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Leadership Lessons From a College President

How can leading an institution help you to become a better leader?

Key points

  • Much of leadership is learned through experience.
  • Many lessons for leading in higher education can generalize to any form of leadership.
  • College leadership requires principled personal qualities and effective managerial practices.

Jack Stark was president of Claremont McKenna College for 29 years. Relatively young when he took on the role, he learned quite a bit about good and responsible leadership during the three formative decades that he led the college. Here are his reflections on leadership (along with my footnotes/comments).

From Jack Stark:

College leadership demands a combination of principled personal qualities and effective managerial practices. These can be developed, improved, and learned.

The Personal Qualities1

Insights Learned About College Leadership

  • Remember that an undergraduate education should be concerned with character development and that virtue is learned by habituation and example
  • Institutional politics is part of the leadership challenge
  • Focus your mission, curriculum, and budget. Most colleges dilute their potential by over-reach
  • Try to be financially conservative in budgeting and borrowing
  • Construct first-rate facilities, but be parsimonious in the total square footage you build. Operations and personnel tend to expand to fill all available space, and every square foot of space requires annual budget support
  • Money and physical facilities are important, but moral idealism and inclusion are necessary to create a positive collegial community
  • Leaders need to be visible on the campus. E-mail and memos are not a substitute for presence and personal contact
  • Remember that your college is a philanthropic institution that should be managed with effective business practices primarily for the benefit of the students and society. It is not a business to be managed primarily for the benefit of faculty and staff, for enhancing the reputation of its leaders, or for the accumulation of institutional wealth.

Lessons Learned About Responsible and Effective Leadership3

  • Remember that all members of the community are important and deserve your thoughtful consideration
  • If you are new to the institution, take the time to learn its culture before embarking upon change
  • For controversial decisions, identify which groups and individuals should be involved and how they may make their views known. Agreement about the decision-making process will increase acceptance of the final determination
  • Know why you made a particular decision and be willing and able to articulate your reasons
  • Don’t allow your ego to compromise the objectivity of your judgment
  • Expect that some people will question your motives and your integrity, but most will support actions based on openness, vision, and logic.
  • Try to avoid being defensive or angry
  • Never project an image of injured innocence or self-pity
  • Never be vengeful or try to get even
  • Be honest but compassionate in your evaluation of individuals and programs
  • Expect everything you say to be repeated and exaggerated
  • If you make a mistake, admit your error
  • No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be honest
  • Be publicly magnanimous to your critics
  • Develop the capacity to listen and appreciate the views of others
  • Resist the temptation to be argumentative
  • Avoid making unnecessary enemies, you will accumulate a sufficient number in just doing your job
  • Focus on the most important issues and don’t try to do everything at once
  • Don’t exaggerate or over-promise
  • A sense of humor and a “thick skin” are necessary to your emotional stability
  • Don’t confuse bustle with business
  • Don’t confuse institutional public relations with reality
  • Delegate tasks, but take full and open responsibility for all errors, mistakes, and problems
  • Always give generous credit to others for successes and achievements
  • Have an optimistic vision of the future and a realistic and principled approach to all problems
  • If you are not a first-rate public speaker, be brief. If you are a first-rate public speaker, be brief
  • Be balanced and fair in your presentations of information and arguments. Doubts about the integrity of your presentation will greatly weaken your leadership position
  • Try to avoid all negative surprises. Better to signal a potential problem that never materializes than to surprise your constituencies with a crisis3
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional health; both are linked to your stamina and energy, which are important to your success
  • Don’t neglect your family; your job can create difficulties for your spouse and your children

Jack L. Stark, March 20014 “I did not always follow my own advice, but I would have been better off if I had.”5

1It is interesting to note that research on leadership traits supports what Jack learned from experience. Clearly, better leaders need to be emotionally stable and resilient, they also need to be optimistic and have high levels of energy. Leader character requires integrity, courage, and good judgment that includes seeking counsel and considering different opinions and perspectives. Of course, a sense of humor is important and I recommend a recent book coauthored by a CMC alumna.

2For an interesting read on the role of humor at work and for leaders, see the book in the references by Aaker and Bagdonas.

3These lessons apply to any leader, not just those in higher education.

4Written shortly after Jack’s retirement as president of Claremont McKenna College.

5A key to exemplary leadership is humility—realizing that you are human, will make mistakes, but that you will learn from those and be better. [Personally, I believe Jack adhered to the principles and practices he suggests.]


Aaker, J. & Badgonas, N. (2021). Humor, seriously: Why humor is a secret weapon in business and life. New York: Currency/Random House.