Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why some leaders fail:Judging character badly, not listening and failing to form collaborations

There is a lot written about leadership today. I am considered a leader by some, I even have a gig coaching women administrators. Perhaps that is because I have gotten some positions that are defined as leading–director for example. But to me leading is more than just a title or  being in charge of something, it is having a vision, a perspective, a goal  and being able to convince a critical mass of others to share it and work towards it with you.

I remember about ten years ago a new minister came to a church in my hometown of Xenia, Ohio. He fancied himself a leader and constantly told anyone to listen how he was ready to lead. What he did not seem to understand is you cannot declare yourself a leader. You have to have qualities that make people want to follow you. His constant cry of ” I am ready to lead, I just need some followers” was ludicrous. The fact he did not see the absurdity of what he was saying was pitiful. Of course, he, like many people who have come to Xenia from somewhere else, thought that Xenia was full of backward country people who needed to be shown the path, the way, the light. What he did not realize is that people in Xenia on average are very well informed. If they do not follow you it is not because your message is above their heads, it is because they do not think you are worthy of their allegiance and efforts.

Leading means lots of things. The first thing it means is listening to other people and processing what they are saying, either about you or about issues , then synthesizing your own view and goals. You do not have to lead by committee, but you also need to constantly check yourself to make certain you are being logical and rational. All of us tend to have blind spots, it is wise to acknowledge them and manage them. Nobody knows everything.

Having said that, being able to make a decision and see it through to the end is also a necessary skill for leaders. There are always going to be people who do not agree with your vision or your plans. Some of them are simply chronic naysayers. We used to have a woman on campus who did not agree with anything anyone wanted to do. She did not have an alternate plan, she just did not want to agree with anything that was not her own idea. The problem was she did not have any ideas.

The number one thing I have seen, however, that makes leaders fail is trusting the wrong people, having faith in other people without checking them out thoroughly and not setting benchmarks and holding people to them. It is nice to be liked, but as Machiavelli said it is better to be feared. Leaders can only have so many people like them. This, of course, sometimes leads to the problem of misguided loyalty. I am fascinated by leaders who do not understand that people are going to suck up to you if they think you are powerful. Because they suck up to you and want to be “friends”, does not mean they are trustworthy, decent, ethical or honest.

A prime example happened in my circle recently, a leader who is himself kind, ethical and honest trusted people who were none of the above because he liked them and thought they liked him. My own personal belief is that if you really liked me you would not do something that would end up tarnishing my reputation. We are, after all, known by the company we keep. Fiscal malfeasance, using racial slurs to students, things like that are not the actions of decent people, and not things any leader should want to be associated with.

I understand the need to trust some people no matter what kind of leadership position you are in, nobody wants to totally go it alone with no intimates, no friends, but, be careful who you choose to listen to and believe. There is an old Jewish proverb ( one of my Jewish friends told me that it was anyway) that says ,”If nine people tell you that you have a tail laugh, if ten people tell you, you had better look.” In the case of the leader who was too trusting many people had told him his “friends” were not good people, that they were different with people they did not think were powerful and were not to be trusted. I am sure his “friends” had all kinds of reasons  to explain why people did not trust or like  or respect them. “They are jealous of me, they are trying to discredit me so they can take my place in your inner circle, they are just trouble makers”, but if a certain number of people warn you about someone it is a very good idea to distance yourself.

I once had a good friend when I was a high school teacher who had great difficulty controlling her sex life. She was married, but dallied, first with a student (!), then with a principal. She had been a homely teenager and turned into a much better looking woman. Because of her lingering  self-esteem issues she was a sucker for any man who told her she was pretty. I tried talking to her, explaining what she was doing to her reputation, but she did not seem to be able to understand that small towns are not forgiving of such transgressions.

Although she was able to keep her job ( she was friends with the superintendent) , I had to let her go as a friend. She accused me of being judgmental ( I admit that I did castigate her for having sex with a student), but I told her I did not care if she had alliances with men but she needed to a) get a divorce, and b) confine her paramours to grown men! We could not be friends anymore because she was out of control and I knew sooner or later her relationship debris would end up hitting me.

If I were to be  asked to give advice to leaders it would be the same advice I gave my own children. Do not hang out with people who are not in control of their lives. People who do not have control of their lives will make it so that you do not have control of yours in short order.

I cannot think of anything worse than being brought down by something that I did not do myself. I can get myself into quite enough messes on my own thank you, I do not need any help. So leaders the moral of this story is this:

1) Listen to people, lots of people, gather your data from as wide a stream as possible

2) Hold your intimates to high standards and jettison them if they cannot meet the standard

3) Do not allow anyone to abuse your trust to the point where it reflects badly on you

4) Do your homework before you make a decision and then hold to that decision even in the face of oppostion

5) Understand the higher you go the better target you are for both duplicity ( I love you! Of course I have always admired you! You are so wonderful!) and sabotage ( He is not all that, you should know what I know about him!)

6) Remember who you are, what you believe in and what you are trying to accomplish and get rid of anyone or anything that does not support it. 

7)Be nice to people you have to be nice to, but do not be a sucker.

8) Be fair, be honest, be transparent ( as much as possible) and be humble

9) Do not be afraid to be mean if it is warranted ( Okay you can call it decisive if you have a problem with mean)

10) Beware the suck-up for he shall stab you in the back at the first sign of trouble.

In short, be the kind of person people would like to follow, even if their jobs or salaries did not depend on it.



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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


Athletics and Academics: Comparing apples and oranges

I was at a faculty meeting yesterday. One of the professors, who announced himself as a professor of Anthropology, took the chance to speak to the assembly, even though his remarks were off topic. This happens frequently at many faculty meetings since academics, present company included, tend to like to share their thoughts even when nobody really wants to hear them.

Anyway, this stalwart was raging against athletics. His argument did not seem to be the usual, that the university was emphasizing athletics at the expense of academics, but that those in the athletic department were getting paid so much and those in the academic arena were getting paid so little.

Let me give my colleague a lesson in 2012 American economics. Here is the Cliff Notes version, i will, of course, expand. When you can fill a stadium with 60,00 people at $50 a head each Saturday to hear you give a lecture we will raise your salary accordingly. Until then STFU. I am as academic as they come. I like to learn, I like to teach, I love to read, I love to discuss ideas, i love learning, I am dedicated to the life of the mind, I am a dynamic speaker.

But, I know that like my esteemed colleague I cannot fill a stadium or basketball arena week after week with people willing to let go of some hard earned cash to hear me talk. A few folks can, there is no doubt about that. People will pay to hear some public figures speak, but they will not do it repeatedly and they will not buy tee shirts with their names and pictures on them and mugs, and flags, and key chains and, well, you know.

Saying that the university should pay professors more than they pay coaches is stupid for several reasons. First, there are far fewer coaches than professors, and not to insult my colleague, but I am pretty sure there are way more good Anthropology professors out there to snap up than good head football coaches or basketball coaches. You, my friend, are not necessarily a commodity. A good coach is. And why, you ask? Because a good coach means a winning team and a winning team means MONEY! This is America. Everything is for sale and money is the gauge by which we evaluate whether or not something is worthwhile.

Learning is important, wonderful, necessary for a viable society. But learning is not, at least not for most, recreation. People spend on recreation. Whatever people spend on will be prioritized.

And lets not forget the athletes who are often the objects of a lot of the derision and contempt for sport on college campuses ( since the two money sports, football and basketball are dominated by blacks one has to wonder if race plays any role in this disdain, but I will visit that later) . The athletes are earning everything they get and some. They are the money producers, the worker bees if you will. People who have no idea what the coaches’ names are can give you not only the names but the stats of the players, they wear their jerseys and images. These athletes are a real commodity. They are the elite. Just as an elite professor, think Skip Gates for example, can make huge bucks because he is above his peers, an elite player can gain the advantages of being faster, jumping higher, being quicker than his peers.

Whether or not the ability to memorize information,analyze it, express it in your own words and add another perspective and perhaps some new knowledge should be more valuable than the ability to have an impressively high  vertical leap is something society has voted on. Debates and panels rarely have much traffic on Sub Hub.

Athletics is about money. Academics should be about the life of the mind. The life of the mind, for most, is not a money making venture. It is valuable, it is enlightening, it is inspiring, it is not, however, profitable. Be happy you have a job that allows you to think and share your thoughts. Don’t be jealous of those athletic types and all their money. They do not know what they are missing! (Except of course there are smart athletic types too, darn it!)

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


Caveats for Leaders: Pay attention, listen including gossip!

In my positions in higher education I have always had access to the head folks, the chancellors, the presidents, the provosts. In some few cases I have found them to be thoughtful, innovative and intelligent people. In far too many cases they seem to have gotten their jobs by a combination of luck, not pissing anyone off and favoritism, nepotism or their ability to suck up.

Not surprisingly those who get their jobs using those tactics value those tactics in others. If it was good enough for me it should be good enough for anyone. In my humble opinion one of the reasons America seems to be having severe difficulties in a variety of ways these days is the dearth of effective, courageous, honest leadership.

” Leaders” are so busy trying to keep their jobs that their primary motivation and vision seems to be to not say anything that could upset anyone.  Any mother can tell you that this is a zero sum game. If you have three children, or even two, possibly even one, trying to never say anything that upsets them while trying to accomplish something is not going to work. Although employees at a university are not necessarily children ( some could definitely pass as children) they do need leadership and they need oversight.

Leaders are supposed to lead. That means they think, they gather information, they consult with other people, they examine systems and make recommendations for change or improvement and they above all listen!!! Pay attention to what you learn and use it to forge a position and go ahead, full speed ahead, with transparency and disdain for naysayers. You already considered their arguments before you made your decision. Leading by consensus is not leading, it is chairing a committee.

I had the chance to speak with the chancellor at one of my institutions a few years back. He wanted some advice and came to my office, which scared the crap out of my assistant. I guess she thought he had come to fire me. Anyway, at the time my boss, who was at the time not a direct report of his, but was part of his cabinet, had fallen in love and was coming to work, if we were lucky, once a week. Sometimes he disappeared for longer. People on campus were asking me where he was and I was having to make decisions and keep the office going without any real authority to do so.

Chatting with the chancellor I mentioned that perhaps some people needed a bit more oversight, trying to give him a hint about what was going on in my office and other places on campus where some directors and other administrators were out of control. His response to me was ” We hire good people and let them do their jobs, we cannot micromanage.” I could not rat out my boss because that, for some reason, would have reflected badly on me , but what I really wanted to do was jump up and yell: “Making sure people come to work is not micromanaging! Neither is making sure they deposit cash from the sales of tee shirts into university accounts rather than stashing it in their pockets! Listen up! Crap is going on you have no idea about and if I tell you about it I am the one who will get into trouble for going over my bosses head! Pay attention to what I am trying to tell you! All kinds of illegal, unethical, underhanded, wrong, twisted, nasty things are going on here that you either do not know or do not want to know! Wake up!”

I didn’t say any of that of course, it was not my place. Who am I to tell the uber boss what he should be doing. Well, perhaps I should have. Perhaps it would have been enough to wake him up to the fact that human beings are fragile things, open to temptation, even temptations he has no worries about  and could not relate to.  If you are going to be a good boss you have to not just be friendly, caring and nurturing. You have to be informed. You have to impose a little fear. People have to be afraid to let you down, afraid not to do what they are supposed to do in fear of reprisals of some kind.

I am not saying run an oppressive administration, but people need vision, guidance, benchmarks and evaluation and most of all they need to know someone is paying attention. Allowing people to establish their own fiefdoms where they can do anything they damn well please is not good for the person, not good for the organization and not good for society. It is demoralizing to watch people get away with offenses that virtually everyone on campus knows they are getting away with, and it leads to more unethical behavior. If nobody in your unit is actually taking their vacation days, just reporting they were at work every day even when they were gone for 10 days that month you begin to feel like a moron for documenting your time off.

We are by nature creatures that like to acquire things and advantages. If I can come to work when I want to, stay home when i want to, then what measures are in place to make me come to work? One of my colleagues at this particular university used to get ” sick” virtually every Friday or Monday. Nobody questioned it. Another colleague used to fly around the country giving talks, never thinking of taking a day off from her day job at this university. In essence they were allowed to work when and if they felt like it without any kind of consequences.  How long do you think an office can work like that and maintain any shred of ethics?

If your employees are not a bit worried about whether or not you are happy with them, or even worse, if they are not a bit worried about you finding out what they actually are doing, you have a problem. And, it will come back to bite you in the butt. Everyone is not going to do what they are supposed to be doing without some monitoring of their behavior. There are those stalwarts, I like to think of myself as one, who show up, do their job, do not cut corners and just shake their head at their colleagues. Unfortunately, when duplicity is required to advance in so many circumstances they do not usually end up being the boss.

Pay attention to what people are doing. Ask questions, get out of your office, mingle and listen to what people are saying. Some are wrong and their information is flawed, but do some homework, find out who you can trust to know what is actually happening. Keep your finger on the pulse to see what is going on. So many people are worried about being called a gossip that they do not understand the value of knowing what is going on, or what people think is going on. So called gossip is another way to gather information, which, of course, you have to triangulate with your own research to make certain it is true or unfounded.

Whenever something is going wrong in any organization some people who are not doing wrong know about it. Creating an environment where they are not afraid to tell it is crucial. Tattle-tales have a bad reputation. Speaking on behalf of Tattle-tales everywhere, if you do not do anything wrong you do not have anything to worry about! And if you talk to me I can tell you things that you need to know! 🙂

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized