Sunday, January 08, 2012

Thoughts on "On Being Presidential"

Just in case my nerd cred needed any burnishing, I devoted part of the break to reading On Being Presidential, by Susan Resneck Pierce.  It’s about the challenges and rewards of being a college president, with some helpful hints for people considering the role.  Its major recommendations boil down to self-discipline (for presidents) and self-awareness (for colleges).  The difficulty of finding both of those at the same time says a lot.

Since the book doesn’t specify an institutional type within higher education, it’s hard to know how closely it reflects the realities facing presidents of community colleges.  Certainly most cc’s don’t deal with high-profile athletics or dorms, so those issues are mercifully absent.  They also don’t deal with denominational issues in the ways that religiously affiliated colleges do.  Historically, they haven’t done nearly as much private fundraising as other sectors, though that’s starting to change.  

On the other hand, cc’s as a sector are very much at the mercy of state (and sometimes federal or local) politics.  In that context, presidents have to be savvy about balancing the need to create a sense of urgency with the need not to seem too needy.  As with the private donors Pierce discusses, there’s certainly an “educate the legislator” role to play, but the issues around that can be much more complex, given that a single state can have many different campuses, each with its own local leadership.  

I devoured Pierce’s advice about setting a leadership climate.  Having worked under several different presidents in my career, I can attest that a few basic choices made upfront have substantial and unintended ripple effects.  Leaders who like to pit subordinates against each other, like Donald Trump, tend to generate all manner of unproductive internal politics.  When I was at Proprietary U, the president there enjoyed putting people on the spot, seemingly at random.  He’d actually stop people in the hallway and hit them with his question of the day.  (On any given day, he had one question.)  He seemed to think that he was keeping everyone on our toes; the actual effect was mostly just annoying.  

For me, the unintended highlight of the book was her observation that “[f]aculty, students, staff, and alumni all believe to varying degrees that they have primacy...”  It’s a pretty good description of administration generally, in fact.  Maintaining an upbeat equanimity in the face of such complicated, overlapping, and often conflicting demands -- without losing a coherent sense of self -- is the considerable challenge of being presidential.  

The undercurrent of the book is that the success or failure of a president is largely a matter of self-awareness at the point of selection.  A candidate needs enough self-awareness to pick the right opportunity, and not to oversell.  Similarly, a college needs to understand its own needs so it can select the right person.  When it doesn’t, it’s likely to fall under the spell of a charismatic leader who will generate unrealistic expectations.

Pierce rightly notes that the experiences people gain rising through the academic ranks --- faculty, department chair, dean, provost -- are increasingly poor fits for presidencies.  That has always been true at private colleges, but it’s becoming true at community colleges now, too.  In my daily role, I don’t spend much time fundraising, for example; as states and localities increasingly leave cc’s to fend for themselves, the fundraising role is becoming more important.   In light of that change and of the advancing age of presidents, colleges will have to start attending more intentionally to succession planning and leadership training.  Some will probably look outside academia, whether by choice or default, but that brings risks of its own.  (And as she correctly notes, there’s currently no well-known program training people from non-academic backgrounds for academic presidencies.)

She makes the point -- not unique to presidencies, I’ll add -- that “fit” is a very real issue.  Different colleges are at different points in their histories and have different needs; a candidate who gets shot down at one college could be very well-received at another.  From a candidate’s point of view, then, the important thing is not to try to be perfect, but to try to be a well-scrubbed version of what you actually are.  Give an accurate picture of what you have to offer, and trust that eventually a college will recognize its needs in you.  The best outcomes happen when candidates have the self-discipline not to try too hard to get the job.  

The most disheartening part of the book -- other than her repeated misuse of the term “fulsome” -- is the discussion of life in a fishbowl.  Presidents are conspicuous figures, and frequently people will consider their private lives fair game for judgment, informed or not.  That level of scrutiny is one of the most common cited reasons for vice presidents not pursuing presidencies.  Worse, the fishbowl effect often extends to family members.  It’s one thing to sign up for a role that brings scrutiny; it’s something else entirely to subject your family to it.  And having to “be presidential” 24/7 is a tall order for anyone; we all need the chance to be human from time to time.  

Self-awareness is neither common nor evenly distributed.  But it’s a worthwhile goal, well worth the occasional reminder.  Thanks to Pierce for spelling out the consequences for both individuals and institutions for not taking self-awareness seriously.