Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Footprints on my Head

A fellow dean writes:

I am a dean of Math and Sciences in a community college. We have a brand new college president. He came from a much, much smaller college. In the very short time he has been president, he has already mandated many sweeping changes to college processes. He meets directly with faculty, and his staff, and only talks to deans when they come to him. He has made several college wide decisions that are deleting decision making power from deans. His action indicate he does not trust deans, and he seems inclined to veto the decisions of his staff and their reports in favor of individual faculty requests. He has also made recent public decisions requiring his VP of Learning to automatically veto chairs and deans in favor of certain faculty requests. He makes no attempt to discuss or vet his decisions with the deans, or even to understand their wider implications to our divisions.

I have given up any hope of thriving in his administration. Do you have any advice on surviving? I need my job.

I swear to you, I didn't write this. But I could have.

In a very small college (or business), there often isn't much point in making a distinction between process and outcome, since there are so few players anyway. So folks can be very successful there without learning some really fundamental, basic, Organizations 101 type truths. Truths like: if you reward special pleading, you will encourage more of it. If you base decisions on personal likes and dislikes, you will eventually get sued, and lose. If you make your managers irrelevant, you will be burdened with irrelevant managers.

Sadly, far too many very powerful people never really learn these lessons. They know the words, but something gets lost between 'saying' and 'doing.' I once had a VP (to whom I reported directly) who could quote these basic truths chapter and verse, and who violated every single one of them every single day. He just thought that every single case was a special exception.

Some people just aren't burdened with self-awareness.

I think it's part of the cost of the Cult of Charisma. Although it has been thoroughly debunked through rigorous empirical study (see Jim Collins' entire oeuvre), far too many people look for Charisma when hiring, especially for high-profile positions. The idea is that a Dynamic Personality will inspire everybody and make everything okay. It's an infantile response, a longing for Daddy to make it all better, but it's disturbingly common. And the sad fact is that what can pass for charisma is often just narcissism.

Narcissists can be very charming. As the undeservedly-forgotten historian Christopher Lasch noted in his undeservedly-forgotten bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, narcissism isn't merely a synonym for self-centeredness. It's actually an inability to distinguish 'self' from 'other.' It's an inability to tell where the self ends and other people begin. That can resemble self-centeredness, but it can also result in crippling weakness and fear, since the lack of stable boundaries is inherently scary. That's why narcissists can sweep people up, then turn on them quickly. Simply put, they are not to be trusted, since they lack a basic, fundamental understanding of 'reciprocity,' which is the foundation of trust. They can't depersonalize decision-making.

To the charismatic, narcissistic top dog, 'process' is just incomprehensible frustration. The leader knows best, and anyone who suggests differently – especially when they're right – is a threat.

When I worked for the VP who fit this description, I quickly fell out of grace. The only reason I didn't get fired was that he left for greener pastures before he got around to it. My annoying insistence on 'process' and 'reciprocity' and 'rationality' just kept pissing him off. My contention that management isn't just the practice of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies was literally incomprehensible to him. To him, I was a stick-in-the-mud who, by extension, caused problems. (Since narcissists don't have a clear perception of 'objective reality' that transcends personalities, they tend to shoot the messenger.)

Having endured that regime for a short time that seemed much longer, I can say that it was utterly maddening. Although my job description included certain jurisdictions, his Favored Ones had carte blanche to simply bypass me altogether and work out side deals with him. You can imagine what this did for my credibility, morale, and general outlook on life. Although he has been gone for several years, we're still dealing with the expectations, habits, and cultural dysfunctions his style fostered.

The one dean who thrived under his regime did so by being his personal friend. They vacationed together, commuted together, and briefly even lived together. It 'worked,' but I consider it out of the question.

Faculty responses to the VP ran the gamut. His favorites loved him, naturally, but the vast majority got tired of the Potemkin processes with foreordained results. (One favorite trick was to decide what he wanted, then assemble a faculty committee to discuss the issue and tell him he was right.) As with any arbitrary system, there were winners and losers, but the way they were determined had little to do with the merits of a given argument. Once somebody fell out of favor, which could happen almost instantly, that was it. Over time, the numbers added up. I'm guessing the faculty at your college is swooning over their newfound access to the new guy, and a sense of empowerment combined with the usual seduction by charisma. It won't last. Fairness is slow and non-seductive, but it ages well.

Honestly, unless the clock is ticking on the new guy (which is very unlikely), I'd start sending out job applications. The psychological baggage this guy brought with him have been decades in the making, and are unlikely to go away soon enough to help you. The usual advice – communicate the implications of his decisions and their effects on you, keep a civil tone, etc. -- won't work. Run away. Some dysfunctions just run too deep to deal with on a rational level.

Best of luck. I feel your pain on this one.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.