Rethinking Leadership

Life after gaining tenure is new and unfamiliar territory, so it can be easy to overcommit yourself, warns Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

September 14, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

I am newly tenured and all aflutter with possibilities! Last week, my department chair asked me to consider becoming the next chair of our department. I was so flattered, because it felt like a validation of my ability to organize others and get things done.

But then I read Bette Bottoms’s advice to female administrators. She advised women to avoid administrative appointments until after becoming full professor. I’m at a research-intensive university, and I know that research is the most important criteria for promotion. I’ve also seen my current chair’s research productivity grind to a halt during her time in the role, but I know I could contribute a lot in an administrative position, particularly as chair of my department.

How do recently tenured faculty members think about becoming leaders on their campus if they don’t take on administrative positions? I don’t want to get stuck at associate professor indefinitely, but I’m also full of energy and ideas, and I want to be in a position to implement them.


Ready to Roll

Dear Ready,

Congratulations on winning tenure and your recent promotion to associate professor! As you’ve discovered, your first semester posttenure can be a very exciting (and confusing) one, because you’re in the midst of an important transition. Since posttenure life is new and unfamiliar territory, it can be easy to overcommit yourself, and for that very reason, I want to encourage you to slow your roll a bit in order to pause, take a step back and consider the big picture.

Let’s Start With a Pause

I’m suggesting you start with a purposive pause, because it sounds like you are a highly productive and organized person. Not only has your department chair acknowledged your leadership potential, but you’re also likely to have lots of other people encouraging you to take on various roles and responsibilities now that you’ve earned tenure. While it feels great to be recognized, don’t make the mistake of letting flattery drive your decision making or allowing other people’s requests to shape your future. Instead, you want to choose your own posttenure pathway with intention and use your self-defined goals to determine what opportunities you choose to take on.

I recommend that you consider your first semester (or quarter) posttenure as a transitional moment. It’s a great time to treat choosing your posttenure pathway as a formal project that must be completed before you consider taking on any significant and time-consuming commitments. The time you take to thoughtfully make this transition will pay off by helping you to avoid the most common mistakes newly tenure faculty members make. And once you’ve clearly identified your posttenure goals, you’ll be able to choose leadership opportunities proactively instead of reacting to other people’s requests and flattery.

Gather a Supportive Community

If you’re willing to treat picking your posttenure pathway as a project for this term, then the most effective way to pursue that project -- and ensure you actually complete it -- is to surround yourself with a community of support and accountability. Specifically, I recommend that you use your organizing skills to gather a group of newly tenured faculty members, either on your campus or a group of your peers at other campuses, who are also committed to this project. Choosing your next chapter doesn’t have to be done in isolation and may even be thrilling when done in a group setting.

For example, this semester I am leading a group of newly tenured women through a structured discovery process to identify their posttenure pathways. Everyone in our group has committed over the next 12 weeks to three things: 1) picking a posttenure pathway, 2) developing a new mentoring network to support their chosen path and 3) creating a plan to move forward. Being part of a supportive and noncompetitive community of your peers who are experiencing this same moment of transition will inevitably challenge you to articulate (and rethink) your assumptions, see new possibilities for your future, identify and contact new role models, and start developing relationships with a whole new level of mentors who can support your leadership goals.

Begin Rethinking Leadership

I’ll warn you now that most faculty members with whom I’ve worked in this transition have an unarticulated belief that leadership means taking on an administrative position. I’ve found that’s a limiting belief and often leads to black-and-white thinking. (For instance, “Should I become department chair or not?”) In reality, leadership is not restricted to administrative positions on a campus. It’s not only possible but also at times more effective to lead change from outside formal roles.

I wonder what would happen if you gathered a group to consider big questions, like “Who am I,” “What do I love,” “What problems do I want to toward solving” and “Who do I want to become as a leader on my campus?” And what if you started to define leadership as using your strengths to work for the change you care about in a meaningful and consistent way -- whether that change is in your department, on your campus or in the world? I bet you would quickly realize that there’s more than one way to become a leader.

Taking a pause, gathering a community and rethinking leadership will help you to think consciously and intentionally about the next five years of your professional life. By defining what you want -- rather than what others want for you -- you can avoid constraining your possibilities. Instead of asking yourself if you want to pursue becoming department chair, I hope that you will consider what kind of leader you want to become, what changes you are willing to collectively work toward and what support, skills and experiences you need to grow into that vision.


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. I receive “Dear Kerry Ann” letters at [email protected].


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