Women and Presidential Leadership

Advancing to the Presidency No. 2: Always Be Learning

S. Georgia Nugent highlights some modes of learning that are especially valuable if you aspire to be a campus leader.

August 20, 2019
 
 
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In higher ed, we talk a lot about lifelong learning -- perhaps most often as a disposition we hope to foster in our graduates. We may also be thinking more about lifelong learning as a crucial need for our society, even as an untapped market we have the ability to serve.

But how often do we stop to reflect, as educators, on our own lifelong learning? I’ll consider here some modes of learning that are especially valuable If you aspire to be a campus leader.

Book learning. When I look back on it, it seems to me that attaining a college presidency was one of the incredibly fortunate accidents that have shaped my life. My husband, however, points out that, even before going into administration, I had amassed a prodigious collection of books on leadership in general and on the college presidency in particular. Already, as a faculty member, organizations and the way they work fascinated me. Hence my collection of books on academic leadership.

I still prize that collection. And it still has insights to offer. Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President, by James G. Marsh and Michael D. Cohen, was at one time identified as the book most frequently read by college presidents. First published in 1974, its theorizing may seem dated today. And yet who among us doesn’t recognize, at least a little, their characterization of the academy as an “organized anarchy” in which problems, solutions, participants and decisions swim and collide randomly in the cloudy waters of the typical faculty meeting?

Other authors in my long-held collection -- James L. Fisher, Estela Bensimon, Robert Birnbaum and others -- have also offered valuable theories and views about success in the academic presidency, sometimes directly at odds with one another. The president must maintain a certain distance, to command and preserve respect. The president must be readily accessible, not perceived as aloof. The president is “the decider.” The president’s role is to facilitate the decision making of others.

To these scholars of the presidency, we can add the many presidents who have written about their own experiences and offered recommendations. In fact, any bookshelf would sag under the weight of just these tomes examining the presidency in an academic context.

But the literature of leadership extends beyond the academy. Anyone aspiring to leadership in any field should consider the writings of Peter Drucker. Many would claim that Jim Collins’s work is indispensable. Interestingly, each of these corporate management gurus wrote, later in their careers, a slim volume on nonprofit management. And both proclaimed leadership in this arena -- where there is no direct bottom line like shareholder value to measure success -- much more difficult than in the for-profit world. (Consider the recent remark by Admiral William H. McRaven, the retired Navy SEAL commander who oversaw the special ops mission that killed Osama bin Laden. After three years as the chancellor of the University of Texas, he stepped down and declared, “The toughest job in the nation is the one of an academic- or health-institution president.”

There’s much to learn from books, specifically on college presidency and on organizational leadership more broadly. One compelling -- and, to my mind, inspiring -- thinker straddles both realms. Warren Bennis, with 27 books on organizational leadership to his credit, was called by Forbes “the dean of management gurus.” But Bennis was not only a theorist; he also served as provost of State University of New York at Buffalo and president of the University of Cincinnati. Early in one book, he describes falling asleep late at night at his presidential desk, as he was signing an endless stack of papers, and realizing, this can’t be the right way to go about things. He is a wise guide to leadership as a humane, deeply ethical practice, rather than as a regimen of efficiencies or protocols.

Beyond the books. So, by all means, read broadly. Books, yes, but also articles, newspapers, news and opinion outlets (ideally including a non-U.S.-centric one like The Economist, Financial Times or even a foreign-language publication). Occasionally, just for the fun and mental gymnastics of it, pick up a magazine covering a topic far afield from your usual interests. Even the casual exposure to a new and different vocabulary and milieu can brush away intellectual cobwebs.

But you’re a serious person, with lots of work to do. Why waste your time on ephemeral reading matter when you’re already nearly buried under a tidal wave of scholarly and bureaucratic information? The answer goes back to the presidential role as that of a “general,” i.e., a generalist. Though it’s taken out of context, a line from the Roman comic author Plautus sums up the point: humani nihil a me alienum puto, or “I consider nothing that has to do with human beings to be foreign to me.”

One of the most fun aspects of being a president is that everything is potentially relevant to your work. When your prospective seven-figure donor is also an art collector, you’ll be glad you’ve spent time in museum galleries. If the civic leader whose support you need is an avid tennis buff, it’s lucky that you’ve kept track of Nadal and Federer. How likely is it that the esteemed geneticist whose lab you want to attract to your campus is enamored of Bach? You’d be surprised! Aspiration to the presidency can legitimately offer you a free pass to indulge your curiosity freely on any and all topics. And what is more crucial to lifelong learning than vibrant curiosity?

Lifelong learning as learning from life. Before we humans learn by reading, we learn by watching. In every interaction with others -- whether family members, co-workers or that stupid driver who just cut you off -- there’s something to be learned. In the context of your own leadership development, clearly a prime learning opportunity comes in your interactions with people in leadership positions on your campus or in other professional venues like conferences. Of course, you’ll devote attention to how they speak, how effectively (or not) they communicate and the rhetorical choices they make.

My advice is to go beyond that and to be attentive to everything in the leaders you encounter and admire: presence, posture, diction, gesture. Note what you want to emulate, adapt, avoid. Many (although not all) effective leaders are a commanding presence the moment they enter a room. And not by commanding but rather by exuding a simple, quiet confidence. How do they do that? How might you do it?

Voice, as we know, is critical for women. It was not without reason that Margaret Thatcher trained to lower her voice. Gesture, as the Roman orators knew, contributes enormously to nonverbal communication. Make intentional choices about the gestural repertoire you want to have at your disposal. Posture alone positively shouts a message about you. Slumping down does not signal authority or inspire confidence, but at the same time, a back stiff as a flagpole is disconcerting. It’s worth learning a bit about posture, for example, through the Alexander method, frequently studied by actors. It’s good for your health, and it’s healthy for your career.

Of course you shouldn’t limit yourself to such physical, even superficial, traits of leaders. To the extent that you can, become a student of the way in which that person builds relationships, garners the information they need, approaches problem solving, works with others. We’ve all had the experience of being asked to work on a project with Sally and having our hearts sink at the prospect. And the experience of being assigned to Sonya’s group and thinking, “Oh, good! This will be fun; we’ll get things done.” What factors lead to those reactions? Seek to be Sonya.

It’s also just as important to consciously note what you don’t want to emulate and chalk it up as a learning experience. I’ve worked with many wonderful people in higher education. Almost without exception they have been great colleagues, role models, teachers. But one time, I worked for a terrible boss. (I normally wouldn’t use the term “boss” in an academic setting, but it seems appropriate in this case.) He wasn’t particularly terrible to me, but he was a dishonest, disrespectful, scheming person. A quick example will suffice: when a department chair left a meeting in his office, the boss turned to me and instructed me to do exactly the opposite of what he had just told the chair. Dumbfounded, I mumbled, “But you just said …” To which the immediate reply was “Does he have it in writing?” My moral compass was broken.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having had this kind of experience. Moreover, for this type of person, the highest value is often loyalty. Being put in this situation is soul crushing. What can you do? Unfortunately, you probably have just three choices: 1) Act on the boss’s instructions and risk harming your colleagues (the “just following orders” mode), 2) disregard the instructions and let the chips fall where they may (the Thomas More martyrdom mode), or 3) attempt a compromise, by subtly indicating to colleagues that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (the double-agent mode). Not proudly, I chose the latter. More actively, I sought an opportunity to move on. I’d advise the same.

On more positive note, I’ve said you can learn lessons everywhere, and I’ve just experienced one of the more surprising. My husband and I recently attended a major jazz festival and chose to visit two stages. The first featured a famous duo, the most commercially successful in history. It was fun to hear their string of hits, and often the audience sang along. But they phoned in the performance, speaking little and never once looking at each other.

The second experience was completely different. Not surprisingly, I have a fondness for the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips, so we decided to hear their set.

Oh my! From the moment she appeared, the 75-year-old performer owned the stage -- and the audience. Her very first gesture was to connect with the audience by expressing her gratitude to them for just being there. Her smile was bigger than the sun; her eyes twinkled with delight. She spoke to the audience, kidded with them, confided in them. It was a pleasure to be in her presence, and she seemed to feel the same as she danced and crooned with evident joy. In its charismatic way, that is leadership: loving what you do, caring about others and not being afraid to show it.

Bio

S. Georgia Nugent is interim president of Illinois Wesleyan University, president emerita of Kenyon College and a senior fellow of Council of Independent Colleges.

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