Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
– Bill Gates
Volume 75 | Issue 4
July 2007

Leading in the College Union: A study of senior-level professionals’ leadership practices

John Taylor

Many challenges face the 21st century college union. Simply paging through recent issues of The Bulletin can generate a quick list: privatization, financial management, facility maintenance and renovations, technology, and managing a multigenerational workforce. Senior college union professionals must effectively lead their organizations to meet these and many other challenges. In fact, recognizing the significant role the college union plays in providing services and experiential learning for the campus, institutional expectations may be justifiably high. Success or failure of the college union may be related to the leadership behaviors and characteristics of the senior professionals responsible for operations and activities.

It is has been said that leadership has as many definitions as there have been researchers who have studied the topic (Hoy & Miskel, 2001; Stogdill, 1974; Yukl, 2002), and that it is "one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth" (Rost, 1991, p. 4). Clearly, there is no one right answer to what it takes to be a leader, just as there is no single definition of leadership. In similar fashion, there is no one correct manner in which to lead a college union. However, it is valuable for college union professionals to reflect upon their own leadership, and consider effective behaviors in leading college union organizations. This article provides an overview of effective leadership practices and shares related results from a study of senior college union professionals.

Extraordinary leadership

The leadership studies of James Kouzes and Barry Posner are well known and have been embraced by people from many fields. Their book "The Leadership Challenge" is based on extensive data, including thousands of leadership survey’s, in-depth interviews, and written case studies. Much of what Kouzes and Posner (2002) describe in their work revolves around the relationship built by leaders with followers; "Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow" (p. 20). Whether a corporate CEO or a college union director, the leader must build a relationship with others that helps the organization accomplish its goals.

Similar to other researchers, Kouzes and Posner (2002) stress the significant impact that leaders can have on their organization, and the fact that leadership can be learned. Leadership comes down to the ability of the leader, based on his or her skills and the relationship developed with followers, to get others to want to act rather than being forced because of a leader’s legitimate position of authority. Descriptions of Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) five fundamental practices of extraordinary leadership follow:

Model the Way describes the importance of leaders to set an example for followers, to recognize and be committed to a clear set of values, and to align actions with those values. The basic message of leading by example focuses on a leader’s values matching those of the organization in thought, word, and deed. "The truest test of credible leadership is what leaders pay attention to and what they do. Leaders are measured by the consistency of deeds with words" (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. 93). In addition, effective leaders strive to involve people in developing shared values for the organization. "They don’t try to get everyone to be in accord on everything—this goal is unrealistic. … But to take a first step, and then a second, and then a third, people must have some common core of understanding" (Kouzes & Posner, 2002 p. 78).

Every day college union leaders are in a position to Model the Way, to the students and colleagues with whom they come into contact. The concept of setting an example should not be new to college union professionals and is implicit in foundational publications of the profession, including "The College Union Idea," in which Butts (1971) states: "The union cannot do it all, but it can see to it that its own household is in order and by example encourage other college enterprises to do likewise" (p. 71).

Inspire a Shared Vision describes a leader’s ability to see the future of the organization and enlist followers to identify with that vision. Establishing a vision is not a new concept of an important leadership attribute (Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Bolman & Deal, 2003). Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) model suggests that visions must incorporate commitment from followers to create significant change in the organization. Leaders must gain buy-in on their vision, encouraging others to see their dream and share aspirations for it becoming a reality.

Many examples exist of college union leaders sharing a common vision. A clear illustration is of the union director with a vision for a renovated or new facility. One can easily envision the director articulating his or her dream of the building and what it will mean to the campus, while embracing stakeholders to be excited about the future college union.

Challenge the Process describes leaders who are risk-takers. By looking for new ways to operate and to change the status quo, leaders challenge the process. They work to alter the environment to improve the performance of individuals and the organization. Such leaders explore innovations to develop and enhance the organization, while looking for mechanisms for followers to be internally motivated. They try to encourage and motivate individuals to do better by providing a clear set of challenges. Such challenges provide opportunities for success and positive change, as well as the risk of failure. Leaders are willing to risk, to take responsibility for potential setbacks, in an effort to initiate improvements in the organization. They use a failed attempt at innovation as an opportunity to learn from the experience.

College union leaders regularly Challenge the Process to overcome burdensome institutional mechanisms. While other campus units may abdicate facility operations to the physical plant department, college union leaders are willing to assert their role as owner and customer. It would be easier to serve solely as facility contact person; however, such a stand would lead to less than stellar attention for the union facility. Union leaders seek a seat at the table where they can clearly articulate expectations and confront situations that do not meet their standards or threaten the integrity of the union facility.

Enable Others to Act describes a leader’s effort to foster collaboration and empower constituents. Emphasizing the importance of relationships, Kouzes and Posner (2002) note that leadership is founded on trust and confidence; "At the heart of collaboration is trust. It’s the central issue in human relationships within and outside organizations. Without trust you cannot lead" (p. 244). Discrediting competitive strategies, the authors promote a cooperative approach to leadership, suggesting that the leader is then more likely to be perceived as personally credible.

Individuals who feel powerless in an organization are less likely to have much, if any, organizational initiative. Empowerment, on the other hand, provides ownership to individuals to contribute to the organization’s success through competence and confidence in their abilities (Kouzes & Posner, 2002); "Leaders accept and act on the paradox of power: We become most powerful when we give our own power away" (p. 284). This translates to higher job performance in an organization from shared power.

Certainly, the role of supervisor offers the most common opportunity for using Enable Others to Act. However, in the college union, a number of other areas can find success through this practice. Many college unions are structured so that student programmers and volunteers, as well as governing and advisory boards, are heavily involved in the union and significantly contribute to its success.

The fifth practice, Encourage the Heart, describes a leader’s effort to recognize contributions and celebrate accomplishments. Good leaders bring out the best in their followers. "Leaders treat people in a way that bolsters their self-confidence, making it possible for them to achieve more than they may have initially believed possible of themselves" (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. 322). Rather than focusing solely on formal methods, leaders incorporate intrinsic rewards for followers. They also publicly recognize and complement followers to further motivate them. In addition, leaders celebrate the accomplishments of the whole organization, not just individuals. Such celebrations recognize team efforts, and they allow the leader to reinforce principal values of the organization.

Senior leaders are cognizant that the union could not operate without dedicated professional and student employees. They also know that in the higher education arena, creative methods are needed to recognize employees for their good deeds. Encouraging the Heart by publicly thanking individuals at a staff meeting for their efforts, such as a solid fall opening, being at a late-night program, or exceeding budget projections, exhibits the simplest form of recognition. Other creative efforts, such as handing out kudos candy bars, free parking for a month, or a gift certificate to a union retail operation, provide additional positive staff feelings. Finally, senior leaders have many opportunities to celebrate team successes, especially at the end of the academic year.

Examining senior leaders

As part of the Senior Manager Professionals Program (SMPP), facilitated at the 2007 ACUI annual conference, a leadership study was conducted of participants. The SMPP is geared toward senior college union leaders who have been in the college union field for 10 or more years. Participants in the SMPP were invited to complete Kouzes and Posner’s (2003) Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) and to seek similar completion from their supervisors, subordinates, and institutional peers.

Seventy-one individuals who registered in advance for the SMPP were asked to participate in this study. LPI data was returned from 61 participants (86 percent), of which there was usable data from 55 participants (77 percent). The demographic information listed in Table 1 shows that the gender of participants was evenly split, participants’ ages were reflective of the study focusing on senior-level professionals, and a majority of participants held an advanced educational degree. In addition, as reflected in Table 2, it was clear that a strong majority of participants were tenured in the field and at their institution.

The LPI is a 30-statement instrument that assesses perceptions of a leader, as well as the perceptions of observers who work most closely with that leader. The LPI is used primarily as a diagnostic tool for individuals to improve as leaders within their organization, and behaviors measured are based on Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) five leadership practices. SMPP participants completed the LPI-self, while their subordinates, peers, and supervisors completed the LPI-observer about the SMPP participant.

In looking at the collective results of SMPP participants, it would appear that the perceptions of leaders and observers are fairly similar. In addition, normative LPI data, based on the results of thousands of people who have completed the instrument, are generally consistent with SMPP results. With the exception of Enable Others to Act, leader scores were lower than both observers and normative mean scores.
At the same time, Inspire a Shared Vision was the leadership practice considered weakest of senior college union leaders by SMPP participants as well as their observers.

Exploring observer subsets helps to further understand perceptions of SMPP participants as leaders. Supervisors of SMPP participants scored the senior leaders higher in all leadership practices with the exception of Inspiring a Shared Vision. Institutional peers generally had the second-highest scores for senior leaders, followed by direct reports. Considerably lower scores came from observers who chose not to identify themselves as supervisors, peers, or direct reports.

Figure 1 visually represents the percentile rankings of combined SMPP participants and their observers. Scores at the 70th percentile and above are considered high scores. Scores at or below the 30th percentile are low scores. Those that fall in-between are moderate and closest to the normative mean. Observers who did not identify their relationship to the leader scored SMPP participants in the low range. All other observers, as well as the SMPP participants, had scores for each leadership practice that fell in the moderate range.

An even more thorough understanding of leadership effectiveness of senior college union professionals is revealed by examining the specific statements used in the LPI. Table 3 provides the ranking of all 30 leadership behaviors, with each statement based on a 10-point scale. They are listed in order from most frequent (high) to least frequent (low),
according to the average of all observer ratings. The shaded statements offer leadership behaviors with the greatest opportunity for

A few observations from the statement rankings are notable: Enable Others to Act was the only leadership practice with all of its statements in the top half of the list. Model the Way primarily had leadership statements in the top portion of the ranking. Challenge the Process had all of its statements in the bottom half of the list, with risk-taking lowest within that category. A majority of statements related to Inspire Others to Act fell into the lower portion of the ranking, including statements specific to having a vision of the future. Finally, statements for Encourage the Heart fell across the rankings.

Enhancing leadership practices

Findings of the SMPP study indicate that senior college union professionals, in general, are ranked comparatively to others in regard to their leadership practices. With a majority of scores relatively close to the normative means, senior professionals were perceived to be reasonably effective leaders; however, they do have opportunity to improve their leadership practices. Similar to any focused effort toward developmental growth, senior leaders should continue to reinforce positive leadership practices and consciously strive to improve leadership practices perceived to be weaker.

Perceived as their strongest leadership practice, senior professionals should continue to Enable Others to Act. SMPP participants and most observers were very much in alignment with scoring this practice highest. By maintaining collaborative efforts and empowering employees and students, senior professionals will succeed in gaining the trust and confidence of followers.

Senior professionals also are seen positively as leaders who Model the Way. Union leaders most certainly
articulate a leadership philosophy that incorporates the role of the college union as a foundation. This provides a context for followers to understand the values of senior college union professionals, and more importantly, to gain their credibility when actions are in synch with what is communicated. To be credible, senior leaders must tell the college union story and also live it.

Encourage the Heart is a leadership practice worth more attention from senior leaders. There is an indication that senior professionals do provide praise and appreciation. However, with moderate ranking scores and relevant statements clustered in the middle, more can be done in this area. While there is usually limited flexibility at colleges and universities to provide cash bonuses for good work, senior college union leaders are still able to provide viable recognition and celebration techniques. Thank you notes, public recognition, and staff kudos events go a long way to helping people feel good about their employment or involvement with the college union.

This study indicates that senior college union professionals can do better to Challenge the Process. College unions often must balance the traditions of the campus with dynamically changing to meet current student needs. Senior college union leaders cannot be afraid to ask questions, take measured risks, and try something new—all while being cognizant of traditions and the campus culture.

Surprisingly, statements affiliated with Inspire a Shared Vision were, for the most part, ranked low. Are senior professionals more comfortable telling the story about the current union, rather than talking about its future? To be effective, senior leaders must articulate a vision and actively engage others to see and be part of actualizing that vision.

There is little doubt that the SMPP individuals who participated in this leadership study are effective leaders. Their years of experience and value in student success and the college union, contribute to leading on their campuses. Recognition and reinforcement of Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) five leadership practices will help senior college union professionals enhance success for the future.


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