The Benefits of a Combative Cabinet

In this hypothetical case study, Barbara McFadden Allen, Ruth Watkins and Robin Kaler explain how college leaders can -- and must -- surround themselves with a team of wise people with competing viewpoints.

July 27, 2016

Chandra Washington was happy to start her new job as president of a large research university. Her trip to the presidency had taken many years, and she had ascended the ranks from tenured faculty to department head to dean to provost and finally attained her dream job in a competitive, elite university. She felt that her years of experience would contribute to a smooth transition to the top leadership at a new institution.

But she quickly found herself mired in several high-profile controversies. The faculty had raised concerns about the board’s encroachment into areas typically in the purview of the campus administration, and as she struggled to find the best way to approach the issue, the complaints were becoming more frequent, public and vitriolic. Union contract disputes erupted, adding to the tensions both on and off the campus. And, suddenly, alumni were expressing deep dissatisfaction with the poor performance of the athletic program.

As pressure mounted from the outside, Washington found herself facing discord from her own team of vice presidents. They could not agree on how to move forward, and in meetings with her some were openly combative -- questioning both her commitment to and understanding of the university.

Washington was frustrated. She felt an urgency in moving forward, but she did not trust her team. Washington needed guidance and input right away to quell the growing dissatisfaction. Her dream job seemed to be slipping out of her control, and she quickly moved to hire a trusted aide from her previous university. At last, Washington thought, she would have someone on her team who could see things clearly and provide guidance and advice to move forward -- and would do so without challenging her or adding to the noise.

Washington looked forward to her colleague’s arrival. All would be well -- or would it? Can Washington survive?

Yes, if she quickly works to assess her team and develop a strong relationship with them. There is nothing wrong with bringing on team members who know and are loyal to Washington. Like anyone, good leaders need to be supported. The new adviser can even relieve Washington from some duties so that she can concentrate -- quickly -- on the immediate task of understanding which team members can bring knowledge about the history, culture and dynamics of the existing crises to bear. She might even ask each of them to assess the situation, provide background and context, and suggest solutions.

More communication and transparency is crucial for Washington’s success. Thus, at the same time, she must continue to work directly with her leadership team and not allow her new adviser to filter those connections and relationships. When adding a member to the team, whether from the university or outside it, Washington needs a talented facilitator who will bring the team together to solve problems. That takes a person who can listen, see many options, anticipate several steps down the road, effectively communicate all of this to the team and then facilitate reaching a shared sense of the best approach. That’s the skill set Washington should look to add to the team.

No, if she brings in someone from outside, then ignores the advice and experience of her existing team and begins to make decisions and take action devoid of an understanding of the history and culture of the institution. It is understandable that Washington wants an ally who aligns with her vision and trusts her motivations. However, the best solutions cannot emerge without demonstrated respect for the perspectives of the entire team. It is an all-too-frequent leadership error to create a team without varied viewpoints. Washington needs a strategy to constructively elicit different perspectives and to synthesize them, not a strategy that quiets alternative viewpoints. Navigating that balance is essential.

In a nutshell: You need a talented team to help you lead, and that team must be comfortable challenging your ideas -- empowered to help you develop a better approach by conveying their insights on institutional culture and history. Don’t make your circle of advisers small. Your job will be exhausting, and the most comforting thing you can do is identify a chief of staff who thinks like you and filters everything that comes to you. But when people disagree with you, it’s usually because they have information you don’t have or they have life experiences that allow them to see a situation through a different lens. Take the time to listen to different perspectives, and you’ll have better information on which to make, refine and defend your own best decisions.

It is fine -- even good -- to have trusted partners on your team who are looking out for your best interests. It is equally important, however, to include passionate, knowledgeable team members who are looking out for the best interests of the university. A successful leader can tolerate and harness the information and ideas that come from friction among the team.


Barbara McFadden Allen is executive director of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. Ruth Watkins is senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. Robin Kaler is associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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