Seeking a Different Sort of Leader

January 14, 2013

What does it mean to be a leader in higher education? That is no hypothetical question if you are charged with finding one for your institution.

My colleagues and I are faced in every search with trying to find ways to define that quality and, even more problematic, to measure it. Being consultants, we generally start by asking the various constituents of the college or university what they mean by leadership. Typically, their answers vary as widely as their perspectives.

It's been two years since I wrote in these pages, and much has happened in the world of higher-education leadership. None of the developments help very much to provide focus to the question. Michael J. Hogan lost his job as the president of the University of Illinois system, largely due to complaints that his leadership style was too autocratic and that he was trying to accelerate the pace of change to a level uncomfortable for the faculty. Then Teresa A. Sullivan was temporarily fired as president of the University of Virginia for a management style that was deemed by the university's Board of Visitors to be too consultative and for a pace of change that was considered to be too slow.

I was not involved in either of those cases or their aftermaths, and I am sure that the details were more complicated than I have described. But viewed from the outside, both situations would seem only to muddle the definition of leadership within academe. In fact, about all they tell us is that boards and faculties each want things to change at a pace with which they are familiar, and the two do not remotely comport with one another.

What is a leader to do?

In two recent presidential searches that I advised, I saw this issue of leadership play out in the range of candidates, with sitting chief academic officers on the one end and nontraditional candidates on the other. (By nontraditional, I mean candidates from outside of higher education—from corporations, government, and the military, for example.) The two cases I cite here involve private institutions of relatively similar size and geography, though of completely different circumstances. Their searches took place during roughly the same time frame. In both cases, the members of the hiring committee had no bias about the particular professional background they preferred in their next president.

Both institutions were seeking new and different kinds of leadership. Both search committees were composed of a majority of trustees; a small but respected and vocal contingent of faculty members; and a few representatives of the administration, alumni, local community, and so on. Both committees worked hard, and in both searches the candidate pools provided a diverse set of choices across the entire range of leadership experience and style.

In each case, the trustees on the committee were actively engaged in the life of the institution, with close working relationships with faculty members and administrators. Most of the trustees had been engaged with their institutions for many years, and both groups included alumni whose love of the institution and regard for its traditions was palpable.

In fact, if anything, these trustees were more aware of what was going on within their institutions than one might have reasonably expected. They also understood well the pressures being felt by all of higher education, and their institutions in particular, in these challenging times. In each case, they listened to the other constituents on the committee carefully and thoughtfully, particularly the faculty members, for whom the trustees showed—and I believe felt—great respect.

In short, these were highly functioning committees that worked hard, with total sincerity, in the best tradition of academe. So what leadership qualities did each group find compelling?

The candidates chosen as finalists certainly shared common attributes: One attribute was a level of energy and intensity that outpaced their competitors. Another was the sort of winning personality that portends happy and enjoyable relationships, some of which would presumably lead to philanthropic support.

In my view, however, the most important quality was an expressed willingness—backed up by evidence of performance—to make the tough decisions and to live with the consequences.

From my close-hand perspective, there was another striking commonality in the decisions of the two committees. In both cases, sitting provosts generally did not fare well in the preliminary round of interviews. While there were many reasons for that, there was, in my view, one reason in common: The provosts did not portray themselves as visionary leaders.

At least, they did not portray themselves as leaders in a way that was familiar to the trustees in the room. When asked questions designed to elicit their sense of how best to lead the institution, the chief academic officers inevitably spoke of collaboration and of building consensus. I watched the faces of the trustees as those conversations progressed, and I think I know what they were thinking: There goes the same old thinking inside the same old box.

Some months ago, Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, wrote in The Chronicle that our colleges and universities "were created for the industrial era. They work less well today than they once did. Too many seem to be broken; they need to be refitted for a new world. ... Their inertia is stopping them from modernizing. As criticism has mounted over universities' inability to change, their presidents for the most part are viewed as defending them."

Being neither a philosopher nor a historian, I will leave the argument over Levine's thesis to the better informed. I do, however, spend more time observing the process of seeking out and hiring institutional leadership than do most people, and I can attest to the accuracy of that statement in the eyes of a great many trustees.

And candidates in a presidential search who are sitting provosts pay the price for the increasing divide between the ways of academe and the ways of the fiduciaries responsible for governing an institution. Provosts, more than anyone else on the campus, live at the nexus between the traditions of shared governance and the notions of executive leadership espoused by the trustees.

In an interview for a presidency, provosts are damned if they do and damned if they don't. They lose the trustees if they espouse the traditional, consensus-oriented approach to decision making, and they lose the faculty if they talk about transcending shared governance with a more assertive, hierarchical style of leadership.

This has been going on for a while, and its ramifications are felt across the spectrum of leadership in higher education. It is no mystery that so few chief academic officers even aspire to presidencies—only 30 percent according to the last survey undertaken by the American Council on Education. The jobs of chief academic officer and chief executive officer have become so very different, in fact, that the career tracks have largely become distinct from one another.

So, whence will come the presidents of the future? If my two recent searches are any indication, some of them will come from outside of higher education. Will they succeed? Time will tell. What I think is pretty clear, however, is that the perceived common wisdom about leadership transition in higher education is out the window, at least as far as trustees are concerned.

And my clients? One of them hired a nontraditional candidate; the other bucked the trend noted above and hired one of the sitting chief academic officers who managed to express a leadership philosophy that both trustees and faculty found compelling. I for one think it will be fascinating to watch the two over the next several years and to compare their rates of success.

Any bets?

Dennis M. Barden is senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm headquartered in Chicago specializing in searches for academic and administrative leaders in higher education, health care, and nonprofit organizations.