Recently the Ohio State University’s president, Gordon Gee, announced his retirement in the face of criticism over some embarrassing statements he made. Rutgers University’s president, Robert Barchi, is facing a barrage of criticism over a number of issues, most saliently his handling of problems with Rutgers’ athletics programs. Gee and Barchi are both smart and accomplished academic leaders with lengthy track records of substantial accomplishments. Nevertheless, the current media storm might lead one to think that they lacked management and leadership skills.
The brouhaha in the press started me thinking: who is an effective college president and what makes for a successful president? Is it fundraising? The ability to speak effectively? Negotiation skills? Administration acumen? An ability to stay calm and focused in a crisis? I posed the question to several colleagues in higher education. One answered promptly with a book recommendation: Arthur Padilla’s Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents. The book uses the framework of university organization to examine presidential leadership, first in a generalized way and then through case studies. The book’s attention to the presidents’ biographies, accomplishments, and work style through a generalized investigation of what made these presidents effective leaders is a good read. In many ways the book defines presidential success. It is a very helpful study.
The six presidents (and chancellors) are University of California’s Clark Kerr, University of North Carolina’s William Friday, Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh, University of Chicago’s Hanna Gray, University of Maryland’s John Slaughter, and Princeton University’s William Bowen. They shared, unsurprisingly, similar traits: great intelligence, discipline and an extreme work ethic (to the point of obsession), outstanding communication skills, great attention to learning and reading, optimism, perseverance, a sharp understanding of broad systemic issues, and an absence of self-destructive habits. Interestingly, they also all shared early hardships, had exposure to significant mentors (often at a leadership level), and were able to assemble highly competent associates and teams. They all weathered crises, established strong partnerships with their boards and their faculties, and had amazing interpersonal skills. The study identifies, in many ways, what you might expect.
The six were chosen because of the substantive improvements that they led at their institutions. They were institutional builders, but in ways greater than the construction of libraries and residence halls. Each made their institutions much stronger academically. Each provided their universities with a clearer sense of mission. Each enhanced institutional finances and infrastructure. Each left their university better off than when they started.
What stood out for me, however, was the recurring theme of morality and principle in these presidents’ lives. A strong moral foundation was clear in what they did and why they did it. In fact, structured sets of values and convictions defined them as people. And most importantly, their was a deep alignment between their personal values and their institution’s values. This is not to say that they crafted their universities in their image, but rather that they embodied many of their institution’s convictions.
Understanding this, I believe, is essential to understanding the accomplishments of the six presidents. Their knowledge and skills, though similar, were not interchangeable. Their affiliation with their respective institutions was based on much more than history, hard work, and familiarity. Their respective institutions rang true with their values.
Padilla’s case studies make it clear that extraordinary people are necessary for extraordinary presidential leadership. It’s a rare combination. Padilla’s book also demonstrates that the recipe for outstanding presidents calls for good fortune: the right person at the right university at the right time.