Digital Leadership in Higher Education

What did we learn from higher ed leaders and institutions who were prepared to lead digitally this year and those who weren’t?

Dr. Josie Ahlquist, consultant, author, and speaker, returns to Enrollment Growth University to discuss how higher ed navigated the serious digital test we were given this year, along with the most powerful concepts from her new book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education.

Lessons Learned From Digitally Prepared Higher Ed Leaders

Those leaders who have engaged online consistently for years maintained that engagement and even leaned in during the darkest of days. Another group of leaders used to be really engaged, but they got quiet. 

“I also saw, especially early on, the use of different tools or communication styles that really were well-received,” Josie said. 

Human-centered videos and messages connected emotionally with communities. But then other leaders who seemed to feel pressed to do a video or announcement that did not seem congruent with who they were didn’t fare as well. 

There’s been a kind of settling in this fall. Now universities seem to be determining which campus leader should speak based on circumstances and personality, not just handing every public event to the president. Maybe the provost, vice president, or dean can connect better as a digital leader. 

On the other side of the coin, some school leaders still wonder if digital leadership is worth their time. Platforms change, they say. People may not really want to connect. Signing up for Twitter is easy but managing a social media presence takes a lot of time and energy.

To these leaders, Josie asks, “What is your purpose? What are your values?” Then, she helps them connect a platform and a strategy with the right people to reach goals, assess social media ROI, and evaluate the initiative. 

“We don’t want you to be doing busy work, which social media can turn into so quickly,” Josie said.  

The 5 Guiding Principles for Digital Leadership

There are five research-backed guiding principles of digital leadership. One of these guiding principles is change. As a leader, you need to be both willing and adaptable to change. But you do not need to be the expert in everything, especially technology. You just have to remove your ego and involve other people that do have the knowledge, experience, and understanding to teach you and give you feedback.

A lot of the early adopters of digital leadership, especially presidents, have children at home who are introducing them to TikTok and giving them coaching. Obviously, our family dynamics are different from our cabinet meetings, but ask yourself, “Who are those tech-savvy people I can surround myself with?” 

Maybe you don’t have kids. What about nieces and nephews or team members? Who can be a digital influencer in your life? When you’re creating a video or setting up your Instagram, you need to have folks around you with relevant skills who understand social media strategy. This should definitely include members of the audience you want to connect with. So if that’s students, you need to get students to be your digital educators.

A Values-Based Strategy for Social Media

Digital leadership is the belief that leadership can happen in all types of contexts, including online. As leaders, we are required to discern, to be self-aware, and to work towards congruence in order to commit to positive change. 

What you know about yourself and your values should influence your social media strategy. Your personal values — your faith, history, identity — connect to your campus. Your leadership role and your personal life provide context for your account. 

So what are your institution’s values, mission, and objectives? Answer those questions and you’ll go a long way toward deciding what to post and which platforms to be on.

The Future of Digital Leadership in Higher Ed

For public campus leaders, we need to formally document the importance of digital leadership in job descriptions and graduate programs. That requires more than just wrapping your departments and organizations into a social media strategy. 

What does it actually mean to navigate these platforms as people who are serving as leaders in higher ed?

We need transparency, and we need social proof. “You would be so surprised how many people still tell me they don’t think leadership can happen online,” Josie said, “that no leader has any business on social media, that you don’t need it.” 

Actually that is where a lot — not all, but a lot — of your people are. It’s negligence and it’s misinformed to not at least be knowledgeable and open to what those platforms are and how you can make an impact in those spaces.

Next Steps Advice for Aspiring Digital Leaders

Digital leaders need knowledge of relevant trends and platforms. You don’t need to be on TikTok, but at least know what it is and how it’s potentially impacting those you serve. Listen. Learn. And understand.

A lot of leaders still don’t have a documented strategy for their presence online. We all have different organization styles. Some folks want to roll with things and post as they go, and others might need a much more built out day-by-day structure. Know your own style, but have clear goals.

“That’s the other way that we are going to advance digital leadership,” Josie said. “We can evaluate the progress we’ve made because we were on the tool over time.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Josie Ahlquist, consultant, author, and speaker. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here