Leadership Takeaways from Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust

Posted 11.02.2009

Drewgilpinfaust In its almost always interesting series, Sunday’s New York Times ran a Corner Office interview with the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. I’ve often thought that because of the range of different stakeholder groups involved that running an academic institution is one of the toughest leadership jobs there is. It was interesting to read what Faust had to say about what she’s learned about leading in this type of environment. Most of the points she made apply to leaders in all arenas  whether it’s academia, the private sector or government.

Here are some of the takeaways (in bold face quotes) I had from the Faust interview along with some of my thoughts about how they apply to the world beyond the Charles River.

“…people impute all kinds of things to leaders”
– Is that ever true.  As an example, I was with a group of sales leaders in a well known company last week and was trying to help them understand how they’re perceived by others.  They were all at the district manager level so I asked them this question, “How many of you have ever been in a conversation that goes like this, ‘Man, the general managers and vice presidents  just don’t get it.  They are so far removed from what we’re dealing with, blah, blah, blah and yadda, yadda, yadda.’”  Most people looked a little sheepish because most of them had been in conversations like that.  My next question was, “Do you think it’s at all likely that the people who work at levels below yours are having similar conversations about how much the district managers don’t get it?”  Yep, that’s not just a possibility, it’s almost a certainty.  The point is that followers make up stories about their leaders and those stories are usually not particularly helpful. 

The point that Faust makes about people imputing things to leaders is key. When I coach leaders who are taking on highly visible roles, I encourage them to assume that they’re starting out at a reputational deficit.  That almost always has nothing to do with them personally. It has everything to do with the role that they’re assuming and the stories that people have made up about that role over the years. A lot of the time when you take on a big leadership role you’re guilty until proven innocent.  You can counteract that by being proactive. Fortunately, Faust had some good ideas on how to do that.

“… understand(ing) the context in which you are leading” – In her interview, Faust noted that “universities have enormously distributed authority,” and that that operating context means she has to spend a ton of time and energy staying connected with different stakeholder groups.  There are a couple of learning points here.  The first is that she’s spending time thinking about what’s unique about the context she’s working in and is trying to adapt her leadership approach to the context rather than the other way around. The other learning point for me is that in an age of rapidly distributed information and ever decreasing cycle times on decision making Faust’s notion of distributed authority is a concept that non-academic leaders are dealing with more and more. That puts a premium on staying connected.

“Leadership by walking around – that’s a digital space now, it’s virtual space” – The old idea of MBWA – management by walking around – in a literal sense is dead. How can you walk around and connect with people when they’re not physically there? Leaders have got to use the tools available to monitor the pulse and communicate their message and brand. I’ve been talking for awhile now about the difference between retail (one to one) and wholesale (one to many) leadership. If, as a leader, you aren’t constantly working on and refining your wholesale communication strategy, you are way behind the curve.  If you want an idea of the stakes involved, go back and look at this post from a couple of weeks ago on the exponential growth of social media.

“As a scholar, you don’t want to repeat yourself… As a university president, you have to say the same thing over and over.” – The same is true for an executive, a community organizer, a candidate or anyone else trying to mobilize a group around a particular set of objectives. Just about the time you find yourself sick of repeating the message one more time is when you’re likely starting to break through.  There are at least two things to keep in mind on this front, however. First, is it’s about having a focused dialogue (or maybe a better term these days would be multi-logue) rather than a disconnected monologue.  Second, focus and follow through is key. Today’s leaders are in an enormous competition for the time and attention of their followers. The only way you’re going to get the engagement is if you have something compelling to talk about and stay committed to a long term conversation.

So, this was a little more “think piecey” than I thought it might be at the start.  What do you agree or disagree with in these points?  If you’ve had a chance to look at the Faust interview, what other takeaways and applications did you have?