribute on your end can make the entire conversation more productive.

Prepare to Be Unprepared

Not every conversation, of course, gives you time for preparation. Some occur on the spur of the moment. Others surprise you because their focus is not what you had anticipated. For instance, your calendar reads, “10:00am: Prof. Jones [re: salary concerns],” but the concerns that are raised are not about Prof. Smith’s own salary, but about clerical salaries that Prof. Smith feels have been rising too rapidly. At times, too, someone will make an appointment to talk about one issue, only to raise a second, and far more important, issue in the course of the meeting. (Every dean and provost is familiar with the phrase, “While I’ve got you here, I also wanted to ask you about….”) In situations like these, unless you are already well prepared to discuss the issue that is suddenly introduced, your best approach is probably to listen to the issues being presented, ask questions to make sure that you understand the matter, and respond that you’ll get back to the person very soon. As you’ve probably already discovered, nearly every situation has more than one side to it, and since you were unaware that this topic would come up, you had no opportunity to explore those other perspectives. Before making a firm commitment, therefore, you’ll want at least to gather some facts, think through the matter carefully, and examine the issue from a broader perspective.

When pressed for an immediate reaction in these situations, it’s best to respond in a general, philosophical, or procedural manner. You can say something like, “I haven’t looked into your case in particular relative to other assistant professors in our college. But let me explain what approach I generally take when I consider matters of salary inequity….” Then take down the particulars of the individual’s situation, examine the larger picture, develop a clear plan of action, and get back to the person who brought the situation to your attention. Although being caught off guard in a conversation like this can be stressful, you can still exert leadership if you simply remember the following essential principle:

In conversation, you may find that the other person has already seized the initiative by setting the agenda. Nevertheless, if you consistently operate on the basis of clear convictions and your core beliefs as an administrator, you can still guide the direction of that agenda.

In other words, don’t be forced against your will into making a commitment to any particular course of action without considering the larger picture. By focusing on how you’ll make a decision in all such cases, you’ll clarify your basic principles and make it clear that while you consider suggestions or requests when they are made, you don’t make private deals.

Concern is Not Commitment

Frequently when you’re caught off guard in a one-on-one meeting, you and the person you’re meeting with will want entirely different outcomes for the conversation. The other person will want a commitment that the problem will be solved or the favor granted. You’ll want to avoid making any commitment until you learn more about the issue, consider carefully the implications of any decision, and explore all the options. Yielding to one request for a salary adjustment may, for instance, create an even greater problem of inequity than the other person realizes. Moreover, there may be policy restrictions that prevent you from solving the other person’s problem in precisely the manner that he or she wishes. There may be, in other words, a larger number of compelling reasons that you don’t want to make an immediate commitment or promise a remedy that you’ll really not be able to provide. Nevertheless, your promises to “look into it” or to “see what we can do” will frequently come across as cold and indifferent to the person who has raised the issue. He or she may feel that you’re simply stalling or putting him or her off when all you really want to do is gather information and reflect on the broader implications of this decision.

The appropriate middle ground in a situation like this is to demonstrate your full concern for the person who’s raising the issue, while explaining why you’re unable to make a commitment now. You’ll start to lose credibility very quickly if you adopt this approach only as a stalling technique. Be sincere about your desire to get back to the person quickly. Make a note on your calendar, reminding yourself to do so in the next day or two. Gather the information you need thoroughly, but understand that the other person is waiting for your reply. What may seem like “only a few days” to you will be seen as “several whole days without any reply” to the other person. You’ll begin developing a reputation as a dean who “doesn’t get back to people” and who “only pretends to be concerned about their issues” unless you follow through quickly after the initial conversation.

Stick to Your Principles

Second only to failing to get back to someone after promising to do so, nothing damages the credibility of an administrator as giving the appearance of cutting private deals with a small group of “favorites.” Indeed, one of your most important reasons for not making an immediate decision when blindsided by someone is to avoid creating greater inequity by granting an individual request without due attention paid to the larger context of those affected by this decision. You don’t want people to have even the perception that you’re cutting special deals with this person because you favor the individual more than others or that “only the squeaky wheels get the grease” around here. For this reason, be very clear that any decision you make as the result of an individual request both adheres to your overall policies and values and is understood as adhering to those policies and values. For this reason, be sure to explain your decision – whether positive or negative – in light of your core principles. Don’t assume that the other person will automatically make this connection. You may need to make explicit how the current situation relates to your overall administrative philosophy – for example:

-       Equity: “As you know, I try to treat all my department chairs as fairly as possible, understanding that each of their situations is quite different. So after carefully examining not only their salaries but also their years of experience, number of people they supervise, ways in which they contribute to the college and the larger institutional mission, and number of students whom they serve, what I’ve decided is …”

-       Collegiality: “I’ve never believed that members of a college all have to agree with one another or even like one another in the same way that we like our personal friends. But I do believe that we have to work together efficiently and productively, meeting each other’s professional needs to the best of our abilities. That’s why, in the interests of this type of collegiality, I’ve decided to …”

-       Professionalism: “More and more throughout my administrative career, I’ve come to place a priority on true academic professionalism, by which I mean respecting the importance of confidential information, getting the training that each of us needs to keep current in our jobs and to perform our functions effectively, and not letting our personal differences get in the way of doing what needs to be done to achieve our core mission. So when I considered this matter in that light, I realized that what I needed to do is …”

-       Integrity: “If there’s anything I’ve seen that proves destructive to a faculty, it’s when academic leaders don’t keep their promises and act with transparency. I’m a strong believer in what’s sometimes called authentic academic leadership. That means I try to base every decision I make on principles that I could defend to anyone. Because of that, it seems that my only choice is to …”

-       Transparency: “I’ve always believed that when you disagree with someone, you have an obligation to tell that person candidly and completely why you’ve made a decision he or she may not like. You may not always accept my reasons, but I think you have the right to know them. That’s why, in this case, the issues that I think are most important are …”

Be Willing to Repeat Yourself

At times when you follow up with someone and render your decision, the person to whom you’re speaking won’t accept the result as final and wants to keep arguing a point or reviewing matters that you have already considered. This problem is particularly acute for provosts and at institutions where the avenues of appeal beyond the dean are limited. (See chapter 44.) Even in other academic environments, however, unwillingness to accept a negative decision often occurs in one-on-one meetings because there aren’t other people present who can reiterate and amplify the arguments that you’ve made, demonstrate to the person you’re talking to that he or she doesn’t have universal support on the matter in question, and clarify that it’s not simply you as an individual who’s unwilling to grant this request; it’s the institution itself. In private conversations, people sometimes feel that if they keep arguing long enough and passionately enough, you’ll eventually give in – if only perhaps to get the person out of your office. When faced with obstinate people of this kind, you might consider resorting to the following strategy:

-       Make it clear that your decision is final if your mind is indeed already made up on the issue. Say something like, “I’m sorry but as I’ve told you, that’s my final decision, and I won’t be reconsidering the matter.”

-       Adopt the “stuck record” strategy if nothing else is effective. You may need to repeat yourself over and over until it finally sinks in to the other person that the discussion is at an end. “I understand your arguments,” you might say, “but as I’ve said before …”

-       If no other approach is effective, bring the conversation to a close and mention any recourse that the individual may have. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re “throwing someone out of your office,” but in the most extreme of situations, you may need to end the conversation when it’s clearly no longer productive. You can do so in a polite and effective manner by saying something like, “I’m sorry, but I can see that my reasons don’t satisfy you, even though I’ve tried to explain them as clearly as I can. I think it’s best, therefore, that we simply conclude this meeting. If you feel that you must pursue this matter further, your next step would be to …”


We sometimes imagine leadership as taking place only in crises or when we are debating major issues before large groups of people. It’s possible, however, to demonstrate leadership even in the individual conversations that deans have with constituencies throughout their days. Basing each decision on a compelling set of core principles and making it clear that your decisions are always firmly grounded in those principles is one of the most important aspects of leadership that deans can possess.



Buller, J.L. (2013). Positive academic leadership: How to stop putting out fires and start making a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chu, D. (2012). The department chair primer: Leading and managing academic departments (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.