Minimizing Uncertainty: The Role of Interim Leaders in Higher Education

By Robert Luke

Colleges and universities face unprecedented uncertainty as they respond to simultaneous public health and economic crises. Many institutions, needing to fill leadership vacancies, are looking to interim executives from outside their organizations to address their immediate challenges.

Interim leaders can support leadership teams in working through the crisis and preparing for future challenges:

  1. Assessment. Interim leaders should have the experience and skills to understand excellence and provide an objective assessment of the institution and/or unit. These individuals can often advise on the best way forward and explain tradeoffs of various alternative paths.
  2. Decision-making. Interim executives can make tough decisions that a permanent hire may have a more difficult time making early in their tenure. Such decisions may be time-sensitive and are often necessary to move an institution forward. This could include making important personnel and budget decisions.
  3. Stability. While strong interim leaders need to be effective change managers with exceptional interpersonal skills, they also understand the importance of providing stability to a team. This will be a universal need for places experiencing institutional change and given broader uncertainty in higher education.
  4. Flexibility. Having the right interim leader gives an institution the time to properly conduct a search and recruit the strongest candidates to the role. If an interim leader is supporting a place in the ways mentioned above, an institution may be able to consider a broader set of candidate profiles for the permanent role.

What Makes a Good Interim Leader?

In light of the key role these individuals hold in an institution’s future, there are some common attributes that make an effective interim leader in higher education today:

  1. Experience. The best candidates for an interim position are those that have recently held the position on a permanent basis. An interim position is not an opportunity for a candidate to test their skills at a higher level. The position should be familiar for the placement so they can begin making valuable decisions as soon as possible.
  2. Perspective. For some institutions, an internal interim may be the right decision. However, for many universities and colleges, an external interim may be the best way to proceed. These individuals are not mired in campus politics and can bring a fresh perspective from other institutions and the variety of roles they have held.
  3. Focus. Too often internal interims will hold both their permanent and interim positions simultaneously. The outcome of this approach is frequently burnout and suboptimal decision-making. An effective interim ensures the position receives the focus and attention it deserves and does not divide the time and energy across roles.
  4. Intentionality. The best interims are those that are deliberate with pursuing such assignments. They are often accomplished late-career individuals who want to continue using their experience and skills while living a relatively flexible lifestyle. In contrast, they are typically not interested in permanent positions.

The stakes for having the right leaders and for ensuring the right decisions are made have never been higher. Given the uncertainty and rapidly changing times we all face, it is important that institutions respond to and be supported in increasingly innovative and contemporary ways, especially as it relates to leadership transitions.

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