What Makes an Effective Administrator?

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

8 Things the Researchers Tell Us and 4 Things They Left Out


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While managers typically supervise people in order to reach the goals of their department, administrators tend to focus on the broader operations of the organization. Administrators have a role in setting the policy and plans that the managers ensure are carried out. Much has been written about what constitutes a “good” versus a “bad” manager. But what makes an effective administrator?

Researchers Whetten and Cameron (1985) clearly identified eight fundamental characteristics typical of “effective” administrators.

1) Place Equal Emphasis on Process and Outcomes

An emphasis on process and outcome refers to a recognition of and an appreciation for the manner in which objectives are obtained. A style that emphasizes the process as well as the outcomes builds a solid and lasting foundation under those outcomes. All too often in our fast-paced, highly goal-oriented, “bottom line” society we fail to give attention to the significance of the progressive evolution of a phenomenon and we fail to realize that it is the careful attention to the steps in between goal setting and goal achieving that made the achievement possible and meaningful. In large, complex institutions heavily grounded in tradition, the process of change can be slow, hesitant and subject to resistance. Attention to the process can facilitate a more productive and less turbulent transition, as well as provide for unanticipated opportunities throughout the process. Additionally, if careful attention to the process is sustained, along with keeping sight of the goal, then many of the subsequent principles of effective administration logically follow.

2) Respect the Power of Organizational Cultures

Related to understanding and appreciating the process is an understanding and appreciation of the “whole” that is “greater than the sum of its parts” aspect of the organization. The organizational culture is a microcosm which represents, “a strong force that emanates from within; an internal dynamic that has its roots in the history of the organization and derives its force from the values, processes and goals held by those most intimately involved in the organization’s workings; reflected in what is done, how it is done, and who is involved in doing it, and concerning decisions, actions, and communications both on an instrumental and a symbolic level” (Tierney, 1988, p. 127). It represents the enigmatic, underlying foundation upon which all the processes and systems of the organization operate. Failure to acknowledge and attend to the strength and influence of the pervasive culture will result in the possibility of even the best policies and programs being directly or indirectly rejected. On the contrary, attention to the organizational culture can determine how a program can be introduced and implemented for maximum support and effectiveness. This principle, like the previous one, ranks high due to its broad and pervasive nature and to its potential to “make or break” almost any situation.

3) Nurture the Support of Strategic Constituencies

This principle refers to the action of “nurturing the support of internal and external interest groups vital to the success of the organization’s goals” (Peterson, 1991, p. 460). Perhaps a fundamental aspect of both attending to the process and respecting the organizational culture (principles 1 & 2) is acknowledging and attending to the power bases and functional hierarchies in a system. Power, even that of the most figuratively powerful individual of an organization, is never comprehensive or all-inclusive. It depends upon directing appropriate energy in appropriate directions in order to receive reciprocal support. In many organizations, a great deal of political and financial support comes from external constituencies. Thus, in order to ensure success and effect desired change, administrators must be skilled in cultivating and maintaining their support.

4) Error in Favor of Overcommunication — Especially in Times of Flux

This principle of effective administration is based on the fundamental notion that information reduces uncertainty which, in turn, favorably affects performance. The nature of communication is both an integral aspect of, and an influence upon, the culture and climate of the organization. Times of flux represent both opportunity and vulnerability to an organization. Therefore, organizations should take all possible measures to capitalize on their strengths during these uncertain periods.Communication can be a powerful tool to accomplish this. The all-too-common practice of hoarding information and maintaining secrecy can be detrimental to the morale and performance of the supporting work force,


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5) Don’t Succumb to the Tyranny of “Legitimate Demands”

Successful administrators must manage, among other things, their time and personal resources. In order to be effective to the organization, individuals must not be burned out or over-extended. Given the broad latitude of the administrator’s role, the potential for becoming overwhelmed by the number of special interest factions demanding attention is high. The fine line that administrators must walk can be summarized by the statement, “The effective administrator manages the conflicting demands by combining a strong commitment to core organizational policies or objectives with flexibility in implementing personal mission or agenda in order to take into account legitimate needs and concerns of critical interest groups” (Peterson, 1991, p. 463). This balance is critical to making consistent solid decisions reflecting a cohesive platform.

6) Preserve and Highlight Sources of Opportunity at an Institution — At Any Cost

This principle highlights a managerial tactic necessary for operating in the modern environment of cutbacks and scarcity. Effective leaders in this environment are characterized as, “astute opportunists, aggressively pursuing all leads” (Peterson, 1991, p. 468). Effective administrators must work to maintain attractive opportunities despite fewer resources. This is a pervasive management issue of modern times. Managers who are resourceful and creative will more effectively support their institutions and even promote growth through lean periods.

7) Low Fear of Failure — Willingness to Take Risks

In organizational environments that are supportive for experimentation, “failures” can teach us just as much as “successes”. Inherent in that system is a healthy willingness to take risks. Taken to the extreme this would result in an unsafe, volatile and lawless environment. Conversely, the other extreme would constitute an over-regulated, “big brother” climate where progress would cease. The essential factor in managing this dichotomy is maintaining balance. Failures should not be feared, however, nor should they be recklessly pursued without constraint. Successful high-risk ventures are often sensationalized in the media without adequate reference to their rarity. Not being intimidated or paralyzed by a threat of failure is an asset for an administrator. However, consistent and aggressive pursuit of high-risk situations can be a reckless and irresponsible use of authority.

8) Leave a Distinctive Imprint

This principle highlights the importance of leaving a lasting impression on the history of the organization. While many outstanding leaders have, in fact, done this, I believe that a highly effective leader can also successfully guide an institution without making headline-catching changes or capturing the spotlight. Again, I think this reflects an appreciation for the process. There are periods, which I would argue constitute successful progressive pursuit of strong, solid ordinary goals, that do not result in dramatic newsworthy events but nonetheless reflect effective management and direction. Conversely, I would argue that there are many “distinctive imprints” which are long remembered but which may instead reflect noteworthy mismanagement and ineffective stewardship. Attempting to “make one’s mark” as a primary goal seems like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It seems to me that if one’s performance is exemplary then it will speak for itself without the necessity of sensationalized headlines. This is not to say that administrators should not aspire to the highest of goals, but rather in doing so let the publicity take care of itself.


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While these identified characteristics are laudable, I believe there are important issues that were not addressed in this model, including:

1) Integrity, Commitment and Congruence

I believe a basic fundamental integrity and genuine belief in the ideology and mission of the organization with accompanying congruent behaviors are fundamental characteristics of long-term success in effective organizational administration. In short, leaders at all levels, should “walk the talk.”

2) Ethical Foundation

A strong demonstrated dedication to a code of ethics confirms commitment to, and operation from, a core set of beliefs in each situation.

3) Tolerance for Ambiguity

Uncertainty and ambiguity pervade our ever-changing society generally, as well as most organizations therein. A tolerance for, and ability to take positive action within this context, is essential for effective administration in a complex and changing environment.

4) Win-Win Mentality

A true commitment to the win-win mentality, based on the philosophy that one does not truly gain at the expense of another, benefits the individual, the organization and society as a whole.


Peterson, M. W. (Ed.), (1991). Organization and governance in higher education, 4e. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing.

Tierney, W. G. (1991). Organizational culture in higher education: Defining the essentials. In Peterson, M. W. (Ed.), Organization and governance in higher education, 4e. New York: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing, 1991, 126–139.

Whetten, D. A. & Cameron, K. S. (1985), Administrative Effectiveness in Higher Education. Review of Higher Education, 9: 101–118.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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