Leadership Training for Department Chairs

Program reviews

Department chairs are the “front line” of academic management (whether or not, in fact, their positions are classified as management or as faculty) — yet most department chairs receive little or no training for their positions.

There are reasons for this:

  • A lack of appropriately trained trainers on campus
  • A chair population that makes up a mixed audience from the very new to the long-term, seasoned chair
  • Differing needs across disciplines
  • No clear training curriculum or outcomes

Yet many problems that rise to higher levels of administration could be avoided or mitigated if they are handled by well-trained chairs in the first place. And institutions that neglect chairs do so at their own peril. Leadership training is especially critical now, given the pressures that tightened budgets, changing modes of delivery for instruction, increased demands for accountability, the growing diversity of the academy, and increased attention to employment law within academic institutions, all place on the expectations for department chairs.

Why “Leadership” Training?

Leadership training goes beyond other kinds of training. Indeed, the term “leadership training” might well be parsed out as a combination of training and leadership development:

  • Training is a means of teaching chairs particular institutional policies, practices, resource management tools, and the like. The desired outcomes are easily measured and quickly implemented.
  • Leadership, on the other hand, is a more ephemeral outcome. A good department chair will mentor junior faculty, foster a collegial environment, support a diverse group of teachers and scholars, encourage voluntary compliance with mandates from “on high,” to name a few desiderata – and doing so requires judgment and character traits that warrant following. So, developing leadership in your department chairs must be a sustained effort that involves the practicing of skills across a broad array of contexts.

Developing a leadership training curriculum must take these features into account. The best training programs will both produce immediate outcomes and develop leadership skills over a sustained period of time.

First, Identify Learning Outcomes

What do your department chairs need to know, and when do they need to know it?
Answering this question may seem an obvious first step, but surprisingly, it is often overlooked. The chairs themselves may be very helpful in designing the curriculum; in particular, experienced – but relatively new – chairs (e.g., those finishing their first or second year in the position) will be able to identify things that they wished they had known sooner and training they could have used but didn’t have, as well as cases of training that may already be offered but is underutilized.
Once you have a “laundry list” of training topics that chairs have identified, you will want to add to the list topics that a chair is unlikely to know about (or want to hear about) — such as new human resources policies or practices.
A comprehensive list of training topics should include:

  • Human resource basics (for those who will supervise staff, post-docs, graduate teaching assistants, or others)
  • Budget management (including forms and reports that all chairs must be familiar with)
  • Policies and procedures for handling various kinds of complaints from students, staff, or faculty and the campus offices to contact when complaints of a certain kind must be referred out
  • Curriculum revision and course scheduling basics
  • Mentoring and evaluation of faculty for re-appointment, retention, tenure, and promotion.

Each of these topics will have both “must know” features and nuances. The “must know” features should be incorporated into an orientation for all new department chairs, whereas the nuances can likely be withheld for later training sessions.
A comprehensive leadership training program will foster such skills as:

  • Empathetic listening
  • Investigation best practices (for handling complaints)
  • Time management
  • Effective communication
  • Self-care

Skills are best learned by doing. Thus, to achieve these outcomes, chairs should receive both information and practice in utilizing the skills. A case-based approach is most effective (and on the typical campus, there will be no lack of “real” cases to discuss!). Many new chairs learn these skills by working through actual cases with a more experienced colleague; however, it is best to have some practice with case studies before the skills are put to the true test.

Training Curricula “Dos” and “Donts”

As I mentioned, a well-developed training curriculum will provide chairs with both basic training (most immediately in an orientation) and more in-depth training on nuanced topics of enduring importance, including leadership skills.
I highly recommended that the training program be presented in periodic meetings throughout the year, rather than all at once. Few chairs will be able to absorb all of the information in one pass (even if that one meeting is a long retreat), and the all-at-once approach does not allow for absorption of the material, field-testing, and then refining, as a more episodic approach would.
Here are a few additional “Dos” and “Donts”:

  • Schedule training well in advance (e.g., the full meeting schedule for the following academic year should be announced the prior spring) and keep to the same schedule year to year (assuming the schedule is working for chairs).
  • Schedule training over lunch (or accompany with coffee/snacks); chairs are busy people, but even busy people take breaks to eat. While you will see that the training itself is incentive to attend, offering refreshments will build in a reward structure that attracts attendees.
  • Keep agendas for training sessions short, so that the session is focused on one or two critical learning outcomes and chairs have the opportunity to meet the learning outcomes. As with all effective pedagogy, success here will require multiple learning modalities; e.g., chairs may get information from a presentation, apply it to scenarios they are likely to encounter, and hear an “expert” analyze their practice responses. Experts can be more experienced chairs, higher-level administrators, human resources professionals, University counsel, or other guest speakers.
  • Sessions that focus on leadership skills should require chairs to practice (or model) those skills. For instance, when developing communication skills in chairs, you might require that they role play scenarios in which a chair must deliver very difficult or uncomfortable messages to faculty. Fellow chairs can critique their performances based on the “best practices” information presented earlier in the session.


  • The “start/stop” tendency that many institutions fall into. While an orientation is critical, it should be followed up with other training sessions. Think of chairs as students, and understand that they will need more than the equivalent of the first course lecture if they are to master the course content.
  • The “information dump” meeting format. Anyone who puts together a department chair training series will attest to the fact that everyone on campus wants “just 5 minutes” of your agenda time.  Do not use precious development time for announcements when there are other ways to deliver information.
  • Failure to align training with strategic initiatives. If the campus is embarking on a capital campaign, for instance, and chairs will be instrumental in the campaign, include sessions on fund-raising, development basics, and alumni relationship building.

Keep all of this in mind, and you will be well on your way to designing an effective leadership training curriculum for department chairs.