Let them eat conch

By Alan J. Yeck

Leadership, great leadership, goes beyond art and science to something that is often undefined by those who study it and even the practitioners themselves. In the context of varying, and often challenging situations, great leadership is clearly and consistently visible. Where does that je ne sais quoi ultimately originate? What is it about those we choose to follow (not forced to follow), which honors the trust and respect we give to them, which they give to us? There are people we report to and people who supervise and manage, but being a great leader is an entirely different dimension and one that many do not seem to grasp. The position or role may be one for leadership but that does not mean a leader sits in the chair. It is not a rank for we see generals that cannot lead. It is not wealth or power for we see CEOs that are more business dictators than leaders. Nor it is their level of education for we see college and university presidents running their campuses like first time teachers with badly managed classrooms. There is an organic element, applicable to every decision regardless of the industry, or issue at hand, and is too often missing in higher education today. 

 No matter how much post-secondary education wants to believe it is above the routine fray of other corporate entities, it is still a business. It is the business of education. Regardless of the tax classifications (nonprofit, for-profit, private) there are processes and procedures just as pertinent, prudent, and necessary to a university as they are to Microsoft, Walmart or US Steel. Higher education teaches business but rarely uses those same tools and best practices within its own hallowed halls. How many senior leaders on campus are Six Sigma certified? Project management certified? Certified human resources, certified public accounts, certified financial planners…etc? Too often, administrators are brought in or moved up without the experience, knowledge or skills required by their positions. Their mentors, if any, climbed the same status quo ladders so are incapable of seeing the gaps, let alone help in those areas. What we end up with, for leadership, is a group of nice, well-meaning people that probably excelled in something, at some time in their careers but are ill equipped to lead an institution. We see poor decisions made throughout the country resulting in inflated costs of education, poor on-time completion rates, and increased attrition rates with apathy being the campus modus operandi. These do not happen because our students Jenna and Jerome could not do the work but because their campuses were so intentionally unaware that the resources to help were never put in the right place at the right time with the right people. In education, all rubrics, including financial measurements, should flow back and forth from the goal of our students’ development, not internally for the occasional accreditation visits. It is a living process, constantly nurtured, free from fear, with the common understanding that we can be better – we must do better. Good leadership removes silos and barriers that inhibit teamwork, open communications and it openly values every member of the organization.  

I recently heard about a small, liberal arts college in the northeast struggling to keep the doors open as so many similar institutions have closed over the last several years. A previous president and his board borrowed $40 million dollars to build a new dormitory, a monumental structure complete with gargoyles and the president’s face (and his wife’s face too) chiseled above the entrance. While built in 2006 it looks like a palatial estate from the 1880s – truly a beautiful piece of architecture where a prince would have stayed if not Harry Potter himself. Normally there would have been a capital campaign to fundraise for this kind of project but instead they went to Wells Fargo and borrowed it. As enrollment continued to declined, all the college’s endowments were eaten-up over the next 10 years – reduced to nothing. After realizing they would never be able to pay back Wells Fargo, the college renegotiated and the bank forgave $30 million of the $40 million loan. The other $10 million was ponied-up as a loan from some of the school’s trustees. Day-to-day operational funding came from tuition revenue only. Bills went unpaid and projects on hold until the tuition checks rolled in. Major maintenance (roof repairs, elevator repairs…) were delayed, if done at all. The president, ever board-focused, would terminate various senior officers around him, which also allowed the blame game after they were gone, then he brought in unqualified friends, who brought in their friends. What money there was, now spent on new systems that did not integrate with old systems that never integrated with any of the other systems before anyways – a ‘if you always do what you’ve always done…’ approach to operations. Consultants were paid to bring new program ideas, which they obtained by asking faculty what they thought was needed, reviewing local Department of Labor data, and a few interviews including board members – all of which did nothing to slow declining enrollments. Not being able to afford an experienced or even inexperienced provost, faculty rotated this position every few years with the main requirement to obtain the job being, they said they would do it. No other management, leadership or position experience required. Nice people though.

The last pay increase that occurred for faculty and staff was several years ago although they’ve been promised, again, a one percent raise sometime in the near future, after HR developed the new employee appraisal system. There have been layoffs, attrition, and faculty positions left unfilled to save money; major support offices (IT, registrar, campus safety, student services, continuing education, marketing, recruitment, and graduate studies) operated with a skeletal crew. All continued to do the best they could with what they had, understanding the situation and hoping for better news to come. Senior administration (leadership) kept promising pay increases and new strategic directions to put them back on a solid plan of growth and opportunity. Meetings were held, new committees formed – a cornucopia of the correct buzzwords for educational management were dropped broadly and often.

The department chair’s meeting was at noon on a Wednesday, early February. One of the agenda items was “college culture” or specifically college morale. As the discussions took place on previous agenda items, discussions about more things the chairs would need to do, more reports, more things for them to ask their faculty to do, more committees for them to be on, it bled nicely to campus morale. There was no question in anyone’s minds how low morale was. You can ask your people to do extraordinary amounts of work because of a situation, and most will roll up their sleeves and do it, but you can’t continue to ask them to that on and on and on with no end in sight. It degrades themselves, their work and destroys morale. The current acting provost suggested a solution, “maybe the college could do a year-end mixer.” How do you fixed overworked, underpaid, unappreciated employees? Cocktail sausages and toast points! What never came up was that he was leaving on a 6:00 a.m. flight the next morning with four other senior administrators to join the president and another vice president who were already there, for a board meeting in the Bahamas. The pictures of the beach and water posted by the vice president on Facebook looked wonderful. At a previous all-faculty meeting a week before, faculty asked administration if they could speak to the board at their next meeting. Nothing was ever mentioned that it would be taking place in the Bahamas. I guess senior leadership just forgot about the upcoming trip. I mean after all, ‘what da wybe is,’ which is Bahamian for ‘what’s the problem?’ Success belongs to the team but the road to and from failure always has direct paths to leadership. Always.

For those out there thinking at least this was a good ‘team building outing’ allow me expand a bit more on this story. As I said the president and one of the vice presidents had left a day or two before with their spouses. The other five were scheduled to leave the Thursday before the Friday meeting with a planned arrival at the beach later that day. One of the five missed the 6:00 a.m. departure flight so now there were four flying into Detroit to make their connecting flight. Once there, they had less than an hour to get to their next gate, (if you’re transiting Detroit, inevitably, your next gate is always on the other side of wherever you landed). One of the four, a wonderful African American woman (the single person of color in any administration role) has a physical condition that limited the speed and distance she could walk. So, what did the others do? After admonishing that person for not making arrangements with the airline in advance to have someone at the gate to take them in a wheelchair or golf cart to the next gate, the other three abandoned her and dashed off to the next gate. The provost, the VP of advancement and the president’s administrative executive assistant (invited to entertain the spouses during the board meeting). Sometimes unseen adverse circumstances make the very best team building opportunities. This was not one of those times.

A few days later, Friday, the area was hit with a major snowstorm falling on another layer of ice that accumulated over the night. All local schools and many businesses closed, and the snow kept coming. This campus was a residential campus, meaning students lived on campus and could walk to their classes. Terrible weather would not prevent that. What it does prevent is the safe travel to and from campus for employees and staff. The roads were terrible and those coming in drove past accidents and spinouts. As all senior administrators were enjoying their conch omelets in the Bahamas, the person left in charge, (which nobody knew he was in charge because the president did not inform the campus that he was leaving) had no experience with this kind of situation. One of the trustees, on the island for the meeting, had heard from a relative back in the U.S. that the storm was ‘not that bad.’ and relayed that to the person running/not running the campus. No cancellations. No delays. Employees were expected to report on time as usual, or they could take a vacation day (as it was pointed out when anxiety about the dangers was expressed). Faculty canceled most classes because they were not going to risk their lives. Some staff dug themselves out and made it in. Others took a vacation day. I believe there must be other places just as demoralized and mismanaged. Somewhere. Ukraine? 

I started this piece noting that trying to define what makes great leaders goes beyond the arts and sciences, that it goes beyond position, wealth, or power. I have to also point out that the opposite of piss poor leadership, as reflected by the beach boys and girls above, is not great leadership either (although they are in no danger of being an example of that). We know great leaders share common qualities such as commitment, confidence, inspiration, honesty, empathy, vision…but what I’m speaking about is where these traits ultimately grow from. Great leadership begins and ends with the soul of the leader. It is a complete, conscious, tightly encompassed philosophy to value above all else those whom they have been given the great responsibility of leading. The roots are deep, and must be, because powerful storms will come. Great leaders recognize both the frailty and the unbelievable strengths within us all. This is not something to overcome but to hold dearly and model from when creating the culture of an organization. Great leaders recognize we are all the same beings on a short journey best taken together with support and love. Build your leadership, culture, company, house from here and see your life, and the lives of those you are responsible for, change for the better regardless of external conditions, despite the storms out of your control. This does not guarantee success from a Wall Street point of view, but neither does the Wall Street point of view. It aligns lives correctly with the time we have, in the place we are, to the unmistakable joy of our existence together. Anything else is just another trip to the Bahamas.