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Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say About Effective Leadership

reviewed by Lillian B. Niwagaba - August 05, 2009

coverTitle: Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say About Effective Leadership
Author(s): Mimi Wolverton, Beverly L. Bower, and Adrienne E. Hyle
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1579222560, Pages: 157, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

Given the low numbers of women in leadership roles at American universities, it is fitting that the first book in Stylus Publishing Company’s Pathway to Leadership series is Women at the Top:  What Women University and College Presidents Say about Effective Leadership. Through their personal stories, the remarkable women featured in this book highlight their profound personal journeys to top leadership positions at American colleges and universities. Through a meticulously designed investigation of leadership literature, semi-structured interviews, newspaper articles, and institutional documents, the authors take the reader through the lived experiences of women leading higher education institutions of various types.  

The authors selected nine remarkable women for their study, whose diversity transcends geography, race, institution type, and age. The book not only richly informs the reader but contextualizes the challenges of these women leaders, giving readers a glimpse of what it takes for women to “reach the presidency” of American colleges and universities in the twenty-first century (p. 146).  

What Warren Bennis observed about leadership fifty years ago still rings true today:

Always, it seems, the concept of leadership eludes us or turns up in another form to taunt us again with its slipperiness and complexity. So, we have invented an endless proliferation of terms to deal with it...and still the concept is not sufficiently defined (p. 260).   

Leadership is hard to define, and effective leadership is even harder. But by defining effective leadership, Wolverton, Bower, and Hyle provide us with a cohesive conceptualization of leadership as exemplified by the successful women profiled in their book. And by clearly delineating the nine tenets distilled from these college and university presidents’ lived experiences, the authors have written a book that is a truly exceptional contribution to the literature on leadership.

Traditional definitions of leadership focus on leadership traits, functions, and styles. These definitions work under the assumption that leaders possess certain characteristics and qualities that distinguish them from the pack of other senior managers in organizations. Some assume that leaders have specific functional duties and roles that set them apart from others in an organization—duties and roles that may be situational, transactional, or transformational. Creative scholars have come up with ways to integrate and blend all the definitions and assumptions about leadership by developing such theoretical concepts as Lipman-Blumen’s Connective Leadership, Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, Blanchard’s Situational Leadership, Pielstick’s Authentic Leadership, Cottrell’s Monday Morning Leadership, and Collins’ Level 5 Leadership.

In all these definitions, descriptors such as influence, power, vision, communication, character, charisma, and integrity are used. The women in this book transcend the descriptors of leadership to showcase their incredible skill and zeal for leading others. Gretchen Bataille at the University of North Texas took advantage of all the opportunities that came her way. Through her story we meet a hard working, resilient individual who believes that leaders should be catalysts for change. And that’s what she has been at the various institutions where she has worked. At Arizona State University, she was the founding chair of the American Indian Studies program, at University of North Carolina, she shaped partner accommodation policies, and at the University of North Texas, she is breaking new ground in establishing student scholarships and building a strong university endowment in addition to boosting research capacity. Through the interviews, Bataille’s energy, passion, and commitment radiate as does her focus on making a positive difference in the world.  

According to Maccoby (2000), one of the distinctive features of leadership is that it is a relationship. It is through relationships that effective leaders select talent, motivate people, coach their subordinates, and build trust with and among stakeholders. In higher education, the stakeholders range from students, to alumni, trustees, staff, faculty, parents, and legislators; and they all require different things from a college or university president. Carol Harter’s experience at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is instructive. UNLV’s advertisement for the president’s position practically laid bare the university community’s frustration and skepticism about finding an effective leader for a dynamic institution that was evolving faster than university stakeholders could comprehend. The authors painstakingly describe Harter’s extraordinary leadership qualities and experiences and the difficult circumstances she took on. Her resilience, objectivity, and purposefulness are remarkable.

Drucker (1955) defines a leader as “someone who has followers” (p. 205). In delineating leadership from management, Covey quotes Drucker and Bennis: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” He intimates that “Management is the efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines that the ladder is leaning against the right wall” (p. 101). One of the “right things” is having the right people. Collins (2001) also talks about having the right people on the bus and in the right seats to ensure that the organization is moving forward. Barbara Douglas at Northwestern Connecticut Community College has been a leader who can get followers in the right seats as she drives change in a community and culture she understands all too well. Mildred Garcia at Berkeley College also highlights the importance of bringing in the best people and listening to them. Having the right people in the right places, confidence, and a cadre of mentors have helped these women on their leadership journeys.

Bennis (2003) looks at leadership as a personal journey. He highlights the importance of knowing oneself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among stakeholders, and taking effective action to actualize one’s own leadership potential. Mamie Howard-Gallady at Sullivan County Community College, Karon Gayton Swisher of Haskell Indian Nations University, Martha Nesbitt of Gainesville State College and the rest of the women featured in Women at the Top embody all that and more.  

Betty Siegel of Kennesaw State University and the other women leaders talk about having fun as they do what they love. That old adage of “do what you love and you will never work a day in your life” comes to mind. These women are indeed having fun and they all talk about the interconnectedness of their roles, of their stakeholders, and of humanity in general. The paradoxical nature of leadership as researched by Lipman-Blumen (2000) highlights this interconnectedness.  Her vision of connective leadership posits that leaders have to be simultaneously forceful and enabling, competitive and persuasive, powerful and entrusting, individualistic and collaborative.” She sees leaders as those people who “integrate and encourage multiple visions; accept ambiguity and reject orthodoxy; and assemble changing coalitions where followers shed passivity for active constituency eventually to emerge as leaders themselves” (p. 344). These women are true mentors of those they lead and they inspire other women who work in higher education to be actively engaged in their own career development.

The authors’ distillation of the interviews to derive the nine tenets of effective leadership make this a must read for aspiring leaders and followers in higher education. I especially liked the fact that the tenets were tucked away in the back after the authors’ thoughtful discussion of the obstacles of this “road less traveled” (p. 143). They highlight the speed bumps and crossroads that traditionally hold women and people of color from leadership positions.  

Women at the Top is inspirational because most women who read it will see themselves trying to balance their competing family priorities with career paths and can say, “I can do this too.” The future looks bright indeed for women who aspire to leadership roles in higher education, and this deeply personal and reflective book will serve as a guidebook and resource for other women who seek leadership roles in the nation’s colleges and universities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 05, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15736, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:22:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Lillian Niwagaba
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    LILLIAN B. NIWAGABA is a doctoral student in the Higher Education Program with a minor in Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas. Her research interests include Comparative and International Higher Education, Institutional Advancement, Leadership and Effectiveness. She is currently working on a project to advance access and quality in East African Higher Education.
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