The Right Kind of Nothing

Brian Taylor

January 07, 2010

Two qualities characterize an academic administrator. The first is a capacity to take responsibility. The second is a need for control. Your position on those two dimensions determines how effective you can be as a manager, and for how long.

The most successful administrators—the ones who accomplish the most and don't burn out—have an enormous sense of responsibility but a very small need for control. And they know just when to do the right kind of nothing. Let me tell a story to illustrate, and then explain what I mean.

In which I try to steal a euro. Last summer, I lived in Bavaria, in southern Germany, for four months. I don't speak German, and was reduced to watching how people did things. The biggest problems were situations that seemed like cultural cognates, where the proper behavior seemed predictable. Like going to a grocery store.

In Europe, grocery stores require cart deposits. You put a euro in a slot to (paraphrasing Ray Charles) unchain your cart. Return the cart, get your euro back. It's a fine system.

But I knew nothing of it. And I didn't know that I didn't know.

Well, an elderly woman was pushing her cart back toward the rack. I couldn't speak to her, but I pantomimed that I would save her the trouble of returning it. Her reaction surprised me: She scowled, and then dodged left and right. I had the angle on her, though, and cut her off, grabbing at the cart.

She surprised me even more by screaming. And then a large policeman ran up and started yelling at me. I tried to explain that I didn't speak German. He shouted, "What are you doin'?" The uber-Oma (she was five feet tall, in heels) rammed the cart into the rack, chained it, got her euro, and held it aloft, a gleaming talisman of victory.

I explained to the policeman that I didn't know about the deposit and that in the United States, carts are loose. He was still giving me the stink eye and asked for my identification. Since carrying a passport in town meant I risked losing it, all I had were my U.S. driver's license and my Duke University faculty ID. The cop said, "You are at Duke? Really? My nephew went there for business school, the executive program." Turns out the officer had been in the German military before retiring to police work and had lived near U.S. bases for years. I was lucky.

Half-smiling, but not looking around, the cop said: "She's still watching, isn't she?" I glanced over and saw uber-Oma, peering at us from behind a post. I nodded.

And the policeman said, "OK, here's what we are going to do." And then he started yelling, shaking his head angrily, and thumping my chest with his finger: "I'M PRETTY SURE SHE DOESN'T SPEAK ENGLISH. SO IF YOU JUST LOOK SCARED, I THINK THIS WILL END OUR BUSINESS TOGETHER HERE TODAY." I nodded, much abashed. The cop walked away. Uber-Oma gave me a final frosty nod and marched back to her car. I went shopping, putting groceries in my pack. Then I went home to hide in my bathtub.

Responsibility and control. After a while, I recovered a bit, though of course I still felt like an idiot. Then it struck me that the policeman had illustrated the two main principles of effective public service. And administration in a university or college setting definitely should be thought of as public service. It is certainly not why most of us went to graduate school.

So let's return to those two fundamental principles of good academic administrators:

  • Have an expansive capacity to take responsibility. If something is bad, or even just not very good, try to make it better. Don't even think about whether it is your fault; just ask yourself, "Could this be done better?" And do it with a roving eye, nothing too big, and nothing too small.
  • Have a sharply circumscribed need for control. There are many things you won't be able to fix. And of the things that can be fixed, other people may have to do the fixing. Giving orders and taking personal control of everything are likely to make your administrative career frustrating and short.

That's all there is to it. Every minute of every day, ask yourself, and those around you, "Could this be done better? Are we doing this the right way, and getting the most done for our expenditures of time and money?" Whether you are designing a new science quad or picking up trash in an old quad, try to look at everything around you as if it were new. Forget things you know, and learn something.

And then, let it go. If it turns out that you don't need to take action, and that things are moving in the right direction, move to something else. Sure, it will be hard for you to take personal credit for the improvement. Worse, things may not turn out the way you would have done them. But letting go of the need for control acts as an enormous force multiplier: You can be in many places at once because others have taken ownership through your leadership.

The German policeman could easily have just decided that I was trying to steal a euro from an old lady. In fact, that is just what I was doing, albeit unknowingly. But he asked a few questions, learned more about the situation, and then realized that he could fix all this simply and neatly by doing a particular kind of nothing, the right kind of nothing. He was immediately responsible for solving the problem, but recognized that he need not take control and decide who was right, who won and who lost.

If at the end of your day as an administrator, you do the right kind of nothing, and everyone around you is happier and more productive, that's a good day.

Michael C. Munger is chair of political science at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000.