Impactful Leadership Traits of Virtual Leaders in Higher Education

Erin Alward, Yvonne Phelps


Universities are increasingly leveraging virtual teams into the organizational structure and strategic framework for many functions including academic administration and faculty leadership. One benefit of a virtual workforce is the ability to hire the most qualified individuals regardless of where they are physically located. As the virtual workforce expands, leaders may intuitively rely on traditional face-to-face approaches and strategies for employee oversight and motivation. These techniques may be ineffective or challenging to use in the virtual environment necessitating new approaches. Leaders of virtual teams need to understand the intricacies associated with these groups and be cognizant of factors that assist in creating cohesiveness, trust, and communication amongst virtual teams. 

This qualitative phenomenological study explores leaders’ perceptions surrounding competencies needed to effectively lead virtual teams in online education. A decisive sampling method was used to identify 10 experienced academic leaders who supervise virtual teams. As a result of the interviews, seven major themes emerged: (a) training and development; (b) trust; (c) emotional intelligence; (d) communication/team building/technology; (e) employee recognition and motivation; (f) leadership styles; and (g) virtual leadership competencies unique to higher education. Based on these themes and further evaluation the need for specific soft skills and robust technology emerged. Specifically, organizational success partially hinges on comprehensive training for virtual leaders, the significance of trust, emotional intelligence, and effective, respectful communication.  


Virtual leader, online virtual leadership, virtual higher education, educational leadership, academic leadership, higher education, online learning.

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