Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Why Even Good Leaders Make Enemies

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It’s certainly true that bad administrators make a lot of enemies on their campuses. But it’s also true that good leaders sometimes make enemies too. Incurring a certain amount of opposition is simply an unpleasant but unavoidable part of the job. It usually means you’re doing something right.

In fact, if you’re in an administrative position, and you’ve never made any enemies, then you probably haven’t proposed much real change in your realm, and that’s a different kind of bad leadership.

As a former college administrator — with stints as a department chair, a program director, and even, briefly, a dean — I am now a faculty member and a leadership coach. After more three decades in academe, I can confirm that there are many reasons why, as a good leader, you might occasionally inspire enmity, including the following:

You can’t please everyone. Many who seek leadership positions are natural people-pleasers. In some cases, they go into administration specifically because they want to “unify” the department or act as a “steadying influence,” in comparison to what came before.

Some new department chairs even have a bit of a savior complex. They perceive that, under past leaders, certain faculty members (perhaps including themselves) were unhappy. They felt ignored, excluded, ill used. Now the new leader is going to fix everything, which is to say, make everyone happy.

Unfortunately, that is never going to happen. If everyone in your department is content, then either you’ve all achieved sainthood or you’ve become the most boring, least innovative, and lowest achieving department in history. As a leader, assuming you have at least one original idea along with a backbone and a pulse, you’re going to make someone unhappy, and that person might just become your enemy.

You do what’s right. We all grow up believing that, if we just do the right things, everyone will like us. The harsh reality is that some people will dislike you specifically because you do the right things.

That’s especially true for leaders, who must constantly make tough decisions about personnel, resources, and myriad issues that directly affect people’s lives. Even if you consistently make good decisions — in the best interests of students, the department, and the institution as a whole — someone will be adversely affected by those decisions and might therefore blame you.

Take salary raises, for instance. Let’s say that, after a fair process in which everyone was judged by the same standards and all had a chance to be heard, you decide that Professor Workhorse deserves a bigger raise than Professor Bigshot this year because Prof. W actually did more. Prof. B’s reputation, you note, is based primarily on accomplishments in past years. Most would agree that giving a larger raise to Workhorse than to Bigshot is not only a reasonable conclusion but the right one.

Most — but not Professor Bigshot, who may very well feel slighted and will become your worst enemy. Bigshot’s close friends and allies might also begin avoiding you in the halls, talking about you behind your back, and plotting your eventual demise.

The worst part: There’s very little you can do about it. You might try setting up a meeting to clear the air, but unless Professor Bigshot leaves his ego at home, that’s unlikely to have much effect. You just have to do what you believe is right, anyway, even when you know it’s going to make enemies.

You are who (and what) you are. The enmity might be personal — they never liked you, even before you became chair — or it might just be a result of your new position. Some faculty members reflexively dislike administrators, no matter who you happen to be.

Years ago, not long after arriving on the campus as a new department chair, I became aware that a certain faculty member just did not like me. I tried everything I could think of to improve our relationship, to no avail. Finally, I asked for advice from the previous chair, who had returned to the faculty on good terms.

“Oh, don’t worry about her,” she said. “She’s like that with every department chair.”

You represent change. Generally speaking, college faculty members do not handle change well. Academe, for all its pretense of being “progressive” and “forward thinking,” is actually one of the most hidebound enterprises in the world. And a significant percentage of the professoriate likes it that way.

As a new leader, you represent change — at least from the previous administration. Even if the change you pursue is generally acknowledged to be a good one, it’s still different, and many faculty members operate on the belief of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” (Note how, implicit in that motto, is the assumption that all administrators are devils.)

Moreover, you may be bringing actual change to your department or unit: replacing old ways of doing things with newer, more modern methods; seeking to update textbooks or revise curricula; perhaps even trying to start some effort to benefit students, such as promoting better faculty advising.

It’s naïve to think such upheaval will be universally popular. The changes themselves may well be good; perhaps they’ve long been needed. And if so, over time, a majority of the faculty will (probably) get on board. But not everyone will. Not ever. And one or two might even become your enemies.

You tell the truth. People can forgive many things, but sometimes telling the truth is not one of them. Politicians who tell the unvarnished truth — about a past indiscretion or a necessary policy change that people don’t want to hear — are somewhat less likely to get elected. Truth-telling journalists may find themselves attacked or even shunned. Even medical professionals often find patients second-guessing an unpleasant diagnosis.

Honest academic administrators are no less susceptible to this problem. People will clamor for you to be “open” and “transparent,” and you may promise to do so. Yet when you follow through on that pledge, you might find that not everyone appreciates your candor. The truth might be that a service course taught by a beloved old warhorse has been bleeding students for years, but if you decide to point that out, don’t expect it to be a popular truth.

Of course, there are effective ways to tell the truth and disastrous ways. As a leader, you will find that it pays to cultivate a modicum of diplomacy. Nor should you use truth as a weapon with which to bludgeon those who might have different ideas or honest disagreements. And remember that you aren’t necessarily under any obligation to reveal every bit of truth you know all at once.

But within those parameters, yes, leaders need to tell the truth, and you will be far more effective if you do so consistently. Just don’t expect everyone to like it.

You’re successful. Sadly, there are people in this world who simply cannot abide others’ success, especially if they feel insecure about their own accomplishments. That dynamic seems particularly prevalent in academe, perhaps because we operate in such a naturally competitive environment. So there is a tendency to see a colleague’s success as a reflection of your own perceived shortcomings.

Such petty jealousies may well be longstanding. Perhaps, long before you became department chair or dean, some of your colleagues already resented your publication record or your service on influential committees. They may have pegged you, early on, as an “up-and-comer” being groomed for leadership and thus labeled you (unfairly) as a “suck-up” or a “yes person.” If you expect your actual ascent to a leadership post to put an end to the sniping, you will be disappointed. It will only exacerbate matters (though it may, for a time, drive your detractors underground).

Or maybe they’re just unhappy that you were named chair and they weren’t. The sad truth is that some of your worst enemies might end up being people who, before your promotion, were among your best friends (or so you thought). There are also those who, even though they didn’t personally want to be chair — ladder-climbing is so unseemly, you know — still resent you for aspiring to the position.

Or perhaps they had their own favorite in the department-chair sweepstakes, and you weren’t it. That makes you, in their minds, illegitimate. Most of those colleagues may, in time, come around to your side, especially if you work hard to win them over. Just don’t count on winning over all of them.

You messed up. Finally, let us acknowledge that, sometimes, when we make enemies, it is actually our fault. Even if the mistake was inadvertent, a screw-up is a screw-up — and an enemy you made as a result may always be an enemy.

Years ago, as a brand-new chair, I misspoke at a most inopportune moment. The resident gossip in our department had “just stopped by” my office to warn me about a certain faculty member whom I had never met and who was soon to return from sabbatical. Had I heard that so-and-so was extremely hard to get along with?

“I’m sure I’ll be able to deal with her just fine,” I replied. Whoops. Poor choice of words. What I meant by “deal with” was “get along with” and “work with.” But that was not the meaning conveyed to the professor on sabbatical, who was told that I was going to “deal with her” when she got back.

I didn’t even learn about this until sometime later, after the faculty member returned and her animosity toward me became apparent. In a private meeting, I asked her why she disliked me so much, when I hadn’t done anything to her. She told me what her friend had said, whereupon I apologized profusely and explained what I had meant. No dice.

So yes, sometimes as a leader you will make enemies as a result of your own words, deeds, or mistakes. Part of the challenge of leadership is learning to work around those obstacles and become the kind of good leader who may not be valued by every faculty member but will at least be appreciated by most.

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