In my many years of counseling presidents and engaging with top management at major universities I have been fortunate to watch outstanding leadership in action. Though higher education has not been generally blessed with great leaders, I have seen some truly remarkable ones.
A close friend once told me, “You could put a grapefruit in the president’s chair and good things would still happen at the university.” This, of course, is recognition of the work of the faculty, over whom the president has very little management control or responsibility.
At most American research universities the president oversees a loose confederation of academic units, facing a challenge somewhat similar to the one confronted by Jefferson Davis as he tried to forge a unified Confederacy from largely independent states in the Civil War.
It is a very, very tough job to lead a college or university today. The demands are great. The hours are long. The expectations are enormous.
Many presidents in higher education come to the job with little or no management experience so there is a good deal of on-the-job training. A smart president relies on experienced administrators. He or she doesn’t pretend to know it all or feel compelled to always project the idea the president is the smartest person in the room. The best presidents I have worked for had a self-confidence that engendered respect but enabled them to expose their vulnerabilities and lack of knowledge in particular areas. Their self-confidence was the foundation of their leadership and the deep commitment they earned from their staffs. In talking about one president I told a friend, “I’d run through a wall for that guy,” and I knew my colleagues felt the same way.
So here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what I have taken from watching up close great presidential leadership over the years. To be catchy, “The Seven C’s of Leadership.”
1. Character. This is a fundamental quality all great leaders share. Their integrity is unquestioned. They are honest and consistent in their interactions with others, and they have no hidden agendas. A president cannot build trust without character.
2. Communication. Some presidents I have worked for have been terrific public speakers. Others have not. The best ones knew their communications strengths and worked with those. No matter the communications channel, they had an ability to convey clearly and precisely their vision and direction, and equally important, they understood that communication is a two-way activity. They listened, too.
3. Compassion. Becoming president of a major university can be a monster boost to the ego. It is quite easy to become self-centered, particularly when staff are hustling around to meet your every need and expectation. But the best presidents understand their role as a service to other people. The cares, concerns and problems of people, on their campus and in the larger world, matter to them.
4. Courage. They can make the tough decisions without fear. This is, of course, born of their self-confidence, but courage takes it another step. Their decisions can affect a lot of people and can have a long-term impact on their institutions. Their self-confidence enables them to identify the right thing to do and when they make that determination they act on it. They are willing to take risks.
5. Competitiveness. Great presidents want to win. They want to push their institutions to a new level of achievement and recognition. They’re not caretakers who allow their colleges or universities to coast on their own momentum. They’re not grapefruits.
6. Creativity. The best presidents are visionaries. They are open-minded and responsive to new ideas. They are readers, listeners and explorers. These presidents are ready to chart a new path. They’re not locked into the tried and true blueprint their institutions have operated with for decades and centuries.
7. Competence. Outstanding presidents really are the smartest people in the room. They don’t tell you that. In fact, the best ones will conceal it in an effort to foster communication, new ideas and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Part of their competence, of course, is their willingness to engage in discussion and hear differing points of view. They will prove their competence time and time again and earn the enduring respect and admiration of their institutions.
These are troubling times for American higher education. Colleges and universities are under assault like never before. Leadership is needed like never before. I just hope there are enough women and men who embody the “Seven C’s of Leadership” and can lead higher education back to the position of respect and appreciation it so richly deserves.