Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spraying for Narcissists

I’ve followed with interest the gradually-unfolding story from New Jersey about Peter Burnham’s fall from grace as former president of Brookdale Community College.

Brookdale is a respected institution -- forward-looking in many ways -- and President Burnham deserves some of the credit for that.  But apparently he fell into a bad habit of mistaking institutional money for his own.  Remarkably, according to charges to which he pled guilty, he even continued the habit after he was fired.

This is the kind of story that does damage far beyond the individual event.  

Obviously, it feeds mistrust on campus, and in the legislature.  It feeds into the arguments by people with other agendas that public spending is inherently corrupt.  It creates turmoil on campus, especially as the truth comes out in dribs and drabs.  

It’s also not all that surprising.  

To clarify: I don’t know Burnham personally, and I have no basis to judge whether this was in keeping with his personality or a shocking departure from it.  My point is that the abuse of power is not a new, or shocking, story, and those of us who are entrusted with some share of it need to be mindful of that.

That’s becoming much more important than it once was.  The political climate doesn’t allow much room for error these days, and the internet makes sustained secrecy much harder.  Worse, a story that might once have been confined to local papers now lives forever online.  Small things that may once have been easier to hide are now much harder.

(Oddly, the opposite seems to be true in the sectors of society where the real power is.  The shenanigans at Citigroup and Barclays and Goldman Sachs absolutely dwarf anything going on in higher education, yet they continue, and even seem to get worse.  That double standard gets all the more offensive as it gets more dramatic.)

I’ve seen leaders with all sorts of different styles.  Although I have my preferences among them, I’m increasingly convinced that the really important distinction is between leaders who realize that it isn’t really about them, and those who think it is.  

Over time, the differences show.  The narcissists take liberties that others don’t.  They hold grudges, and get personally offended at disagreement.  They tend to expect deference in random circumstances, and to get visibly upset if they don’t receive it.  In my observation, gender and race aren’t critical variables; either you have boundaries, or you don’t.

Colleges that want to insulate themselves from the damage that unchained narcissists can do need the usual procedural safeguards against misconduct -- auditing, good financial controls, HR processes, etc. -- but they also need to set climates over time that don’t reward me-first behavior.  Folks who put themselves first can sometimes climb quickly, particularly if nobody is paying close attention or is willing to call them out.  And hiring committees need to be on the lookout.  On the administrative side, for example, someone who has a history of jumping quickly from job to job to job would raise a red flag.  If they never stayed in one place for more than a couple of years, and had sustained that pace for some time, I’d have some serious reservations.

But sometimes they can sneak up on you.  Burnham had been president at Brookdale for decades; that certainly passes the job-hopping test.  Brookdale has been clean enough otherwise that I have to assume that processes and internal controls are in place.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to sniff out the narcissists?  Are there ways to inoculate a college against them?