When I first became Provost and Dean of the College of Letters and Science, my boss at the time, Rod Park, joked, “My hand’s on the lever of power, but it’s not attached to anything.”
When I first became Provost and Dean of the College of Letters and Science, my boss at the time, Rod Park, joked, “My hand’s on the lever of power, but it’s not attached to anything.” Rod’s remark captured an important truth. Leadership positions in colleges and universities have little direct power, such as one imagines the CEO of a corporation might hold (although even my friends who are CEO’s of companies say this is a fantasy). Being a president, or a chancellor of a college or university is more like being the mayor of a small city than like the head of an organization whose operations you control. You have many constituencies—faculty, students, trustees, donors, alumni, staff, your own executive team—all of whom believe they have an ownership stake in the institution. In public colleges and universities, the legislature, the governor, the voters also believe they have an ownership stake, although even private colleges and universities are viewed, to a large extent, as public property.
You need to listen well, recognize how many roads there may be to Rome, and quickly grasp the best that others offer, giving them full credit.
Leadership in such a circumstance depends far more on mobilizing those constituencies, engaging them to share ownership of the goals and strategies you believe are most important for the institution at that point in time. To do this, paradoxically, you need to give up some control, to present ideas that are not fully formed so that others can help shape them and thus have a stake in their execution. To do this successfully, you need to listen well, recognize how many roads there may be to Rome, and quickly grasp the best that others offer, giving them full credit.
I once participated in a fascinating leadership exercise at Smith College, in an executive leadership program the college ran for women in business. The team running the program brought members of the Springfield Symphony to campus, and invited the executives enrolled in the program to sit among the members of the orchestra as they played. The conductor then gave the members of the orchestra various directions. The one I recall most vividly was “Play as if yours is the only part that matters.” Even to untutored ears, the result was cacophony.
The lesson was clear: a CEO is more like the conductor of an orchestra than a star soloist. Her job is bringing out (and holding back) the different instrumental voices to make beautiful music. It’s a communal enterprise, in which listening is perhaps the most important skill.
Such a situation requires historical humility, as well as an acute sense of historical opportunity.
When you assume a position as leader of a college or university, you feel it’s a beginning, but in truth, you are stepping into a river, which has flowed long before you entered it, and will flow long after. Such a situation requires historical humility, as well as an acute sense of historical opportunity. To shift metaphors, colleges and universities are not blank canvases waiting for leaders to draw upon them; except in very unusual circumstances, they are not start-ups. They are complex, messy organizations with long histories. Leading them requires what I came to think of as a narrative imagination, an ability to see and tell a story linking the past of the institution to the future you envision for it. Such stories are the levers leaders have, linking you, the institution, and its multiple citizens.