Step 1

1.2 Department Cultures and Chair Styles

Departmental cultures vary – they can be enriching and fulfilling, efficient and utilitarian, minimally functional, or dysfunctional and debilitating (and all the colours in between). Many factors will contribute to this culture - e.g., size and nature (undergrad only, undergrad/grad, grad only, number of programs), proportion of tenured to untenured faculty, number of part-time faculty, expectations people have about commitments, reliance on collective (or independent) decision-making. As Department Chair, you will have a significant impact on the life of the department. Each new chair has the opportunity to move the department culture from one of self-interest, abdication, and hyper seniority to one of engagement, collective responsibility, and career-long mentoring. Whatever you inherit, it is up to you to decide what kind of chair you want to be – a caretaker or a change agent; oriented towards stability or toward dynamism; faculty servant or institutional leader.

At the beginning of your term, speak with each faculty member and personnel (support staff) to discuss what they both appreciate and find problematic about the department. You might also solicit ideas from them about how they would like to see camaraderie maintained and/or built.

Fine and Sheridan (2008, 2015) provide some practical advice to boost the feeling of being welcome, respected and valued in a department, e.g., recognize and value the work of departmental members, communicate effectively, and respond to illegal behaviours and complaints about inappropriate language and behaviour. You should strive to cultivate collegiality, open-mindedness, communication and cooperation.

Whatever department culture you inherit, being a chair requires both managerial and leadership skills. As a manager, you will plan and budget, organize and staff, control and solve problems. As a leader, you will establish a direction, align people, motivate and inspire. Moreover, as a leader, you will focus on people rather than tasks; articulate plans rather than simply execute them; not only improve the present but create the future; use influence instead of authority; and, you will create change rather than manage it.

Sometimes, you will need to be a manager, other times, a leader, and you will have to adapt your leadership style to the circumstance. Your dominant leadership style will not always be the best to use. Tannenbaum and Schmidt's continuum of leadership (1958, 1973) is a practical application of adaptive and agile leadership.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt's leadership model

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You may also want to consult David Goleman's Leadership that gets results (2000) for examples of six leadership styles in action: commanding, visionary, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching.

The Department Chair Primer (Chu, 2006) provides a few questions to make you reflect on your unit and institution (chapter 14); e.g., "Do my department faculty / Dean expect me to lead and manage aggressively for productivity?" and "Identify the five most important people or offices in my campus environment that have an effect on my department's performance. Do I interact regularly with each of them?". You can borrow this book and many others from the Centre for Academic Leadership.


Tamara Beauboeuf, Jan E. Thomas, and Karla A. Erickson, (2017, March, 15). Our Fixation on Midcareer Malaise. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Canale A.-M. Herdklotz C. Wild L. (2013). Mid-career faculty support: The middle years of the academic profession. Faculty Career Development ServicesThe Wallace Center Retrieved from

Crabtree, R. D. and Sapp, D. A. (2018). Living the Full Life: Mentorship for Full Professors and Senior Faculty. The Department Chair28: 3, 22–25. doi:10.1002/dch.30178

Therese A. Huston, Marie Norman & Susan A. Ambrose (2007). Expanding the Discussion of Faculty Vitality to Include Productive but Disengaged Senior Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education. 78:5, 493-522. doi:10.1080/00221546.2007.11772327

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