Leadership and Communication


The communication conundrum – The faculty administrator

As an administrator and faculty member at a private institution I regularly have a variety of people that approach me for a broad spectrum of reasons due to the many hats I wear.  Because of that, I often am not sure which hat I am wearing when approached by others.  For example, there are times when another faculty member will approach me and ask a question regarding academics and I am not sure which role to play until later in the conversation.  This can be problematic.

Are there others that are in a similar situation as I am?

The Intention

Generally, leaders appreciate and desire to serve those under them effectively.  I certainly want to listen and care for those that come into contact with me.  That being said, mistakes can be made through unintentional miscommunication and inaccurate expectations.  I believe that most people want to portray positive and effective leadership characteristics.  However, leaders are not always given the best information to respond appropriately.  What would you do in this circumstance?


Sally approaches a teacher and communicates that another student hurt her feelings.

Which leadership response is appropriate:

Response 1) The teacher listens and pats the student on the back and says, “Sorry that happened.  Are you feeling better now that you told me?  Why don’t you stay away from that student for a while and come share with me if that happens again.”

Response 2) The teacher sits down with the student and they together brainstorm what Sally could have done to avoided that situation.  They also discuss what the other student could have done to avoid the situation.  Finally, they both shared ideas about what should be done as a result of this situation.  After the conversation the teacher and student agree on a strategy.

Response 3) The teacher walks over to the other student and makes both of them discuss the situation and resolve the issue.

These three responses all depend on one thing, the student’s needs.  This scenario is based in a school, but place this situation in a office context or social setting and the strategy will be effective.  I will explain each of these responses in the next section.

The Strategy

What do people want?

In order for me to be the best at my role, I need to be able to ascertain what others expect, desire, and need from me.  This strategy may help you to identify more clearly what others need from you.

This communication strategy was developed because I found that I could be three different people in most issues when approached by another person.  Understanding your role will help avoid a dangerous situation that I will discuss later.  When approached try to discover as quickly as possible what the person needs from you.

I often ask visitors, What did you hope to get out of today’s meeting with me?  What did you expect to accomplish by discussing this issue with me?  This question helps the person clarify their expectations and me understand what they need.  I want to know if people are venting, brainstorming, or expecting me to solve the issue(s) discussed.  Once I know this, I can be an effective leader.


Is the person approaching your because they need to vent?  In order to determine this it is effective to ask questions like:   A lot of the time employees, friends, loved ones just need someone to talk to.  An effective leader understands quickly that the other person is venting.  When you identify someone as venting do you know what your role is?  You should listen!  Try to say as little as possible.  This meeting is focused on the “other.”


Is the person expecting that you work an issue/topic with them?  If this is the case, then you should provide a brainstorming setting where ideas are shared but not written in stone.  Brainstorming is very different than the other two.  The brainstorming session is full of free ideas and no one should be afraid of being wrong or jump to conclusions about any one suggestion.  This meeting is focused on “together.”


Is the person meeting with you because they are at a loss and need your guidance and/or decision making skills?  People that need a decision made do not always know that is what they need.  If you observe that this is what is needed you can ask questions like: What have you done to try to resolve/solve the issue/problem?  There are some situations that require a leader to make the decision.  If you experience the solving meeting it will be focused on the “leader.”

I have not failed to recognize that expectations are not always met.  In other words, people expecting to vent, brainstorm, solving does not guarantee that the leader should automatically provide that.  Rather, it is through knowing that expectation that a leader can then communicate the appropriate expectation.  For example, a person expecting a leader to make a decision might be told, “I am sorry but I am not able to make a decision on that at this time.”  The genius in this strategy is that it not only has the potential to provide effective leadership, but also can help set expectations of those that the leader serves.

Leaders have the ability to diagnose the people, circumstances, and context to identify if it is a venting, brainstorming, or solving meeting.  I have also experienced situations where the meeting began as a venting session and transitioned to a brainstorming moment.  Be aware that the goal post may move depending on the clarity and length of the meeting.

The Danger

Some of the largest conflicts in education that are personnel related are a result of someone venting and the other person trying to solve the problem.  It is quite frustrating to have someone tell you what you should do when you are trying to explain the frustrations related to the issue.  Similarly, it is equally frustrating to expect a brainstorming session where ideas are shared freely when a person of authority makes a decision.  On the other hand, as a leader, it is equally frustrating to have a person expect a decision when the leader is providing a brainstorming context and the others take a suggestion as a decision.  These scenarios could have been avoided if communication was clearer.  Remember, venting session should focus on the other, brainstorming sessions focus on together, and solving sessions focus on the leader.

If Sally (above scenario) was venting the teacher should have listened and response 1 is appropriate.

If Sally needed to brainstorm with the teacher some ideas to resolve the situation and avoid it in the future, then response 2 would be appropriate.

If Sally had exhibited a pattern of these incidents (and/or the other student)  then response 3 would be appropriate.

This communication may help leaders understand their role and set expectations with the variety of constituents they encounter.

Dr. Nathan Herzog


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