Leadership in Higher Education: A Tough and Messy Sport

by Gerald B. Kauvar, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, and Dr. E. Gordon Gee

Andrei Nekrassov/Shutterstock

Were there three tenets of effective leadership they would be known to us all and there would be no reason for yet one more book on leadership. As Somerset Maugham wrote, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” There’s a golden rule, but it’s not much help in advising leaders in higher education: they either learned it and followed it long before they became leaders or they haven’t and won’t. More college and university presidents fail because of failures of character than lapses in judgment.

Few professions have just one rule. The Hippocratic Oath contains more precepts than the well-known “Do no harm” — although that’s useful advice for leaders in any line of work.

Kant’s categorical imperative is the best example of “rule number one”: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Well worth thinking about while recognizing that circumstances alter cases.

Conrad Hilton when asked for rule number one in the hotel business replied “In a shower, the curtain goes inside; in a bath, it goes outside.”

Monthly magazines on various sports carry articles on, for example, how to correct your golf slice or determine the best lure for catching bass. Each month the advice is different.

Leadership is both contextual and situational. Your golf swing is dependent on your strength, your ability to balance while your body is in motion, any deviation from the norm in your body temperature, blood pressure, blood and urine chemistry, susceptibility to arthritis — and on and on. How hard you swing and which club you use are dependent on the characteristics of the hole you’re playing, its length, the temperature, the wind, the type of grasses used on the fairways and roughs, and on and on.

The leadership you are called on to provide in higher education likewise depends on a variety of challenges and opportunities, the history and culture of the organization, the nature of the business, what you think your competition is thinking, contemplated changes to law and regulation, and various knowns, unknowns, and unk-unks — those unknown unknowns you haven’t even conceived of. Disruption occurs not just when the campus hosts, no matter how willingly or unwillingly, a controversial speaker; it occurs in departments and programs when new techniques like gene editing or using the tools available through digitization to analyze works of art in many genres, or when new teaching methods like flipped classrooms and online learning take root. Or when someone in your shop (maybe you) says or does or tweets something you wish they hadn’t. Or when you’re challenged by new federal or state regulations and mandates — perhaps by changes in the way federal research and student grants are awarded — that may force the institution to behave in ways it hasn’t before, collect different data sets , focus on training (job or career opportunities that either exist or are likely to exist) rather than education which arguably but not inevitably prepares us for the unknown.

It’s important to know whether you’re building on clay or rock. How your leadership will be viewed depends in part on your knowledge of the institution’s culture, which is more than what your board and other bosses, associates, direct reports, staff, and customers or clients liked and disliked about the leadership provided by your predecessor.

Leading is a tough and messy sport. Just when you think you’ve got it down pat, there’s a new book published that tells you how far behind you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn. If you aren’t constantly reassessing your own ideas and practices, it won’t matter what the books have to say or taking seriously what the folks who work for and with you are suggesting. You’ll become an example of the apothegm “You can take a horse around the world, but it comes back a horse.”

We all have a tendency to fall in love with our own ideas — a tendency to be avoided. Just like falling in love with the ideas others bring you no matter how much you value the individual’s wisdom and competence. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said about Winston Churchill: “He has a thousand ideas a day, four of which are good.”

All this is true when you’re the top dog, and that’s where most of the literature on leadership is focused. Your success or failure though isn’t in your own hands or brain; it’s also in the hands and brains of your bosses, associates, direct reports, staff, and customers.

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