Expectations for new leaders always run high. Failure to deliver big gains quickly can lead to disillusionment and loss of confidence. What can we learn from the UVa leadership debacle?
Aspiring leaders are advised to study and learn from cases that offer the lessons of leading, both how to do it well and mistakes to avoid. The work of Jim Collins comes to mind, though he tends to focus more on industries than individual leaders. By analyzing enormous amounts of data, Collins is able to draw lessons to share with his readers that identify the qualities, practices and attitudes that lead to greatness or obsolescence. In the process of doing so, Collins shares good takeaways for leaders at all levels (e.g., hubris leads to the downfall).
The case of Theresa Sullivan, briefly ex-president at the University of Virginia, will likely go down as one of the great higher education leadership studies of all time (along with the leadership collapse at Penn State). Few of us will ever reach this pinnacle of academic leadership, but we may take away some valuable lessons from Sullivan’s dismissal by the Board of Trustees. One of those lessons that clearly stand out for me is the issue of change. More specifically, what is the appropriate pace with which leaders need to make change happen? According to Sullivan’s own recounting of the causes of her dismissal, the most visible concern is the UVa Trustees’ dissatisfaction with the speed of at which Sullivan was creating change at the institution.
Not fast enough
By all accounts Sullivan was a popular and well regarded leader. When Sullivan made her first public appearance to respond to the Trustee’s request for her resignation, over 2,000 community members turned out to rally in support of Sullivan and in opposition to the Board’s decision. Talk about having the support of followers. Although Rector Helen Dragas issued an apology of sorts for the way it handled the process, it initially held firm on its decision to let Sullivan go. When the experts were asked to comment on the chain of events, they almost uniformly condemned the Board for a poorly timed and unwise decision. In the days following Sullivan’s forced resignation, emails exchanged between board members revealed the gist of their rationale for removing Sullivan. She was failing to create big change fast enough. Seeing all the attention being garnered by radically transformative platforms such as EduX and Udacity, the UVa board members exchanged email in which they told themselves “this is why we can’t afford to wait.” Perhaps waiting is exactly what this time and place needed.
Sometimes you need incremental change
Perhaps there was some fundamental misunderstanding between the Board and Sullivan with respect to her leadership style. Apparently they wanted a president who could decisively make big change happen quickly. In her first public statement after resigning, Sullivan said: “I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true. Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.” She later added “being an incrementalist does not mean that I lack vision.” While Boards may want to see their institutions move quickly into the future, a speed of change that works in the corporate world where startups can launch and fail in the wink of an eye, it is possible that higher education institutions were meant to move in a more incremental fashion, making adjustments as needed.
Controlling the Thermostat
That exact theory was advanced by Robert Birnbaum in his 1988 book, How Colleges Work. In his studies of higher education leadership, Birnbaum advanced an idea he called the cybernetic paradigm. He likened higher education leadership to a thermostatic control. The thermostat maintains the right balance between hot and cold. As a feedback loop device, it responds as needed to a change in the environment by making an incremental adjustment. Academic administrators, he claimed, should focus on maintaining balance in a way that would optimize leadership values. Only in the case of “a shock to the system” should leaders make a significant change. Otherwise he advised academic leaders to let things work if they were working, to stop doing whatever wasn’t working, and to do nothing when there was uncertainty about what to do. The trustees at UVa decided to fix something that wasn’t entirely broken, and wanted to move at a pace that would ultimately throw their whole institution out of balance.
Your pace of change
When a librarian steps into a position of leadership at any level, he or she can expect that one of the first things colleagues, and especially reports, will want to know is what is going to change and when will that change happen. A new leader is also likely to feel some pressure from above to create some change, as that is often an expectation when one is placed in a position of new leadership. It need not turn into a paralyzing dilemma, but new library leaders should be giving thought, once there is a clear sense of where change is needed, to how and when to introduce change. It’s the leader who should decide the pace of change, what priority issues need immediate attention, and which projects can wait until the time for change is right. Making the right call may depend on the ability of the staff to adapt to change, availability of resources, and support from superiors. Is there any particular advice that can help leaders to create the right pace of change in their organizations?
In his essay Act Fast, but Not Necessarily First, Frank Partnoy offers some insight on finding the right pace for productive change that could provide good advice for leaders. He recommends a four-step approach (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) to avoid rushing into big change. Take time to see what’s going on in the organization. Meeting and listening to the staff is a simple way to take gather information and understand the culture. By orienting, he means getting a grip on where things are heading and the implications of creating change. In the final stages, the leader must act decisively by choosing and implementing the project. Leaders who feel pressured to act quickly may want to recall Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, and use the process to intentionally slow things down. Leaders should always be mindful of the need to establish trust with those they lead, and getting the pace right can help build that trust. When there is an environment of mutual trust, whether one moves quickly or slowly, whether one succeeds or fails, he or she is much more likely to get support.
You never know where you’ll discover some potentially useful leadership advice. I came across a gem while reading the business section of my local paper. Michael Useem, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was describing his unique ways of educating and preparing leaders. He referred to leadership as “a lifelong journey to work out how you lead.” It speaks volumes that a leadership expert should see it as a process of continual learning. When it comes to areas of substantial uncertainty, such as knowing the pace for creating change, the importance of leadership case studies becomes more clear to those who want to learn to be a better leader.