Navigating Leadership Transitions

Boat steering wheel and compass

Every leader generally experiences the same leadership life cycle, or what I call “Whitney’s Leadership Life Cycle,” that includes a set of stages as they begin, serve in, and leave a leadership role. There are four stages to every leadership position: Aspiring, Acquiring, Attending, and Adjourning. In order to be a successful leader, I suggest that there is value in creating a plan of action for each stage, mapping the intersections of what matters most to you with the institution you may wish to serve. Think of it as a framework or a filter that you will use to sift through what matters most to you as a leader, in connection to the priorities of an institution and the characteristics of the job that you would hold. At the end of the sifting, you will find your best “fit” for your next leadership position. Planning and acting during each stage of your leadership position with your “Fit Filter” will increase your potential for success!

While the use of the word “fit” typically connotes the extent to which a leader fits or could easily assimilate into an organization, I offer a different orientation to the use of the word. I suggest that we flip the ethos of “fit” from the organization scrutinizing the leader, to the leader scrutinizing the organization. As such, “fit” is the extent that the institution’s powerbase, history, and culture are in alignment with you and who you are, how you lead, and how you manage. 

This paper will walk you through the four stages using your “Fit Filter.” As an example, I will look at the leadership role of president. Please feel free to insert the position you have, or the next position you aspire to hold, as you consider your own path and where you are in your own leadership life cycle.

First, let’s look at your leadership role and consider who controls, informs, and/or is connected to the position from a 360-degree perspective. A president’s world starts with the board chair, the board’s executive committee, the entire board, and, if you are in a system, there is the head of the system. There must be a general agreement and alignment between you and those who can hire, support, and fire you. Equally important, your professional and personal priorities must be a good fit with the institution and community’s history and culture. As with any relationship, if you start off with the notion that you are going to fix your new university/college, it will probably not go well. On a certain level, each of us can improve the institution peripherally and only over time. So, what you see at a college/university is really what you get. With this in mind, prior to delving into the stages of a position, it is important to understand what aspects of the fit are important to you.


Creating Your Fit Filter

Each stage involves using your Fit Filter in different ways. Developing your Fit Filter is about truly knowing yourself and deciding which elements of your identity and life experiences will inform your leadership approach.


Individual Elements

Examples of individual elements can be your “whole self,” or the parts of your whole self that you have chosen to inform your approach to your leadership and management. Elements that should be included in your filter are your strengths, weaknesses, sources of energy/passion, disposition, and approach to leadership and management. You may also be in a place in your life where you would also want to consider your family’s interests.

Other elements may include your sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, age, geographic affinity, family identity, ability, generational identity, religious identity, class identity, educational identity (Identity: Definition, Types & Examples: Other elements could also include your approach to your work, to leadership, and to management.

Questions to Consider:

  • What are your strengths or areas of leadership that you easily access?
  • What areas of your leadership are harder for you to access?
  • How would you describe, in 90 seconds, your approach to leadership and management to others?
  • What identities do you hold that inform your approach to leadership and management?

Team Elements

Team elements would be what you most want to see in the team you are leading and/or the team you join as a member. This would encompass the group versions of individual elements. For the team you lead, you would look at their stages in the life cycle, and consider who they are and what their personal and professional priorities and goals may include. Consider where they are at the current moment and what needs to happen with the team in order to realize the desired outcomes you have been hired to achieve.

For the team where you are a member, the key is looking at your boss. What stage in the life cycle is your boss (or possible new boss)? What are the boss’s priorities, goals, and desired outcomes for themselves, and what part of your work aligns to their work? How clearly does the boss make these things known to others? Then look at the rest of the team. These are your colleagues and peers, and it’s important to know where they are in their leadership life cycle, who they are, and their priorities. In a high-functioning team, there is an interconnectedness of work between colleagues, so the better the alignment, the better the potential for being on a high-functioning (high-impact) team. The opposite is landing on a dysfunctional, overly siloed, duck-and-cover team. High-impact sounds like more fun.

Questions to Consider:

  • What leadership characteristics and dispositions are you most looking for in a boss?
  • What management characteristics and dispositions are you most looking for in a boss?
  • What leadership and management characteristics and dispositions are you most looking for in colleagues/peers?
  • What leadership and management characteristics and dispositions are you most looking for in the team that you would lead?
  • What identities do you hold, and how do they inform your approach to leadership and management in working with a boss, peers, and subordinates?

Institutional elements

Institutional elements will be about what you most want to see in the institution. Is the university or college public or private? Religious or secular? Where is it located? Is it rural or urban? West-Coast or East-Coast? Is it research or teaching-intensive? Two-year or four-year? Part of a system or stand-alone? Is it well-funded or “a turnaround?” There may be elements of the institution’s history or culture that may be a draw or a turn-off.  Other elements might be about the students the institution is dedicated to serving—first-generation, students of a certain socio-economic status, majority women, historically Black, or Hispanic-serving.

Questions to Consider:

  • What qualities and characteristics are you looking for from an institution?


Once you have explored the above questions, you now have your Fit Filter to use during your various stages of leadership. As you routinely reflect on your work, revisit your Fit Filter periodically and update it as you go along. The key is to keep in mind your deal-makers and deal-breakers for each stage of leadership—and at each phase of your career.


Using Your Fit Filter

Once you have created your “Fit Filter,” you can begin to examine the four stages of a leadership position: Aspiring, Acquiring, Attending, and Adjourning. As a reminder, I will look at the leadership role of president as an example. Please insert the position that you currently hold, or use this moment to begin thinking about your Aspiring Stage.


The Aspiring Stage

In the “Aspiring Stage,” the higher education leader is considering whether a presidency is right for them. This early stage may be anywhere from one month to several years before applying for a presidency. This is the stage where you spend the most time working on your Fit Filter. This is a space for seeing yourself in a future position and envisioning what you most want in terms of how your time and talent could best contribute to higher education.

If you have an aspirational role as a distant career goal, it is best to consider the experiences and areas of expertise you might want to cultivate over time. During this stage, it is important to engage the significant people in your life. The Aspiring Stage is the time to talk about what “fit” would look like for you and those close to you. You may engage with a leadership coach; you may also look at attending sessions at conferences for that next level, or begin exploring resources for that level of leadership.

Questions to Consider:

  • How do you choose what to include in your Fit Filter?
  • What informs your leadership? What are your strengths and past accomplishments? What would the IDEAL institution look like?
  • What actions can you take now to develop the disposition, skills, and experiences that will help you with the next stage?
  • Are there any individual, team, and institutional elements you most need to consider during this stage?

The Acquiring Stage

With a certain level of work completed in the Aspiring Stage, at least to the point that you have decided you want to move to a your next position, another element to consider is the question of when you would make the move. The timing of a move may evolve and change. This stage can also mark the ending of your preparation for the next position. Now you need to identify what the marketplace requires and/or prefers for your ideal presidency. The final task of the preparation stage is clarifying the process for acquiring the next position. As such, the next stage is the “Acquiring Stage,” the stage of evaluating specific presidential opportunities and entering the search and hiring process. At this stage, you will use your Fit Filter to consider the extent a specific potential appointment is in alignment with you and how you lead and manage. The filter is one way to examine the team and institutional elements, history, culture, and politics of the community and institution compared to yours. Use your filter as you review the institution’s strategic plan, news articles, accreditation reports, lawsuits, minutes of faculty senate and board meetings, and everything you can find online. Look at all the institutional policies particularly those that relate to executives. Try and locate any policy that might relate to the presidential spouse and family. If the search is associated with a search firm, review your top fit items with the search professional. You are a detective discovering the inner workings of the institution.

Questions to Consider:

  • As you look at specific job descriptions for the next position, what are your specific leadership/management/results gaps that you need to bridge?
  • For each interested position, work to become very clear about the results you are being hired to achieve—and how you will know if/when you are successful.
  • What resources do you have around you that could help you engage and succeed in the hiring process?
  • How are your unique skills, disposition, experiences and areas of expertise exactly what the institution most wants in their next leader?
  • Are there specific interests/results that you most want to achieve during the search/hiring/job negotiating process?

The Attending Stage

The “Attending Stage” is the longest stage of the presidency, lasting from the moment a public announcement is issued that you have been hired, to the moment—hopefully many years later—when you are announcing that you will be stepping down. What will be your brand and your “presidential reputation?” Who you are and how you act every day with every person forms your brand. Who you are and how you choose to present yourself is significant to a successful presidency. Knowing yourself and being very comfortable with yourself—and helping others to be comfortable with you—is key to building and maintaining relationships as a president.


  • As you move through your presidency, how do you come to know if you are leading and managing as you intend?
  • What is the clarity regarding what you have been hired to accomplish, and how do you keep that clarity throughout your appointment?
  • How will you know when you achieve the highest priority results?
  • What skills and dispositions do you continue to develop over time while in this position?
  • How do you work to ensure that you maintain the alignment that you want between your whole self and this position at this university?

The Adjourning Stage

Adjourning a presidency is the last stage, and it is the one most often overlooked in the literature. This stage is about how to end and transition out graciously. It’s about completing the appointment and securing one’s legacy. This stage begins the moment there is a public announcement of your exit. Once the announcement occurs, you are in a completely different leadership space. In an instant, everyone associated with your presidency will treat you differently. Often, exiting presidents will comment that they feel overlooked and unappreciated the moment they announce their departures, as the institution instantly pivots to securing and onboarding the next president. To reduce the downside to leaving, prior to any public announcement, be sure to develop an exit plan and outboarding process in close collaboration with your boss and the team you are leading. Coordinating your exit becomes particularly important if you have a partner and family.


  • How will you know when you will want to leave a position?
  • What do you want others to say about you after you leave your position, and what in this final stage can you do to ensure your legacy?
  • Who do you need to work with to prepare your exit plan and outboarding process?
  • During this stage, what are the results you most want to achieve before leaving?
  • What are your exiting needs?