Developing Presidential Leadership Amid a Pandemic

By Terrence MacTaggart January 28, 2021 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

“I never imagined this degree of disruption when I sought and accepted this presidency,” observed one veteran chief executive. He went on to say “my plan was to restore the luster of this great university. I knew how to do that. Now I need to learn how to lead in a crisis and plan for a very different post-pandemic future. All this is new to me.” Versions of these words describe the quandary facing most veteran and first-time college and university presidents today.

In a disruption as profound as that triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership development needs to be fast, realistic, and cognizant of the executive’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leading through the crisis. Executive growth must occur in real time because the consequences of the pandemic are damaging and, in some cases, destroying institutions at a record pace.  Lofty visions conceived as part of a presidential search process must yield to realistic goals for the later stages of the pandemic. Finally, effective leadership development is personal. The foundation is an objective appraisal of the gaps in the executive’s repertoire when it comes to leading in a radically changed world.

These recommendations are intended to guide a willing and able executive in strengthening their capacity to lead in today’s disrupted circumstances.

Redefine the role of the President as an “enterprise leader”

Leading the academic enterprise today demands that presidents develop their capacity to deliver on these hallmarks:

  • A realistic view of the college or university’s competitive position and the challenges it faces in sustaining and strengthening it
  • A practical, fact-based, and compelling vision for the future
  • The emotional intelligence to relate to the diverse interests of different stakeholders, to build a highly functioning team, and to work in concert with an engaged board
  • The change leadership skills to transform a legacy-centric institution into one that pursues its mission in a dramatically altered environment
  • Key personal qualities including integrity, energy, resilience, a positive demeanor, and the ability to sustain one’s own physical and mental health

Adopt an assessment model built on these expectations

Historic criteria for evaluating presidents need updating to reflect the challenges facing the academic enterprise now and for the foreseeable future. Questions like these should punctuate assessment surveys and interviews. How adept is the president at leading change in the current environment? How fully is the board engaged as a “strategic partner” with the president in charting the future? Does the president clearly communicate with the faculty regarding the tough questions about the future? To what degree does the president appreciate the business side of the enterprise? How effective is the executive in managing and leading through crises?

Retain the services of an experienced assessor and advisor

The ideal assessor, advisor and coach is a former chief executive familiar with similar institutions, experienced in assessing presidents, and versed in crisis leadership. They should also recognize the new expectations for presidents as enterprise leaders. The assessor has three major functions. The first is to advise the president and the board on a simple, clear, and relevant process for strengthening the president’s leadership. The second is to assess the president’s performance and potential which includes evidence of past performance, a survey of stakeholder views, and confidential interviews. The third is to propose development options most important for the president to pursue. The consultant may take an active role in the subsequent development process, including coaching.

Develop an executive growth program aimed toward highly functioning leadership

An effective plan integrates the president’s learning needs with the needs of the institution for executive leadership. For example, a president who came up through the traditional academic ranks now serving at a university shifting to online learning needs to become versed in all that goes into this transition. A president with strong business experience should quickly learn the realities of leading change in an academic organization featuring shared governance and decentralized authority.

Coaching is an important factor in developing high-potential corporate leaders. It is just as critical for academic leaders. In addition to coaching, there are several others means of leadership development that form part of the president’s professional growth plan. Workshops, conversations with peers as well as reading fresh literature on relevant topics should be part of the mix. High stress is a product of an environment demanding the right decisions in a fraught milieu featuring uncertainty on every side. Effective development plans emphasize periodic timeouts, vacations, personal and family counseling if called for, physical exercise, and regular medical examinations all supported by institutional funds.

“Willing and able”

“No amount of leadership development—coaching, mentoring, workshops, reading, and so on—will substitute for lack of desire or talent” according to experienced chief executives. These observers estimate that 15 percent of presidents (and other senior leaders) cannot be developed into true leaders. The good news is that, by this reckoning, 85 percent of presidents can become more effective if engaged in a well-designed development program.

Related AGB Resources

  • Presidential Assessment
    AGB’s Presidential Assessment provides the occasion for a board to deepen its understanding of the president, of his or her leadership, and of the institution. Assessing a president in order to build stronger performance is a process with three stages: ongoing feedback, annual reviews, and periodic 360 assessment.  Email us to learn more.
  • Coaching for New Leadership
    AGB’s Coaching for New Leadership provides the critical support, guidance, and peer network for thinking through the issues new leadership will face, making sound decisions, and implementing effective action plans.  Email us to learn more.
  • A longer article on this topic is included in the January/February 2021 issue of Trusteeship magazine.


Terrence “Terry” MacTaggart is an AGB Senior Fellow and author of Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents: An Enterprise Leadership Approach (AGB Press, 2020).

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