Facing adversity: Leadership lessons from women presidents at prominent research universities

Lisa R Kuhnle-Biagas, University of Pennsylvania


The purpose of this case study is to explore the explanatory style and leadership characteristics that women presidents at prominent research universities employ to overcome adversity. Three sources and methods of analysis were used: the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ), Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE) of interview data, and qualitative analysis of interview data. To that end, this study seeks to address the following research questions: What is the explanatory style of women presidents? What role has mentorship played in the career of women presidents? How do women presidents view adversity in the workplace? What are the self-described leadership characteristics of women presidents and how do these characteristics relate to an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style? Using purposeful sampling, the six cases were selected from women presidents or chancellors currently serving or who have served in research institutions identified in the Carnegie Classification framework as "research universities with very high research activity." The results from the ASQ and CAVE indicated that women presidents have a moderately pessimistic explanatory style. The qualitative analysis of the interviews indicated that the participants are confident and have high self-esteem. Additionally, the participants have the ability to employ "flexible optimism" when necessary in their roles as university presidents and chancellors. A flexible optimist has an adaptive capacity to face reality with a positive outlook without dwelling unduly on the negatives (Luthans, Lebsack, & Lebsack, 2004). By understanding that optimism and pessimism can exist in leaders who are experiencing challenges, researchers will be better able to tap into a powerful source of resiliency and perseverance. In addition, researchers should be aware of the important role that mentorship has had for these women as graduate students and moving up in the faculty ranks. Mentoring women as junior faculty is a viable option for assisting them to cope through the pipeline in academe (Brown, 2005; Brown, Van Ummersen, & Sturnick, 2001; Hansman, 1998; Johnson, 1998; Morrison, White, & van Velsor, 1992; Oakes, 1999; Warner & DeFleur, 1993).

Subject Area

Womens studies|School administration|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Kuhnle-Biagas, Lisa R, "Facing adversity: Leadership lessons from women presidents at prominent research universities" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3255862.