In my experience, people are motivated to seek leadership roles in higher education for three major reasons.
Some people are motivated by having seen good role models. These positive examples show how great leaders can make a difference in the health and future of an institution. They can move the college or university (or subsets of it — like departments and divisions) forward in ways that benefit everyone and that realize the fundamental educational goals. These positive role models help others see the impact that a good leader can have, and they inspire others to want to make the same kind of difference in higher education.
Others are motivated by bad role models. Negative examples of leadership can be just as powerful — and instructional — as positive ones. Seeing the destruction and havoc created by a poor leader can be motivational: “Even I can do a better job than that — and I can prove it!” In fact, we can learn as much — and sometimes more — from bad role models. In my career, I’ve seen some memorable examples of how not to handle a situation that have been invaluable in helping me deal with similar situations when I have encountered them myself.
And then there are the people who are motivated to pursue leadership opportunities in higher education because they believe that being a dean or vice president or president is the route to power and glory and riches and love. As my husband and I often observe, these people usually end up disappointed, indicted, or both. And we’ve both worked for a president who fell into the “both” category. Academic leaders who are seeking wealth or power are also usually examples of bad role models.
One of the questions I always encourage people to consider, as they contemplate moving into leadership positions, is to ask themselves “Why?” Why are you interested? What motivates you to be engaged that that level? How can you make a positive difference?
If the answer to “Why?” involves money or fame, you might want to think again.