Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Leadership 101: Center of Gravity

(College Planning and Management, June 2010 - by Scott D. Miller and Marylouise Fennell)

Editor’s Note: Third in a series of six focusing on “Leadership 101,” issues of special interest to college presidents and trustees.

Medieval kings and queens were surrounded by courtiers whose continued residence at court, social standing and in some cases, their very lives, depended upon the goodwill of the monarch. Needless to say, these sycophants became extremely adept at telling the ruler what he or she wanted to hear.  College presidents in the 21st century are also surrounded by courtiers; they are called alumni, faculty, staff and others who orbit CEOs.
Like their medieval counterparts, college and university presidents today need to maintain balance, perspective and focus because when many others’ lives revolve around decisions you make, it is easy to lose track of all three.  Here are three maxims that will help presidents to maintain a healthy center of both personal and institutional gravity:

·         Focus on a few key priorities;
·         Maintain a balance in professional and personal life;
·         Go home at night.


President’s “in” boxes, especially at the outset of their tenures, always seem to be overflowing, with each item marked “urgent.”  Unless you can develop a laser-like focus on three and not more than four priorities for your first year in office, you will be perpetually consumed by minutia, always reacting, managing from crisis to crisis.

Alan Webber, author and founding editor of Fast Company magazine, offers this fundamental rule of thumb in his latest book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself:  “Ask the last question first. That is, ‘What’s the point of the exercise?”

 As Webber points out, many military campaigns have produced victory in every individual battle, while the wars themselves were lost.  In every instance, “the critical missing element to (those) ill-conceived wars was a lack of clear definition of victory.” If you don’t have a clear understanding of what you hope to achieve, how will you justify the time, energy and human and financial resources to commit to the effort?

Maintain Balance

The late French President Charles deGaulle once famously remarked that cemeteries are filled with “indispensable” men (and women.) Perhaps the best advice that any one ever gave us is this: “Remember, it will all still be there in the morning.”  Take care of yourself, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Take vacations and when you are away, be away. Humor, especially the self-deprecating kind, can reduce stress and provide needed perspective. Make time for friends and family, for they will keep you centered.  

Go Home at Night

A former West Coast president, on his arrival at a small liberal arts college, initially created shock waves when he announced that he would buy his own home off-campus rather than live in the President’s House.  “Everyone else at the university gets to go home at night, and I want to do that, too,” he explained.  The former president’s residence became a well-used space for alumni events, offices and gatherings, while the respected CEO in question went on to a long and successful presidency. Go home at the end of the day. 

In the end, effective leadership “is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”  Incorporate this counsel from the late author and professional management consultant Peter F. Drucker, and your tenure will be productive. Remember, that you must provide institutional gravity; others will be looking to your words, actions and demeanor for inspiration and guidance.  

Successful leaders in all walks of life recognize that you can’t take care of others unless you first attend to your own needs.  While bringing enormous demands, long hours and often, undue stress, college presidencies offer nearly unparalleled opportunity to help others, especially students.  It’s one of the best jobs around!

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of the College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College in West Virginia.  Now in his third college presidency, he has served as a CEO for nearly 20 years.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and a partner in Hyatt Fennell, Higher Education Services - The TCR Group.