How to Build Great Leaders in Higher Education:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Roger Hughes | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 093

Table of Contents

How to Build Great Leaders in Higher Education

As a leadership consultant for higher education institutions, one of the things I’m often asked about is how to build great leaders in higher education. Leadership is critical for higher education institutions – and, in truth, great leaders can come from all walks of life. One example is Dr. Roger Hughes, a former head football coach at Stetson University and Princeton University, the new president of Doane University.

Because Doane University is his alma mater, Hughes believes the campus community’s familiarity with him, as well as his understanding of Doane’s traditions, helped his selection as president. He also noted that as a football coach, he was affiliated with stellar academic institutions, including Dartmouth, Princeton, and Stetson. The athletes at these institutions were primarily focused on earning their degrees instead of preparing for careers in the National Football League.

He also credits his recent selection to being interviewed for the same job 10 years ago. At the time, he didn’t think of colleges as businesses but instead considered them a noble profession. That proved to be an important learning opportunity that forced him to begin to think deeply about institutional operations.  

In the meantime, Stetson asked him to start a Division 1 football program from scratch. During that process, he got an introduction to the multi-faceted aspects of higher education – he had to interact with housing, cafeteria, student support, recruiting, financial aid, and many other areas of the university. He also had to work with faculty to ensure that programs such as engineering were offered that would attract athletes with strong academic backgrounds. Hughes credits this experience, building a program from scratch to the point where the team becomes a conference contender, as having prepared him to be a qualified candidate for the Doane presidency.

Foundations to Build Great Leaders in Higher Education

Hughes’ greatest aptitude is his ability to relate to people, and his ability to learn. He is a scholar of leadership and has read voraciously about the subject. For example, while at Stetson, he started the football program with only freshmen, but soon determined that this was a mistake – he had not taken into account the importance of having upper-class students as players and role models. He expected that the students’ leadership qualities would naturally grow as they aged. However, he learned after year 3 that the captains who were elected were not being followed, nor were they being good leaders.

At that point, he spoke with the women’s basketball coach, who had developed a process where players had to apply for the team’s leadership positions when there wasn’t a standout leader. He also coincidentally picked up a book called “Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALS Lead and Win.” The book said that if the leader is the only one initiating things, the organization will not reach its full potential. However, when a team is team-driven instead of coach-driven, there’s a better chance for the team to make the right decisions when the coach is not around.

Based on this, he started a new program where captains had to apply for the job, including submitting a resume and two letters of recommendation, interviewing a community leader, and going through an interview process that offered scenarios. Hughes also taught a leadership course to the team, attendance in which was required if someone wanted to be considered for captain. This enabled Hughes to not only find players to serve as captains, but also to identify underclassmen who were emerging leaders. Additionally, these students were asked to teach the rest of the team about the book at the beginning of the fall semester, which allowed Hughes’ leadership philosophy to permeate the team and created a culture of accountability.

He has taken this approach at Doane with his leadership team. While other presidents call the leadership team the cabinet, Hughes notes that no one has been “managed” out of a crisis – he wanted people on campus to understand that they are in a position of leadership. This includes spreading the leadership dynamic throughout the campus, including to the provost and deans.  

As part of that, he strives to give people the tools they need to lead so they can achieve their goals. He also believes it’s important to come from the perspective of “team” in today’s culture, instead of a perspective of “When do I get mine?”

Leadership Development

To prepare to be a leader, Hughes read and learned from others, including the coaches at Doane when he was a player. He also weighs heavily in his experiences the time he was a graduate assistant for Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, where he saw firsthand the coach’s competitiveness and high standards for excellence.

Hughes tried to study the best military leaders, such as Napoleon, who focused on quality of communications. He also listened to leadership speakers, such as John Gordon and John Maxwell, and credits his faith for helping him develop as a servant leader.

In accepting the university’s presidency, Hughes knew he had to change his decision-making processes. He spoke with sitting presidents before interviewing for Doane. He learned that higher education has a specific pace that differs from that of a head football coach who called a new play every 25 seconds and that he needed to be willing to work at that pace. He also turned to the wisdom of the Navy SEALS when facing a challenge and tries to follow their advice to relax, look around, and make the decision.

Additionally, he uses President Harry Truman’s feedback that suggests knowing when the drop-dead deadline is to make a decision and then watch to see if the situation resolves itself. This approach also gave Truman more capacity for the bigger decisions.

Hughes realizes that everyone uses a different paradigm to look at a problem; therefore, by having a diverse group of advisors, key information can be gleaned. It’s also important to bring people into the decision-making process. By doing this, people are empowered to make decisions if the leader is not available. Additionally, there are always unintended consequences when making decisions so it’s important to overprepare for these situations.

Two Types of Leaders 

Hughes believes there are two types of leaders. The first is egocentric, in which everything has to revolve around the leader and nothing can happen without the leader’s input. The second is a principle-centered leader, where all the actions are made based on values and principles. This second way helps the organization function when the leader is not available.

Leaders can not lead from behind the desk. It’s important to get out and into the higher education community. It’s important to learn people’s names and know something about their lives. However, it is also important to delegate and let people use their talents. Leaders need to create an atmosphere for these people to flourish.

To build better leaders for higher education, it’s critical to look at the attitude of the leader. The leader has to believe in the process and educate him/herself about where the organization needs to go. In addition, the leader needs to trust people until they prove him/her wrong.

Character and integrity are the most important traits in recruiting and promoting individuals. Work ethic is the next aspect to consider. The ability to check the ego at the door and focus on teamwork comes next, followed by the ability to be coached hard through holding them accountable. Talent is the final component to look for. Hughes noted that hard work and perseverance trump talent.

Five Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Leadership is leadership. Football coaches can serve in different leadership roles beyond the gridiron.
  • Lower expectations. People often will think the new leader is the savior, but the truth is that a leader will have to learn and prioritize in a new role. If a leader has not been leading an entire institution, he/she needs to buy some time to be able to analyze what is happening before moving forward.
  • Be willing to say no. Get a great executive assistant who can help shield the leader’s time.
  • Try to accomplish three things each day.
  • A leader has to speak to diverse constituencies, whether that’s faculty, students, or the board. It is important to learn the language of each constituency in order to bring together people who think very differently.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides capacity building and leadership coaching for higher education institutions

Links to Articles, Apps, or Websites Mentioned During the Interview

Guest Social Media Links

Share This Post
Recent Posts and Podcasts:

Subscribe to The Change Leader

Get the latest higher ed news and expert insights from our articles, podcasts and newsletters.

Skip to content