February 17, 2018

Tell the Truth, Tell It All: Surviving a Leadership Crisis | Leading from the Library

Steven BellIt is inevitable that leaders will say or do something to land themselves in hot water with their followers. Knowing how to respond to and learn from a leadership crisis is a valuable leadership skill.

“Just when you think another college president couldn’t possibly self-destruct in public, bam, another one bites the dust.” That’s a line from a 2010 column in which I reflected, with amazement, on the continuous reports of higher education leaders who shock us with crass behavior and acts of stupidity we hardly expect from a college president. Here we are many years later and college presidents still find ways to confound us with incredibly unacceptable ideas and actions. The latest installment comes to us from the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. President Simon P. Newman ignited a firestorm of controversy with his unbelievably poor choice of words and imagery to communicate a questionable but possibly rational strategy to help struggling students, early on in their academic careers, leave Mount St. Mary’s with no loss of tuition. The president’s initial communication failures led to increasingly dreadful cascading consequences including the revelation of hidden agendas, ultimatums, firings, and calls for his resignation. There are many articles sharing the details of this tragedy, debating the ethics of Newman’s actions, and questioning how he even transitioned from leading a private-equity firm to a college presidency. It’s quite possible this series of events will become a case study in leadership failure for future higher education leadership students.

Violating Leadership Principles

Open up any basic leadership text or read the latest blog posts and essays from leadership experts like Dan Rockwell or Kouzes and Posner, and it will lead to repeated exhortations for leaders to practice honesty, fairness, transparency, and communication to establish a trusting relationship with followers. It appears these basics escaped Newman or he willfully ignored them at the risk of creating a leadership catastrophe. Let’s consider just two simple leadership skills, listening and humility. We will never know all the details, but when the president shared his ideas for how to shed underperforming students before they could impact on retention statistics his senior leadership team pushed back on the premise. Good leaders need to listen and pay attention to the concerns of their team and should even seek out opposing opinions and alternate ideas. Did Newman pursue a five-whys exercise with them or did he believe only he knew what was best for the college? This may be a classic case of violating Jim Collins’s advice from How the Mighty Fall about leadership hubris, that leaders drive their organizations into chaos and decline when egotistical behavior results in destructive narcissism.

Dealing with The Crisis

Where Newman’s presidency truly went off the rails was in how he handled betrayal. A leader should reasonably expect that anything discussed in confidence within the executive team, even if it’s outrageous, should stay confidential. Leaders must earn, not demand, their followers’ loyalty. Quite possibly, Newman was facing an uphill battle in winning over a cadre of long-term academic administrators who likely saw him as an inexperienced outsider. Was there a conspiracy to leak Newman’s bunnies and Glock references in order to embarrass and turn him a nationally despised pariah in the mass media? What we do know for sure is that Newman handled it all badly. The Chronicle of Higher Education asked three crisis-communication experts what they would have recommended to Newman. Erin Hennessy, of TVP Communications, said it best with “tell the truth, tell it all, tell it first.” Therein lies the gist of the advice. Be open, be honest, admit that you made a mistake, and make a sincere apology. Newman’s emergency response went from bad to worse, starting with accusations and denials and then following up with firing long-time Mount St. Mary’s faculty. Hardly the leaderly gesture of reconciliation and moving forward to heal the community.

Can Trust be Restored?

Given how far gone the situation was, should Newman have resigned? The faculty demanded it and Newman refused. The Mount St. Mary’s board has promised a full investigation into how this mess happened and what went wrong, but it comes off as a too-late gesture to salvage Newman’s presidency. Charitably, we might give Newman some credit for hanging in there and believing he can still lead Mount St. Mary’s to prosperity. However, he has withdrawn so deeply from the emotional bank account that there is now an insurmountable deficit of trust. It would be nothing shy of a remarkable accomplishment if Newman can restore the faculty’s faith and the community’s confidence in his leadership. Mount St. Mary’s students are the only thing keeping Newman’s presidency on life support. It’s unknown if Newman had previously faced a crisis like this one in his career. It’s highly unlikely a leadership dilemma could rise to this level, but surely he had experience navigating other crisis situations. Newman’s meltdown of leadership failure certainly qualifies as a crucible moment, and we will be left wondering what he’s learned from it.

Start With the Truth

As students of leadership, we need to identify and reflect on the takeaways that help us sharpen our leadership skills. An obvious lesson is to watch what you say and how you say it—and who you say it to. There are also myriad lessons in this story for leadership communication, including listening to subordinates, effectively communicating strategies, properly articulating an idea to build consensus support, and public speaking for crisis mode. Perhaps the flames of crisis would have been more quickly doused, if not avoided, with a “tell the truth, tell it all” approach. Had Newman more clearly articulated his institution’s toxic mixture of retention-budget-rankings problems, passionately expressed the need to contain an impending financial crisis, adhered to the ethical foundations of his institution, asked openly and honestly for feedback from constituency groups, better understood the principles of shared governance, and practiced humility rather than hubris, then he might not find himself where he is today, fighting for what’s left of his dignity and job security—and hanging on by just a thread.

[Editor’s Note: Four days after this column was first published, Newman resigned, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education]

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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