The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Case Study: The Search for Great Leadership

by Gael O'Brien

If you were selecting a new president for your organization, what leadership qualities should he or she possess to be successful in navigating all the challenges you can foresee and those you can’t?

Trustees on the presidential search committee at The Ohio State University (OSU) took an unusual step August 30, 2013 to begin to answer that question. They hosted a symposium on the nature of the university presidency inviting four eminent university leaders from institutions that potentially compete with OSU (for research dollars and faculty) to share what qualities they thought OSU should look for in a new president.

OSU has begun the search to find a successor to former president E. Gordon Gee who served a total of 13 years in two terms before abruptly resigning in June 2013. Gee, widely praised for the fruits of his fundraising ability, was increasingly criticized for judgment lapses involving the inappropriateness of his humor.

Symposium moderator Richard Chait, an authority on university governance, included panelists whom he said demonstrate to OSU trustees how high the bar is for outstanding leaders. Panelists included: Lawrence Bacow (president emeritus of Tufts University), Elson Floyd,  (president of Washington State University), Thomas Ross, (president of the University of North Carolina system) and Teresa Sullivan (president of the University of Virginia).

Not surprisingly, attributes common to exemplary university presidents that panelists mentioned included: visionary, integrity, collaborative, bold, strategic, intellectual curiosity, good judgment, gut instinct, capacity to compromise, fundraising skill and politically savvy. Also cited was a range of emotional intelligence capabilities -- to know when tough and sensitive are each required, to lead by example, understanding how to enable faculty to do their best work, versatility in relating to multiple audiences, success in bringing people of different perspectives together, and seeking out and listening to feedback by going to the work spaces and offices of others (especially in the first year) rather than holding meetings in the president’s office. UVA’s Sullivan asks regularly to be scheduled into activities on campus she hasn’t done before as part of connecting to people where they are.

In addition to desired attributes, there were also cautions offered for any new president. “I think the best presidents make the presidency about the institution and not themselves; insecure people make lousy leaders,” said Tufts’ Bacow. Other mistakes to avoid include responding too quickly to issues without consulting with others, said Washington State’s Floyd, and not giving people permission to bring you bad news, offered University of North Carolina’s Ross.

New university presidents step into ever-changing and complex dynamics. “This is as tough a time to lead an institution as there can be,” said Bacow as the presidents identified the myriad of challenges facing higher education including criticism the business model is broken, pressures to deliver learning in new ways, governance issues, decreasing revenue sources and keeping ahead of constant change. Panelists know these realities all too well. UVA’s Sullivan two years into her presidency last year was blindsided by an orchestrated trustee vote to oust her; after massive campus protests, she was unanimously reinstated.

How do you pick the right candidate, find that fit, ask the questions that uncover someone’s genuine commitment? The four presidents were thoughtful, generous and specific in sharing their experience and ideas. In reply to a question about what to ask a candidate to learn about his or her diversity commitment, panelists suggested asking questions like: What is the composition of the individuals you have hired? What programs have you developed or put in place to have diversity in hiring and recruitment? What programs would you want to implement at OSU? and Why is diversity important?

OSU has launched a process to clarify its vision for the future it is committed to creating, the values that will support achieving it, and the leader the university believes will make the greatest contribution in moving it forward. The opportunity in each search process is how the lessons from the past and the vision for the future create new possibility.

Leadership is best learned by watching.  I was reminded of a lesson about leadership while observing how members of the panel moderated by Chait interacted with each other, and the questions and the sense of responsibility they owned in staying focused on what would be helpful to OSU in their presidential search.

I was reminded that great leadership is a contact sport -- not regulated by the NCAA  – that creates powerful authentic impact through the connection of ideas, words, relationships and actions that move goals to the finish line; it is about touching, making linkages and inspiring people to achieve more than they thought possible. It is what every search committee needs to feel when looking for their next president.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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