Understanding Your Role As a Leader In Higher Education

Higher Ed Leadership Series

Taking on a leadership role in higher education is a monumental achievement, marking not only a personal milestone but a commitment to shaping the academic landscape. However, if leadership is not always something you’ve aspired to, transitioning into this role can feel like being thrown into the deep end, with responsibilities and expectations that may seem overwhelming and unfamiliar. Even if you’ve been dreaming about leadership since day one, you may still feel unprepared when you step into this new position. 

In this article, we explore what it means to be a leader and understand the intricacies of your new role and responsibilities. We’ll also discuss the transformative power of understanding your role, shedding light on some of the symptoms of imposter syndrome that can accompany this transition. This guide will help you navigate the path from uncertainty to confidence, empowering you to lead authentically and leave a lasting legacy in higher education. 

What is Leadership?

Leadership is more than just a title; it is a journey of self-discovery, growth, and impact. As a woman of color in a leadership role in higher education, you may find yourself in uncharted territory, wondering how to navigate the responsibilities that come with leading a department or faculty. 

Understanding your role as a leader is crucial, not just for your success but for the legacy you aim to leave. 

Being a leader means you are now the guiding light for your department, but it is more in your actions than your words that you exhibit true authority. You’ll become an effective leader through your behaviors, and we’ll talk more about that below. 

What is a Leader’s Role & Responsibilities?

In higher education, leadership extends beyond managing teams and budgets. As a department chair, dean, or provost, your role is multifaceted. It fosters a positive academic environment, promotes diversity and inclusion, and guides your team towards shared goals. 

It is about so much more than just passing information down to your team or your students. It’s having compassion for and understanding them as people and creating an environment for collaboration. Being a leader means your role is to align and motivate your team around the university’s goals, which will ultimately contribute to student outcomes. 

You need to be able to problem-solve efficiently, navigate university politics eloquently, and continue to move the needle forward in your work, not to mention balance your personal life amongst all that – it’s no small feat! By embracing leadership & developing yourself as a leader, you’re not only impacting yourself and your immediate team; your impact spreads far larger onto the students themselves.

The Power of Understanding Your Leadership Role

Transitioning to a leadership role can be daunting, often triggering imposter syndrome. This feeling of inadequacy is common but can be transformed into a powerful tool for growth. 

Understanding your role and embracing the challenges, you’ll discover your unique leadership style, contributing to a more authentic and fulfilling professional journey. 

What Makes a Great Leader?

Great leaders aren’t born; they evolve. The pressure to be perfect in a new leadership role can be overwhelming. Acknowledging these feelings and connecting them to imposter syndrome is the first step. 

Realize that imperfections are a stepping stone to greatness, and through this transformation, you will develop the confidence and authenticity needed to thrive as a leader. Let’s discuss a few ways to step into your leadership power by adapting the following behaviors.

How to Step Into Your Power As a Leader

Stepping into your power means embracing qualities that define successful leaders. 

Key attributes include confidence, passion, decisiveness, and a willingness to take risks. Let’s discuss why these four key attributes will help you step into your power as a leader. 


The very foundation of leadership, having confidence, provides you with the assurance to make bold decisions and inspire trust among your team. Projecting confidence communicates your competence and fosters a positive and motivated work environment. Embracing confidence allows you to navigate challenges with resilience, instill a sense of purpose, and ultimately lead with the conviction needed to drive success in higher education.


You are a subject matter expert because you care about the content you work with daily. You care about the student’s success, and that passion and dedication likely got you recognized and awarded a promotion in the first place. Your passion will often be contagious because your colleagues and students will sense how much you truly care about them and want to see them succeed. 


Making a choice and sticking with it – being decisive – is essential. Decision-making is a process, and the ability to be decisive often comes when you have a heightened sense of confidence. Still, as a leader, your goal is always to move the organization forward. 

Willingness to Take Risks

There will surely be colleagues who say, “You weren’t here when we tried that before, and it didn’t work,” when you offer a new innovative strategy. Maybe that strategy didn’t work before because they didn’t have a leader like you, who was committed to seeing it through. 

Your willingness to innovate and take risks as a leader fosters an environment for creativity amongst your team and can trickle down to the classroom, positively impacting your students. By embracing and learning from failures rather than shying away from them, you create a culture of empowerment and independence. 

How To Further Your Leadership Skills

Investing in your leadership skills in an ongoing process. Coaching programs can be a valuable resource, like ours at Lead By Design Lab, offering benefits such as stress management, conflict resolution strategies, and alignment with your unique leadership style. A coach can also help you better understand what it means to be a leader and help you continuously hone your skills. In doing so, you’ll survive and thrive as a leader in higher education!

Empowering Your Leadership Role

As a woman of color in higher education leadership roles, recognizing the value that you bring to the table is essential. Embrace the challenges, learn from them, and allow your unique leadership style and voice to shine. By understanding your new role, stepping into your power, and investing in ongoing skill development, you’ll lead authentically and inspire the next generation of higher education leaders. 

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