Universities as organizations have always been more complicated than their private or public sector peers. Bi-cameral governance, the impact of academic freedom on the nature of the faculty’s relationship with the institution and the reliance on government funding with all the strings that are attached make for a challenging environment. And as Dr. Ross Paul points out in Leadership Under Fire. The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President, the university has become an even more complex institution to lead from within.

The challenging context of the university, compounded by the increasingly competitive landscape, has caused most Presidential search committees to engage in the debate about whether their next president should be an academic or a business leader. If you have heard the conversations, they frequently pit the need for credibility with the academic community against the need for new, diverse and increasing revenue streams. More simply, is the role of the university president that of the chief academic officer or the chief executive officer?

This is an important debate in Presidential search communities – and for the university itself – to have when searching and selecting a president. Our experience indicates that professional background is less important than whether the presidential candidate possesses three key leadership competencies that are essential for success in leading today’s university – relationship management, influence and persuasion and resilience.

The university president must be a master of relationships - both building and maintaining them. While governments have been reducing funding, they have also been gaining more influence over the university through policy and overall fiscal direction. Presidents today need to play a more significant role in influencing and shaping government policy and in forging partnerships with the many levels of government, while maintaining an arms-length relationship that serves the institution’s interests. Students, and their tuition paying parents, have become customers with demands, expectations and needs that call for a new relationship with the university president. With less fiscal room to manoeuvre, relationships with faculty unions and associations are also more complex. And the need to source new funding and tap into global recruitment markets calls for presidents to be able to build and maintain a network of relationships that reaches far outside the walls of the institution. And then of course there is fund raising. With most university presidents being appointed from outside the institution, the new university president needs to come to the role prepared to forge new relationships quickly and be armed with strong social skills, a deep curiosity about people and the energy to network.

Secondly, presidents have to be highly adept at influence and persuasion. Universities by their nature are ‘flat’ organizations where collegiality dominates the organization culture and how everything is done. New presidents need to be able to use influence and persuasion rather than command and control as their primary approach to sharing ideas, building consensus, and creating alignment. Effective presidents bring the right combination of “foot on the gas and foot on the brake” leadership along with the ability, and willingness, to listen.

Finally, university presidents have to be resilient. They must be perpetually optimistic and comfortable with ambiguity. Leading a university requires a keen ability to rapidly and adeptly shift from priority to priority, to see risk and opportunity and to choose when to proceed forward and when to wait.

Selecting a candidate with the combination of relationship management skills, the ability to influence and persuade and thick skin isn’t easy. These competencies cannot be read from a CV and are not easy to assess from the responses to interview questions. Instead, in-depth conversations with presidential candidates, information from psychometric and other leadership assessments and more meaningful, probing reference calls need to play a more significant role in the selection process. As universities continue to move away from more traditional structures, the search for leadership must adapt to be non-traditional as well. After all, within university classrooms we teach future leaders to think critically; we should take this inspiration to think about challenges in different ways beyond the classroom walls and extend it to our presidential searches.


This white paper represents the collective opinions expressed during a series of academic roundtable discussions held in 2012, hosted by Anna Stuart, Dr. Ross Paul, former president of Laurentian and Windsor Universities, and, Dr. Peter George, president emeritus of McMaster University.

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Managing Partner
Anna is a Managing Partner with KBRS. She leads the firm's academic and public sector executive search assignments and leadership solutions practices. Anna’s consultative style and pragmatic approach has delivered exceptional results to a range of organizations and leaders across the region.