Mary poppins was a very wise woman: Insights for effective leadership in academia

Janis P. Terpenny

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


While progress is modest, the number of women entering leadership positions in academia is rising. Many are watching to see just how women perform and whether they will remain in leadership positions. Several speculate, and rightly so, that to be effective leaders, women cannot completely emulate their male counterparts, but must recognize and utilize their unique perspectives, talents and skills. Women and men are different; surely leadership styles and methods will be varied. In this paper, analogies drawn from insights gleaned from the fictional character Mary Poppins are used to describe a variety of approaches and methods that have been developed and implemented for effective leadership in academia by the author, a woman who is an engineering department chair (head) and director of a large national industry/university cooperative research center. Following an introduction that includes background and motivation, a brief review of the literature on academic leadership and gender differences in leadership is presented. Three primary approaches are then described, including: 1) know your organization, 2) foster collaboration, a sense of team and community, and 3) serve as an example of excellence. Details of several methods and strategies are provided for implementing each of the three primary approaches. These range from specifics for effective meetings that foster engagement and collaboration, to methods that are less familiar in academic settings such as show-and-tell activities at departmental retreats and the use of brainstorming methods that are typically reserved for teaching engineering design that are used instead for problem solving and inclusion in faculty meetings. The dramatic improvements that have resulted are discussed throughout the approach and methods section and with conclusions and include metrics captured in key performance indicators (KPIs), required by the College of Engineering to measure and report organizational performance. For example, in the last 2 1/2 years, enrollments have nearly doubled (270 to 450), student retention rates are remarkable (95% for first year students and 90% at six years), research expenditures have doubled, and more. A discussion of antidotal observations associated with indicators of effective leadership such as collegiality and spirit of community is also included. Examples include indicators such as the majority of faculty and staff office doors being open, activity throughout the hallways of the department, visitors and students routinely remarking on the energy and collegiality they observe and can 'feel', and faculty, staff, and students routinely engaging in on- And off-campus activities and social events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - 2014
Event121st ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: 360 Degrees of Engineering Education - Indianapolis, IN, United States
Duration: Jun 15 2014Jun 18 2014


Other121st ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: 360 Degrees of Engineering Education
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityIndianapolis, IN

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Engineering


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