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Leading the Registrar's Office

August 30, 2017

Leadership is not management; we must be careful not to confuse the two. Good managers should be good leaders, but one can be a manager without having followers.

Managers have the power and authority to require desired behavior; leaders can make a difference in people’s lives and for the organization. The formal managerial authority of the Registrar enables coercion or even discipline if rules and regulations are not obeyed. Leaders create organizational (and often personal) outcomes that others choose to follow. Managers are appointed; leaders are identified by their followers.  Managers do things right; leaders do the right things. These comparative differences are significant.

Management is an enabling process and managers are responsible for organizational outcomes through the performance of others. Leadership is a visionary process that inspires commitment of others. Managers are hardworking, fair, analytical, and focus on process. Leaders are change agents, futuristic, and exciting personalities that focus on substance. Registrars need to be both good managers and good leaders.

Leaders Need Vision

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”   Change in the higher education landscape is both constant and inevitable. Technology change has been dramatic – cloud computing, social media, software as a service – all represent major impacts on the Registrar’s office. Legislative changes such as mandated credit acceptance, reverse transfer, and performance based funding are key to the Registrar’s office. Contemporary discussions of who owns the record, the school or learner, continue to emerge. In each of these examples, the leadership role of the Registrar is necessary to properly position the institution and its students.

Leading Registrars need to challenge current processes by encouraging innovation and supporting people with ideas. I recall one young student that was very concerned about institutional practices that compromised student privacy. Her efforts and persistence enabled the Registrar to lead significant change in improving practices and procedures. Leaders need to be willing to listen and to bring positive emotions into the workplace. Celebrate achievements and lead by example!

Defining leadership and vision is not easy. Consider the requirements generally described in a Registrar’s job description; they are defining the role as a manager. These “hard skills” are easy to articulate and define. The “soft skills” that reflect leadership capabilities are more challenging to articulate, and even more difficult to measure: the ability to communicate ideas; leading and working in teams; strong sense of social, professional and ethical standards; cross-cultural/gender/age. perspectives; strong desire for achievement; self-confidence and decisiveness. Yet in the end, these leadership attributes will be critical to the institution and the Registrar’s office in positioning for the future.

Think of the following notable examples where leadership vision, or lack thereof, has played a significant role in shaping the organization:

  • Kodak lost its premier standing in the photography business because its leadership didn’t believe that digital cameras would last.
  • Borders Bookstores closed hundreds of stores and eventually ceased business largely because it failed to prepare for the e-book revolution.
  • IBM, which once completely dominated the computer market, missed the vision that desktop computers would play a significant role.
  • Smart phones have replaced the traditional land-line counterparts, especially among millennials.
  • Bottled water has become one of the most profitable products for many beverage companies.
  • The U.S. education sector is still trying to determine the role of for-profit providers and on-line programs, like Purdue University’s recent acquisition of Kaplan University.

The list goes on.

Sphere of Influence

Each of us have spheres of influence—the opportunities to impact the lives of others. Our roles as parent, spouse, friend, co-worker, supplier, consumer, and manager attest to our spheres of influence and our leadership opportunities. We have also been influenced by others, opening the personal question, “Which leaders have influenced your life?”

As leaders work within their spheres of influence, four additional characteristics become evident: discipline, humility, accountability, and perseverance.

  1. Discipline is doing what must be done; doing it when it has to be done; and doing it continuously. This is the no excuse zone.


    In every Registrar’s office, a reoccurring question is “How do I order my transcript?”  Ordering instructions are likely to be clearly stated on your Web site; one is tempted to wonder why the caller hadn’t first checked the Web site. And, after responding to this same question for the umpteenth time, why not cut the caller off and refer them to the Web site? The answer is simple; each caller is unique. They are unaware of others with this same question. And they may have additional questions or technical issues. Are you and your staff exhibiting disciplined leadership in responding to customer service challenges?

  2. Humility is sometimes a difficult trait for the strong manager to accept.Leaders recognize the need to remain humble. People who forsake humility often find themselves in positions of compromise. Arrogance diminishes perspective and distorts reality. Humility keeps us teachable and helps us learn.


    Leaders cannot demand respect; they must earn it. Leaders need to demonstrate that the direction, goals, and actions being proposed are best for the organization and for all individuals involved. Confidence is important; arrogance crosses the line. Be humble.

  3. Accountability.We have all known people who tend to blame someone for something. Of course, they never consider that they themselves may be part of the problem, let alone that they may be the problem. They don’t want to be held accountable for their actions, for their lack of planning, for their misjudgment. Instead, they want someone else to be accountable and to rectify what they deem an unsatisfactory situation.


    Formal authority and associated power can blur the distinction between management and leadership roles. But this is no excuse. Many leaders act as if they are not fully accountable for every decision. Quick Tip:  Before taking any action, ask the person (or persons) that you most respect, “Would you approve if I were to…..?” If their answer is “yes,” then your accountability level is likely high.

  4. Perseverance. Making a difference typically involves change. And change is almost always met with resistance. People fear the unknown.They may believe they are no longer needed or their contributions will be diminished.They may be worried about learning new technology or simply convinced the change is unnecessary. The successful leader is adept at ushering in change without being confrontational.

Leaders think strategically and have a profound impact on their organizations as they challenge the traditional methods by which services, processes, products, and outcomes are achieved. Leaders do not accept the argument that “we have always done it that way.” Leadership results in new and different—and desirable—end points; improvements are not merely incremental but constitute new directions. Whereas managers focus on processes, leaders envision opportunities. They are action driven. As they cast the vision, their fundamental objective is to have followers embrace it. The person whose vision is shared by no one is a dreamer; the person whose vision is supported by the organization is a leader.

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