In March, I had the honor of being named president of Birmingham-Southern College, an institution with strong liberal arts roots and an enrollment of more than 1,300 students. This wasn’t my first time to the rodeo — I have seen combat in two wars, served as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, been chairman and chief executive officer of an international bank, served on boards of professional sports teams and Fortune 500 companies. But this is my maiden voyage navigating the sometimes-choppy waters of academe.
Interestingly, these seemingly unrelated positions have many concepts in common that have made the transition to academe easier than one might imagine. Let me offer a few of those concepts.
1. Focus is essential. Whether in combat, business, sports, or academe, you need to find the "center of gravity" and place a laserlike focus on that area. As a college president, that focus must be on the students and their education. It is easy to get distracted by a multitude of issues ... a financial challenge is the alligator that is currently swimming in my pond. Yes, you have to meet these issues head on but, at the end of the day, you can never take your eye off of why the college exists. Interestingly, by keeping your eye on the students and their education, the resource allocation questions that can appear vexing are simplified and the "ask" in fund-raising can be much sharper and effective.
2. A commitment to freedom always matters. When I read the 1940 American Association of University Professors Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure and then the 1966 AAUP Statement on Shared Governance, the first thought that came to my mind was that I was reading the academic version of the Declaration of Independence (the 1940 document) and the Constitution (the 1966 document). I found them to be true foundational documents, and rather than seeing them as foreign to my background, I found them in sync with the way I have operated for years. I have yet to find a truly successful military leader, business leader, or professional coach who did not seek out the unvarnished opinions and views of his or her people. Not only seek out opinions and views but, critically, understand that it is bad business to ask people to charge a machine gun nest or cut a business deal or accept a game plan without fully understanding their view of the proposed tactics and getting their buy-in. Yes, you can be dogmatic in your approach, but in the end, that strategy will not have legs. Sooner or later, the enterprise will fail because the people feel disenfranchised and simply like chess pieces that are being moved across a board by some chess master. The two statements mentioned earlier are extremely well-written blue prints that, if followed, are as close to an insurance policy for success as you can get.
One caution: The speed of change is dramatic ... and becoming more so. The often slow, deliberative process of shared governance that has been so effective in the past must, of necessity, be looked at closely. There will be times when decisions will need to be made more quickly -- particularly in times of real stress on the college or university. All of us need to think of ways to make the process more agile while still maintaining all the good that comes with the process. It is here that lessons may be learned from the military: Red teaming, tiger teams, mission-type guidance -- all are applicable.
3. Communication is critical. If you fail to communicate, you cannot win. This means getting out from behind the desk and seeing and being seen … listening and being heard. You must be willing to provide the "good, bad, and ugly" and deliver the news in a timely manner. Transparency must be the order of the day. The commander in the field, in the board room, on the playing fields, or on the campus must have a strategy, a game plan, a vision, and must be able to articulate that strategy vision. In the case of a college or university, a vision and the priorities it drives must be lean and compelling. The decisions that come from your vision must be crisp and clear. Your vision must be delivered to all constituencies, on and off campus. Your vision, if developed properly, is the hook upon which your college or university derives its uniqueness.
4. Character counts. To be effective as a leader in any walk of life, you need to be a man or woman of character. You need to be selfless in your actions. You need to possess great moral courage, and be willing to make decisions that may well be unpopular to the faculty, staff, or board, but are decisions that are, in your opinion, important for the institution. I have consistently checked with both faculty and staff and so far the report is that I have not made an unpopular decision since my arrival. Now that may sound pretentious, but I have only been here since June. My honeymoon period will end shortly, as it does for every new college president. The key is to not be afraid to make the tough decisions. To shirk from making the tough decisions is to fail as a leader. You need to have integrity. It is the only thing you truly own and if you give it away, you are dead. The people you are leading will spot an integrity flaw in a heartbeat and when that happens, any moral authority you might have is quickly gone. You can no longer lead. I knew this was important in the military and in business but, in many ways, it is even more important on the college campus. The various constituencies — faculty, staff, students, board, alumni, and surrounding community — all need to feel that the president is someone who stands firmly on a platform of selflessness, moral courage, and integrity. Only then will they, like troops on the battlefield, have the willingness to follow the leader and his vision.
5. You can pretend to care but you can’t pretend to be there. This concept was first learned on the battlefield but has been reinforced in every position I have held since then. It boils down to the simple idea that people can spot a phony from miles away. Talking a good game does not mean playing a good game. To be effective as a college president, your actions must speak louder than your words. Shared governance is more than words, it is something that is demonstrated at all times. Caring for students, faculty, staff, and alumni cannot be simply sending out monthly missives on the state of the college or university. It has to be real. It has to be seen and felt. In the military, I ensured that my daily schedule always had at least two hours of "leadership by walking about," baked into it so that I could see and be seen by the Marines I was leading. Likewise, I spend at least two hours a day walking the campus, visiting classrooms, eating in the cafeteria, attending sports practices and events, and simply talking to students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, my wife and I decided to spend our first semester on campus living in student housing — learning firsthand how the students live and the pressures they face. Physical presence sends a strong signal about caring, about what is important. Getting out from behind the desk is good for the campus and fun for the president.
6. A "zero defects" mentality is a surefire path to failure. People make mistakes. Good people make mistakes. Holding people accountable for their mistakes is critical and expected, but pole-axing them for their mistakes breeds a lack of initiative and a resulting lack of forward movement. When you unleash the faculty, or a battalion of Marines for that matter, and provide them the resources and support they need to do their jobs, the results are not only remarkable but measurable. Unfortunately, the resources may not always be there in the quantity desired, but the support can and must be seen and felt.
7. "Those who have gone before us." Whether in the military, business, sports, or a college, you can never lose sight of those who have provided you the firm foundation you stand upon. Alumni are critical. In many ways, they represent the touchstone of the institution … the ethos … the tradition … the soul. They are more than just sources of money! To fail to use the alumni as a sounding board, a think tank, a trusted ally is to neglect a valuable resource. Communicate with the alumni often and in a transparent manner. Let them know the successes and the challenges. By doing so, you will be surprised how quickly they will come to your aid when needed.
8. Command is, in fact, lonely. "The buck stops here" is reality. With the authority that comes with being president, also comes responsibility and accountability. You would not want it any other way. You can delegate some of your authority and responsibility (in fact, to be successful you must do that) but you cannot delegate your accountability. At the end of the day, you stand alone, accountable to the board, the alumni, the faculty, the staff, and, most importantly, the students for the professional running of your institution. You never want to take your eye off this simple fact.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading