Am I Really a Leader? Exploring Whether Leadership Roles May be Right for You

by Katharine Stewart

“I really want to make a difference for students, but will people take me seriously as a leader?”
“How do I make the move from faculty into leadership?” 
“How will I know when I’m ready to lead – or if I even want to?”

These kinds of questions are ones that I hear frequently whether it’s from faculty and staff in my job in the provost’s office or from my coaching clients who are planning the next steps in their careers. All of these questions reveal the same error in thinking, and it’s one that I believe is essential to “unlearn” if you want to have a career that is both successful and joyful. I would like to share with you some of the steps that I use with the colleagues I mentor and the clients I coach, especially those who are thinking about their leadership potential. 

Interestingly, one of the first things I recommend to anyone who is considering “moving into leadership” is to ask themselves whether they are already there. I want to let you in on a secret: every person – and I mean EVERY person – who has asked me one of those questions at the start of this post was already leading. They were already creating new pathways for students or chairing a committee that was making some needed changes in a curriculum or a policy or an administrative process. They were running a research lab or mentoring students, staff, or faculty members. They were coming up with innovative programs that were getting others at the university engaged and excited. Or they were coordinating projects within their faith community, neighborhoods, or community organizations. They didn’t need to move into leadership – they were already there. They were influencing and guiding others, facilitating changes in the groups and organizations around them. But because they didn’t have “a leadership title,” they didn’t think of themselves as leaders. Many people in higher education are leading right where they are and making a big impact.

Leadership is not a title – it is an action. The first step in exploring your own leadership potential is to consider how much of it you may already be demonstrating. So, my first challenge to you is to consider the actions you have taken in the past two to three years that were in fact leadership actions. I started my career by teaching psychology courses and serving as a clinical psychologist in a large medical clinic. And because of my background, I think homework assignments are important for helping us make progress when we are wanting to make a change for ourselves. So, I’m giving you a homework assignment (whee!). Take a few minutes to think about the leadership actions you have taken in the past two to three years and write them down. Who have you served? What did you do? What changes did you make? How did you improve things? Come back to this list a couple of times and add other leadership actions you remember taking. Big or small, if you were influencing and guiding others, if you were making changes, write them down. Take a moment to consider how you are already a leader, and to document the ways in which you are leading from where you already are. And then hang onto that list, because I’ll be asking you to return to it in my next post. See you there!

Katharine Stewart is the senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs and a professor in the department of psychology at NC State University. She is also the owner of Katharine Stewart Consulting, LLC. Katharine is dedicated to helping faculty and academic leaders develop successful and joyful careers and to helping universities make the most of their leadership search processes. Learn more about Katharine here.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.