Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously . . . And Other Admonitions: Traits for an Effective Administrator

800px-bh_carroll_memorial_building_rotunda_28southwestern_baptist_theological_seminary2c_fort_worth2c_tx29A few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to ask a question I had never heard him answer. I wanted to know what skills and traits he believed are necessary to be an effective academic administrator.

Dr. Patterson is uniquely gifted to address these qualities because he has served as a college or seminary president for over forty years (Criswell College, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). But more interestingly, many people who have served under him have gone on to serve as administrators at other institutions. Some would say that he has launched some of these “sons in the ministry” on their own paths to success in academic administration.

With no advanced preparation or notes, he described to me ten essential traits for an academic administrator (and there was an apparent hierarchy to this list in the order presented below):

  1. Good husband and father. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Patterson’s focus on the priority of the family, it may come as a surprise that this trait lands at the top of the list. However, a family man fits the Pattersonian mold for leadership. In much the same way that Paul describes the pastor as “one who manages his own household well” (1 Tim 3:4), Patterson believes the lessons learned as a good husband and father serve an administrator well. In addition, a man who is faithful to his wife and children demonstrates the commitment to lead with integrity.
  2. Commitment to inerrancy. If one could boil down Patterson’s legacy to a single word, it would be “inerrancy.” The complete truthfulness and authority of the Bible serves as the foundation for everything he does. His work in the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention helped change the course of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. If an administrator is not committed to the Word of God, he is not really committed to anything.
  3. A faithful churchman. The local church is vital to the life of every Christian. Unfortunately, some Christians believe that they don’t need the body of Christ. For Patterson, however, he wants to know if you are committed to your local body of believers. Do you support the church with your time and money? Are you plugged into the ministries of the church? Do you exercise your gifts for the edification of the body of Christ? These are essential questions in determining one’s fitness for administration.
  4. Courageous. I have been on the receiving end of a few variations of Patterson’s questioning regarding courage. They are usually posed as ethical dilemmas that require tough decisions. What will you do when you find yourself between Scylla and Charybdis? Will you demonstrate courage or cower in fear? If the candidate lacks courage, then he is not qualified.
  5. Ability to assess himself. This is perhaps the most difficult trait to attain. Those being considered for an administrative post are clearly good at what they do. The question is whether they know what their weaknesses are. If you have an exalted opinion of yourself and cannot assess your own strengths and weaknesses, then you are probably not ready for this type of leadership. Those who can accurately assess themselves will then place people around themselves to supplement areas of weakness.
  6. Good with people. By their very functions, administrators deal with people. An academic administrator may have to wrangle faculty, shepherd students, and engage the community. In addition, some administrators may also be tasked with fundraising. In all of these functions, the administrator will have to interact with people. Some people who transition from faculty to administrator may find this difficult. Faculty are often stereotyped as contemplative, introverted hermits, who think about concepts that the average person cares little about and then cannot understand why they put people to sleep when talking about them. While this may be an unfair mischaracterization, there are elements that hold fairly true. However, an administrator cannot function without good people skills because the job requires interaction with living, breathing human beings, not just books.
  7. Ability to disengage. What do you do for fun? If your answer is to read a book in your academic discipline on an obscure topic, then administration is probably not for you. Patterson is an accomplished hunter with a penchant for showcasing his impressive trophies in his office. For someone else, it might be baseball, fishing, hiking, or another hobby. Because administration requires long hours of deep deliberation, there must be something that helps the administrator turn the switch off for a while. Otherwise, the administrator who cannot disengage will burn out.
  8. Reads widely. This trait and the next go together. Because an administrator deals with faculty across a multitude of disciplines, he must read widely in order to have an intelligent conversation with those outside his academic field. The president of a seminary needs to engage in biblical studies, history, philosophy, ethics, education, music, etc. A university president has an even wider field that includes the sciences, literature, political science, and more. To be an effective administrator in these settings, Patterson contends that you must read beyond your discipline.
  9. Be a generalist. Due to the nature of the job, an administrator does not have the time to devote to intense study within his academic field. As a result, he tends to be a generalist (as demonstrated by the previous trait).
  10. Have a sense of humor. Patterson is notorious for his practical jokes. I have often heard him say that you cannot take yourself too seriously. This does not mean that you have to take great pleasure in seeing a colleague squirm after being the target of a prank (although Patterson finds such a circumstance to be quite enjoyable). What it does mean is that you must have a side that is not so serious. The culture around schools under Patterson’s leadership has always included an undercurrent of humor. And the president is always fair game for a humorous barb. Just watch one of our faculty introduce him at a recent chapel service to see what I mean.