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  • Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say about Effective Leadership
  • Mia Alexander-Snow
Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say about Effective Leadership, by Mimi Wolverton, Beverly L. Bower, and Adrienne E. Hyle. Stylus, 2008. 192 pp. $65.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-57922-255-0.

Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say about Effective Leadership, by Wolverton, Bower, & Hyle, is a reflective examination of the experiences of nine women who dared to take on the challenges of a college or university presidency. After an exhaustive review of the literature, Wolverton et al. posit "that effective leaders, male or female, subscribe to similar beliefs about leadership and act more similarly than differently when they enact those roles" (p. 149). They characterize effective leaders as embracing nine tenets; effective leaders are passionate about their organization; reflective, competent, great communicators, understand the role culture plays in shaping they way they lead, possess physical and emotional stamina, focused yet forward thinkers, respect and value individuality; and possess credibility (p. 150).

Narrative case study is the primary medium for presenting women's leadership in the academy. The case studies reflect the life stories of nine college presidents—Gretchen M. Bataille (University of North Texas), Barbara Douglass (Northwestern Connecticut Community College), Mildred Garcia (Berkeley College), Carol C. Harter (former president of University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Mamie Howard-Gollady (Sullivan Community College), Martha T. Nesbitt (Gainsville Community College), Pamela Schockley-Zalaba (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), Betty L. Siegel (Kennesaw State University), and Karen Gayton Swisher (Haskell Indian Nations University)—who embody the tenets of effective leadership. Each case study is shaped by oral narrative (which include individual's personal recollections and speeches) and semi-structured interviews, college documents, newspaper articles, and the internet, providing a retrospective examination of success and sustainability as a college/university president. Individually, each narrative tells us "why she is where she is, what she believes, and how she enlists others in her dreams, desires and needs" (p. 1). Collectively, the stories provide the context for understanding the past, present, and future leadership of women as college and university presidents.

Chapter 1: "What's in a story?" introduces us to the book's underlying structure and theoretical framework. Here the authors introduce storytelling as the primary lens of analysis, positing that "stories explain life" (p. 1) and engage us to make connections and meaning. Through the metaphorical meaning of storytelling, we, as a collective, become connected and their stories become intertwined with ours. [End Page 779]

Chapters 2 through 10 comprise the nine case studies or "life stories" of each of the nine women presidents. Stories are aptly titled: "I Never Met an Opportunity I Didn't Like," Having Fun," Moving Forward, "Still Standing," "Making Diversity Work," A Perfect Fit," Communicating Commitment," and "Loving the Presidency," capture the spirit, dedication, and love of work and life reflected in of each of these women leaders. These nine women represent a cross section of life experiences shaped by social class, race and ethnicity, personal and professional challenges, fortunate happenstances, social intelligence, and brilliance. What they carry in common are their pioneering spirits of being first and the only among a great many and the few. We come to see effective leadership as more than leadership attributes, skills, and styles, but as an evolving process requiring conscious intent, a keen sense and understanding of culture as affecting organizational change and accountability, and a very strong sense of self relative to personal and organizational goals.

Of particular interest are the subtleties of social context, which are artfully interwoven into each of the case studies through voice. We see leadership in social context as often lonely and isolating, defined and shaped by the double standard for men and women in life choices, such as the raising of a family, finding and sustaining life partnerships, professional development and support networks (or the lack there of). For most of these nine women presidents, it is about "fit," for others "challenge," and for all "life balance." Of the three, all expressed "life balance" as the most elusive; and yet essential for sustainable, effective leadership...


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pp. 779-782
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