Thursday, January 3, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 15

Leadership When We Need It*

Q: Recently I read an article by Marc Schiller [fn 1] about leadership in IT (Information Technology) departments of businesses. He observes that many IT professionals don’t understand the nature of leadership. They frequently say that they don’t even know why they need to attend leadership training classes. How does leadership fit into the world of academia? What exactly is leadership?
A: Schiller reported that IT professionals could not even define leadership in more exact terms than, “when I see it I’ll know.” Leadership is based on a principal most succinctly stated in Sayings of the Fathers (2:6): “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” One never knows when you will have to take charge of situation. You do not need to be a formal supervisor of employees to need and use leadership skills. In academia every faculty member is a manager and supervisor. A class and its learning program is led and directed by the teacher. In some ways the teacher has to task of creating a time and task limited organization. The teachers bring the students from knowing little about the subject to a mastery of a body of knowledge assigned to the course. Teachers understand that leadership is required at all levels and we even want to help our students develop their leadership skills.

In addition to their role as classroom teachers, faculty members take part in committees and groups that help in the management of the college and its activities. Faculty have major roles in the short term and strategic planning of the College. Business people outside of management have very little to say in the governance of the organization. That is one reason business people have such a hard time comprehending the role faculty play in the academic organization outside of their teaching duties. Even teachers in elementary and high schools do not understand the role college faculty play in how the college or university is managed. Because a college answers to several layers of supervision, there is much activity required outside of the classroom for student success. These supervising agencies include the school boards, the state boards of higher education, licensing agencies, and the accrediting agencies. For example the Illinois Board of Higher Education has set these goals that are designed to eliminate barriers and help citizens achieve their educational aspirations.

1: Increase educational attainment
2: Improve college affordability
3: Strengthen workforce development
4: Link research and innovation to economic growth

We need to include these goals with the local, specific goals of the college. Professional organizations set standards for training programs and those who want to members of their organizations. The accreditation process includes some sort of self study to measure the success of the program, nature of continuous improvements, and promote trust within the communities serves.

Q: How do we teach leadership?

A: Leadership is a component of every career program and every science and humanities course. In the humanities we teach a body of knowledge that students need to master. The students learn their role in the world of knowledge. In the career program we teach the theoretical background, the practical training and the soft skills for success on the job. Leadership means taking a stand for what is right and acting in a professional manner even when the supervisor is not present. We teach by example, with cases, and practical exercises.

Q: What can a leader do integrate individual needs and organizational goals?

A: There is a kind of competition between the satisfaction of individual and small group needs and the goals of the larger organization. The big picture view of the larger group conflicts with the smaller view of the small group and the individuals. The upper management must constantly be reminded that strong individuals make a strong institution. A child has minimal control over his/her everyday activities; is expected to be passive, dependent, and subordinate; have a small view of their world; and expected to produce results with little individually and creativity. This is not what a mature person in the organization should be doing. As employees become more mature and experienced in their job and organization, their responsibilities and rewards are increased. Leadership needs active and independent action. The whole organization needs communications up and down the hierarchy to help people learn each other’s view of the organization and its tasks. By increasing the role of the individual and increasing the participation in small and large groups, employees feel more in control of their destiny.

It can be shown that job enlargement and employee centered (or democratic or participative) leadership are elements which, if used correctly, can go a long way toward ameliorating the situation. [fn 2]

As you can see participatory management principles are not new.

Q: Dr. William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University wrote that it is impossible for a university president to succeed without help from a team of talented individuals. How does your view of leadership connect to the building of a team? [fn 3]

A: Recruiting and hiring the right people who have the talent to lead the college is a priority for any president – university, college, non-profits, or business. The skills of the team need to complement each other. I have always needed to surround myself with people who could do the jobs and tasks that I could not. If I knew everything and had infinite time and energy I would not need the help. That means I need to hire people I trust will get the job done. The relationships with the provost and vice-presidents are critical. The college has an academic/instruction side and a business/administrative side. While I want the provost to have a record of scholarship and teaching, I want to vice-president for administration to have business and administrative acumen. Much of the time we don’t go to the same meetings so that we could be more efficient. We have to agree totally on the college’s mission, but the ways we ascend to the goal is not always the same.

For example there are times I just want to get the job done and the provost wants to make sure the job is done “right.” Sometimes the roles are reversed. We didn’t need to debate whether the job should be done; only the best route to accomplish shared values and commitments. When I arrived at the college about 19 months ago we had many discussions about the best ways to share ideas and responsibilities. We reviewed goals and mission of the college and made sure to publicize out commitment to the college’s mission. Now we work as a team and encourage teamwork within every department.

The vice-president for administration is involved in the both the administrative tasks of the college and the physical plant. He came to the job some 15 years ago with background and experience in how to run the business and physical plant parts of an organization. The financial and physical plant departments answer to him. I depend on him to know how to run things that I have only superficial knowledge. For example when we build or remodel new buildings he knows more than I will ever know about the process, but we worked together to make sure the mission to serve the students and others who use the facility is implemented.

Recruitment is a two way street. Sometimes the college goes after people we think the college needs. I learned that if someone says the job is not a good match, believe them. People know more about themselves, than you or I will ever know. I need people who believe in themselves and the mission of the college. In the recruitment process I will talk to people who work with the candidate and those who supervise. Understanding how they deal all kinds of people gives us clue me how they will work in our environment.

Q: How would you deal with the situation when someone who leaves the college because of an obvious deficiency?

A: In some places they would recruit someone without that deficiency or problem. This is not always the answer because we may ignore the whole package. We need to examine the whole set of skills and perhaps revise the job description before hiring a new person. People come in “packages” containing their genetics, skills, education, training, personality, etc. Some aspects can improve with experience, but totality of the package rarely changes. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but sometimes the signs are hard to read until after the fact. I have learned that leaders need to take chances. An organization that never takes chances or risk will never grow or have an entrepreneurial spirit. People can be super stars in their current job and just not fit into the role our college needs. Every member of our team has parts of their “package” that we value, some parts that we tolerate and the parts in between that we hope will develop and change over time.

Q: Thank you very much.


 *Part fifteen of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.


1. Schiller, Marc J. Schiller. “ IT Leadership: Overcoming Three Career-Limiting Myths” in CIO Insight. Posted Jan. 20, 2012. (Retrieved Nov. 25, 2012)

2. Argyris, Chris. “The Individual and Organization: Some Problems of Mutual Adjustment. in Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jun., 1957), p. 23 (Retrieved from Jstor)

3. Bowen, William G. Lessons Learned :reflections of a University president. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 2011. Chapter 3

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