Tuesday, April 27, 2010

After the Peak

This piece in the Chronicle got me thinking about Presidents and Vice Presidents I've worked under who had stayed on too long. It has happened more than once.

In every case, the hangers-on had tremendous reputations built on past achievements. In each case, I'm told, the achievements that made their names were genuinely impressive, and people on the outside still held them in high regard.

But on the inside, you could see the decay.

In one case, the President was simply a creature of another time. He had a sharp-elbows style that made sense when the college was small and had to scrap to survive. But as the college got bigger and more accepted, it had to move more toward the mainstream academic culture, and he just couldn't. At times, it was almost painful to watch. He was a hard-charging small business guy who just couldn't negotiate a large organization. The college outgrew him. When I was there, in the last few years of his tenure, the mismatch between what he had to offer and what the college was so obvious that it was hard to imagine how he ever got the job in the first place, or why he still inspired some measure of loyalty and respect among the old guard.

When he retired, he was replaced with a nearly polar opposite. He had never really changed, but the college had changed beneath him.

Subsequently, I worked under a long-term President who (initially) had a cadre of long-term vice presidents.

There, the issues were different. These folks had diplomatic skills, and a much better sense of academic culture. They were undeniably smart, and had achieved some impressive things in the past.

But by the time I got there, they had passed the limits of the good they could do. They had largely stopped learning and experimenting. They had hit the impatience that comes with boredom, and consequently were often either detached or impulsive. By that point, every experiment was a foregone conclusion, and every personality was reduced to an agenda. (To be fair, much the same dynamic held among the faculty.)

When the leadership grew detached and/or impulsive, there was no sense of overall direction. Consequently, petty fiefdoms abounded, and turf wars were everywhere. Campus dialogue veered from 'cynical' to 'toxic,' with expressions of hope written off as naivete. I started the blog in that environment, largely as a way to vent frustrations. As a youngish dean with ambitions to achieve positive things, the setting was alternately maddening and dispiriting. Some of those early posts reflect that.

Now I'm in a setting with an experienced President, but one whose experience has been in a number of places. The difference is noticeable.

From what I've seen, a few thoughts on leadership and longevity:

- Wheeler/dealer types burn out fast. They don't always know it, but it's apparent from the outside. Part of it has to do with the energy involved in trying to keep a close eye on hundreds of different things. Part of it has to do with the encrusted layers of debts accumulated over time through those deals. And part of it has to do with encouraging a culture of backstabbing. Presidents are outnumbered; if they encourage backstabbers to multiply, the eventual consequences are predictable.

- Effective leaders aren't afraid to get back to first principles. When you go too long taking the point of it all for granted, you enable a corrosive cynicism. When the first principles espoused in public match the criteria used for actual decisions, you can neutralize the incentives for backstabbing. And you can't be afraid to repeat those first principles over and over again. Don't assume it goes without saying. It doesn't.

- Experiment. That means trying new projects, but it also means taking chances on trusting people who would be easy to reduce to caricatures. Some of those experiments will fail, and you have to be comfortable enough in your own skin to withstand that. But when they succeed, it's really something.

- When you've got everything right where you want it -- when you could describe the place as a well-oiled machine, or describe your mission as preservation -- it's time to quit. "It's right where I want it" is just another way of saying "I'm out of ideas." Don't wait for entropy to do its cruel work.

Age isn't the critical variable here. It's something closer to "a sense of priorities." When you hold tight to some core values, and hold pretty loosely to any given method to achieve them, you're in good shape. When you can't distinguish the two, or when you're so sure of the answer that you can't even wait for someone to finish the question, it's time to walk away. And it's better to walk away from your college than to watch it walk away from you.