Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Toughest Leadership Job Of All

This is all true.
Forbes: ... Herman Wells, the former president of the University of Indiana, once observed that the ideal university president would combine “the physical charm of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, the skin of a rhino … and the stomach of a goat.”

Being an effective corporate CEO isn’t that hard, really: Your biggest concern is ticking off your board; otherwise, you get to order underlings around and fire the ones you don’t like. What you say goes.

Being an effective university president involves much more diplomacy and persuasion and vision-selling. Yes, you are beholden to a board. But you have to lead through collaboration and cajoling, not control.

The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.

As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”

Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech or the other 50 to 100 research giants that fuel America’s economic and cultural preeminence.

The university president’s job is fantastically complex. Traditional companies open and shutter, and a founding CEO who fails can shrug it off and go on to start something new. But universities are expected to maintain high quality for centuries (consider how Oxford has kept churning for 8 centuries), while they’re also supposed to adapt to new developments (like online technology, globalization and so on). Give credit where credit is due: Apple’s a nice little enterprise, but Stanford will be thriving in 200 years, while Apple will be a historical footnote.

Not only does the university president need to cajole a bunch of people he can’t fire, he needs to convince others on the outside to contribute billions of dollars to fund his or her vision. That takes some special skill.

Warren Bennis, the great leadership guru (and a longtime mentor to me) who served for several years as university provost and a university president, wrote this a few years ago:

"No manner of leader, save possibly a mayor of a large city, deals with as vast and complicated a cartography of stakeholders as does the head of a major American research university. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that a university president is called on to be an entertainer, a visionary, a priest, a psychologist, and a CEO of 10 or 20 vastly different enterprises gathered under the seal of one university."


LondonYoung said...

Is being a university president a leadership job? Corporate CEO's clearly wield power and lead. U.S. politicians both do some poll following and some leading. But did, for example, Shirley M. Tilghman affect the trajectory of her institution? Feels like the job could be better called "General Secretary to the Faculty".

Anonymous_IV said...

Does a General Secretary spend half their time begging, er, fundraising?

oregonlocal said...

On the contrary, Dwight David Eisenhower both as SHAEF and President, Qin Shihuang, Churchill, FDR, Alexander the Great, Octavian, George Washington, Tojo, Nehru, Catherine the Great, Cortez, Elizabeth I, DeGaulle, Nero, Pericles, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, Sun Yat-Sen, Bismarck, Nelson, Frederick the Great, Simon Bolivar, Rick Perry, Wellington, Charlemagne, Boris Johnson, Michael Bloomberg, Jimmy Carter, James Buchanan, Jefferson Davis ad infinitum... had orders of magnitude harder jobs than some alumni fundraiser and soother of ruffled tenured feathers ever had or will have.

Look what happened to Steven Chu when went into government. He was chewed up and spit out due to his naiveté after having lived and led during a life in the ivory towers of academe.

Don't let your ascension into management has give you delusions of grandeur. Any executive position of political or (military governance in war) from mayor of a medium sized city on up is far more difficult than being a college president.

oregonlocal said...

I'm sure it does nut the Governor of a state must be adept at administering for and the keeping in line of millions of people. He wields the power to keep anarchy at bay.

Anyway, isn't college president typically a job awarded to some senior politicians and/or generals AFTER they retire from command?

LondonYoung said...

Not in the US News and W.R. top 50 national schools, but below that often. The article specifically talks about top "50 to 100" research giants - where you will see only career prof hacks in the office. Of course, most college loans that the 99% complain about do not go to fund those schools - they fund schools which do not "fuel America's cultural and economic preeminence".
MSU itself is around #73 - so it is a "maybe" school, unlikely to be run by a non-career Prof.

Diogenes said...

100% agreement with you there ol.

i'd like to hear the opinion of someone who's done both. hennessy founded one co, steve founded two. but start-up ceo and big co ceo aren't the same.

the observation that one's "underlings" at a uni aren't like one's underlings at a co is interesting. the only place where this might not be true is at some i-banks where underlings can and often do make more than the ceo.

american business follows a military model, with officers and enlisteds---the mba IS the officer candidate school of american (big) business. this isn't the model outside the us.

Diogenes said...

"Of course, most college loans that the 99% complain about do not go to fund those schools"

obviously. they're a small minority of schools. but do podunk state grads have more debt than elite school grads?

college has been sold as a means of bettering oneself. even that high functioning autistic mankiw has claimed this is the high road to "movin' on up". even ly (a quant afflicted with the same condition) has claimed that the hurdles to joining the elite aren't a secret and as long as one clears them he's in.

Diogenes said...

indeed. comrade stalin achieved more in economic terms in ten years than great britain and the us had in the entire 19th c. then there was sputnik and all those nobels in the sciences. and then there's the still lower russian life expectancy 23 years after the red flag was lowered.

marx vs rand? hmmm. is that a serious question?

america's death certificate will read:

cause of death: ideology.

Cornelius said...

I don't buy it.

Not even the most incompetent university president could drive a top school into the ground, he/she couldn't even cause a significant drop in rankings. On the other hand, even a very smart politician has a good chance at screwing up royally while in office, e.g. Obama. An extremely competent CEO still has to fight his competitors and please his customers.

"Give credit where credit is due: Apple’s a nice little enterprise, but
Stanford will be thriving in 200 years, while Apple will be a historical

This statement about Stanford and Apple is probably true. It's true because keeping Apple afloat is so much harder than keeping Stanford afloat.

University administration is the Little League of leadership.

oregonlocal said...

Economic data for the eastern bloc was much less reliable than in the West due to political pressure from the Communist governments. Life in East Germany remained grim by all accounts while Australia was/is totally cool eg. surfers on the dole and such, which East Germany could hardly afford even if it did have surf. No carefree Crocodile Dundee movie ever came out of the East.

gs said...

It wouldn't surprise me to see Steve heading a university. Shanghai and Iowa are obvious places where his background would be of interest.

Diogenes said...


apple despite its brand is in a commodity business. only if jobs had been immortal would this not be the case.

compare coke. here brand has passed some threshold to become institution (i'd like to buy the world a coke). and coke can buy any competitors.

could a ceo of coke do any more damage than a "ceo" of stanford? no.

LondonYoung said...

Diogenes - you might find it some sort of poetic justice that I lived across the street from the "Jefferson Building" shown above for almost a decade ...

Cornelius said...


This is one of your few non-trolling comments so I'll dignify it with a response.

Coke got lucky on that one. It could have ended far worse for Coke. Such a change seems like a reasonable change to make, but it didn't work out. It's hard to imagine a reasonable change at Stanford that could have such a huge negative impact in such a short period of time.

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