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The College or University Leader’s Checklist

University Business, Feb 2012

A senior administrator briefed a staff meeting to prepare for the coming academic year, referencing tight budgets, admissions trends, and the president’s priorities. The presentation proved engaging and stimulating, yet the moment felt strangely incomplete, an opportunity unfulfilled. 

Staff members learned little more than they already knew about the administrator personally. They heard nothing about how the administrator viewed them collectively or what was expected of them individually. Even worse, they learned much about the tactics of the moment, but little about the university’s larger goals and the strategies they should be pursuing.

In the end, the administrator wove in many of the essential threads of the leadership fabric, but fell short of spinning the whole cloth. Sound familiar? It should. My work on leadership development in the United States and abroad confirms that meetings like this take place all the time, in a multitude of languages, to the universal consternation of those present.

Sometimes the problem is a simple lack of experience: Leading effectively is a composite skillset enhanced by practice, and effective leadership can be learned, and indeed should be mastered, by those with responsibility for the performance of their college. 

Yet my research and observations also suggest that, even when administrators are learning on the job and related ways, the simple expedient of applying the equivalent of a pilot or surgeon’s checklist can mitigate and, in many cases, help eliminate leadership lapses, not only in routine matters such as staffs meetings but also when jobs, budgets, and even lives are on the line.

Any leader’s checklist should include, I believe, a minimum of 15 mission-critical principles, listed below. The principles vary surprisingly little from institution to institution, serving most leaders, in most endeavors, in most circumstances.  

  1. Articulate a Vision. Formulate a clear and persuasive vision and communicate it to all members of the enterprise.
  2. Think and Act Strategically.  Set forth a pragmatic strategy for achieving that vision both short- and long-term, and ensure that it is widely understood; consider all the players, and anticipate reactions and resistance before they are manifested.
  3. Honor the Room. Frequently express your confidence in and support for those who work with and for you.
  4. Take Charge. Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference.
  5. Act Decisively. Make good and timely decisions, and ensure that they are executed.
  6. Communicate Persuasively. Communicate in ways that people will not forget; simplicity and clarity of expression help.
  7. Motivate the Troops. Appreciate the distinctive intentions that people bring, and then build on those diverse motives to draw the best from each.
  8. Embrace the Front Lines. Delegate authority except for strategic decisions, and stay close to those most directly engaged with the work of the enterprise.
  9. Build Leadership in Others. Develop leadership throughout the organization.
  10. Manage Relations. Build enduring personal ties with those who look to you, and work to harness the feelings and passions of the workplace.
  11. Identify Personal Implications. Help everybody appreciate the impact that the vision and strategy are likely to have on their own work and future with the firm.
  12. Convey Your Character. Through gesture, commentary, and accounts, ensure that others appreciate that you are a person of integrity.
  13. Dampen Over-Optimism. Counter the hubris of success, focus attention on latent threats and unresolved problems, and protect against the tendency for managers to engage in unwarranted risk.
  14. Build a Diverse Top Team. Leaders need to take final responsibility, but leadership is also a team sport best played with an able roster of those collectively capable of resolving all the key challenges.
  15. Place Common Interest First. In setting strategy, communicating vision, and reaching decisions, common purpose comes first, personal self-interest last.

A Call to Lead

As a test of the checklist, imagine yourself with a call to lead at one of America’s most historic moments.  On April 9, 1865, Union general Ulysses S. Grant had accepted the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. To mark the moment, Grant ordered a follow-up ceremony for April 12, with more than 4,000 Union soldiers to be lined up at attention on one side of a field. The defeated infantry units of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were then to march onto the field to place their regimental flags and firearms at the foot of a Union officer in charge.

For the honor of orchestrating and then presiding over the event, Grant designated Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College professor who had volunteered three years earlier to serve in uniform. Rising from lieutenant colonel to major general, Chamberlain would see combat at the battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Petersburg – and now found himself at Appomattox as the conflict was coming to a close.

When the first Confederate brigade approached Union forces at the ceremonial field on April 12, four years to the date since the Rebel firing on Fort Sumter that had sparked the war, Chamberlain ordered a bugle call that told Union soldiers to “carry arms” – a posture of respect in which soldiers hold the musket in their right hand with the muzzle perpendicular to their shoulders.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers understood its meaning since their military traditions had emanated from the same sources. A Southern general riding near the front of the Confederate forces, John B. Gordon, appreciated the respectful signal that Chamberlain’s soldiers displayed toward the Rebel soldiers on their day of ignominy, and Gordon ordered the same posture to be returned by his own troops. As described by Chamberlain himself, “Gordon, at the head of the marching column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of the shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning,” instructed “his successive brigades to pass us with the same position.”

The incident became known as a “salute returning a salute,” a moment remembered for years by those who had seen or heard of it, and one that implied reconciliation. Some of Chamberlain’s fellow officers were angered by witnessing such a fraternal act after fighting the same soldiers on so many killing fields. And for Chamberlain himself, it was a matter of saluting those who had tried to kill him only two weeks earlier. In a skirmish on March 29, Confederate soldiers had wounded Chamberlain in the arm and chest. A year before that, they shot him through the hip and groin during the Union siege of Petersburg. In all, through 20 battles and numerous clashes during three years of service, Chamberlain had been wounded six times and would eventually succumb to the Petersburg injury.

For President Abraham Lincoln, the South’s capitulation at Appomattox constituted not only an ending point for the armed rebellion, but also a starting point for national reconciliation. Even for him, however, the road to reunification was a bitter pill given the Union’s grievous losses on the battlefields. Events would take a horrible personal turn just two days after Chamberlain’s salute to the Rebel army as the president and his wife watched a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

For both sides, though, gestures of reconciliation were more important than the hostilities that remained. The latter were natural, the former learned, and Chamberlain’s moment at the conclusion of the Civil War serves to remind us of the vital importance of the final principle on the Leader’s Checklist: placing common mission ahead of personal interest or animosity, especially when its seems least natural to do so. And whatever one’s position at the college or university, as leaders, we are all responsible for placing mission first in everything we do on behalf of our students and their families.

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles, Wharton Digital Press, 2011.

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