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4 Limiting Beliefs About Leadership Development in Higher Education

By and

Tue Dec 20 2016


The pressure is on in higher education. Universities are fighting for market share, funding, and high-quality staff. The need for effective leadership throughout university systems is undeniably huge, while the prioritization of internal leadership development is largely inadequate. 

While universities may use assessments, book reviews, conferences, seminars, and team-building events to develop leaders, these activities alone fall short. What’s needed is a long-term strategic approach to developing leaders that aligns with university priorities, integrates into performance expectations, and improves stakeholders’ experiences. 


Although public programs and various resources exist, efforts to implement internal leadership development initiatives are often derailed. The reason? Seemingly credible rationales (also known as limiting beliefs). Here are four common ones: 


It’s a University, Not a Business

When we dislike something about someone, we immediately look for ways to distance ourselves. We focus on differences. The behavior stems from fear and manifests as judgment. Unfortunately, this clouds our vision, and we lose our ability to see similarities.



Universities, like businesses, count on people to:

  • Honor the mission.

  • Build and protect its culture.

  • Achieve outcomes.

  • Complete tasks.

Talent development professionals can help leaders overcome this limiting belief in two ways. First, focus leaders on reasons to employ people (listed above). Second, highlight the ways in which leaders influence employee performance. Limiting leadership development to business is the equivalent of limiting education to students. All organizations can benefit tremendously from leadership development, just like all people can thrive with education. 


Insufficient Research

Some psychologists and motivational speakers believe certainty is a human need. While most of us behave in ways supportive of this theory, certainty in all things is unrealistic.



Compared with research about leadership development in business, higher education is lacking. However, there was a point when business faced the same dilemma. Now the research is abundant, but someone had to go first before others followed.

Overcoming this limiting belief boils down to the skill of making inferences (using what’s known to guide what’s unknown) and an early adopter mindset. 

**Daily Demands Prevail


Getting stuck in the weeds is common in any workplace. Many people report feeling squeezed by never-ending to-do lists and daily fire drills. Being reactive and busy can feel productive and even effective, but it’s often an illusion. It’s common to confuse what feels urgent with what’s important. 

Effective leaders help people balance daily demands with high-impact activities. However, most leaders aren’t hardwired with these abilities. They have to be learned and mastered. Although productivity may suffer short term, it will improve in the long run. Talent development professionals must support and encourage long-term quality results over short-term struggles.

**Scarcity of Resources


Scarce resources become limiting when used as a barrier instead of as a prompt for creativity. Getting creative starts with asking good questions: What’s possible? What can we do? Next, it’s about identifying partners. And finally, it’s about looking for ways to create shared value. 

When we use limited resources to justify a lack of investment in leadership development, the impact on people is difficult to reverse. It leads to burnout and apathy. For talent development professionals, there’s an opportunity to illuminate the hidden costs of not making leadership development a priority. People resources need replenishment and nourishment to remain effective. 

The need for leadership development in higher education is growing. As the pressure builds, talent development professionals must be ready to support decision makers in reframing limiting beliefs.

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