The Toughest Leadership Job Of All

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

This is all true.

Forbes: … Herman Wells, the former president of the University of Indiana, once observed that the ideal university president would combine “the physical charm of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, the skin of a rhino … and the stomach of a goat.”

Being an effective corporate CEO isn’t that hard, really: Your biggest concern is ticking off your board; otherwise, you get to order underlings around and fire the ones you don’t like. What you say goes.

Being an effective university president involves much more diplomacy and persuasion and vision-selling. Yes, you are beholden to a board. But you have to lead through collaboration and cajoling, not control.

The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.

As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”

Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech or the other 50 to 100 research giants that fuel America’s economic and cultural preeminence.

The university president’s job is fantastically complex. Traditional companies open and shutter, and a founding CEO who fails can shrug it off and go on to start something new. But universities are expected to maintain high quality for centuries (consider how Oxford has kept churning for 8 centuries), while they’re also supposed to adapt to new developments (like online technology, globalization and so on). Give credit where credit is due: Apple’s a nice little enterprise, but Stanford will be thriving in 200 years, while Apple will be a historical footnote.

Not only does the university president need to cajole a bunch of people he can’t fire, he needs to convince others on the outside to contribute billions of dollars to fund his or her vision. That takes some special skill.

Warren Bennis, the great leadership guru (and a longtime mentor to me) who served for several years as university provost and a university president, wrote this a few years ago:

“No manner of leader, save possibly a mayor of a large city, deals with as vast and complicated a cartography of stakeholders as does the head of a major American research university. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that a university president is called on to be an entertainer, a visionary, a priest, a psychologist, and a CEO of 10 or 20 vastly different enterprises gathered under the seal of one university.”

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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