Leadership at Midlife

This week, I spoke to an orientation meeting of Arts & Sciences department chairs and program directors. Plucked from the faculty ranks, they are creatively taking on the immense and complex challenges of the College while helping to redefine what it means to be an academic leader in the twenty-first century.

The orientation for department chairs and program directors is the last event of the summer, and the first event of the academic year, the cockcrow heralding a new day, a new season, a new year. So at this time I always find myself excited, and full of hope.

I have good reason to feel excited, and not just because a new beginning is always exciting—but because of the caliber of the academic leadership you represent. All of you have been appointed or reappointed within the last three years, to work seamlessly with your faculty and with the dean’s office.

I doff my cap to those of you who have been stewarding your departments and programs with such rare good cheer, wisdom and frugality. There is no question that the last three years were extraordinary for public institutions, demanding patience, fortitude and creativity. For those of you about to begin your duties as chair, you have invaluable resources in your more experienced colleagues. I hope the next three years will be a rewarding and enlightening period in your professional career.

There is something unusual about the academic leadership that you have assumed. One measure of that unusualness is that so little has been written about it—except perhaps in David Lodge’s satires. A large portion of airport bookstore revenue derives from books on management and leadership, of everything from how to be a Boy Scout leader to running a pet shop to leading a global Fortune 500 company. But university leadership below the presidential level is seemingly an esoteric art, important to those belonging to an academic guild, but with little relevance for the “real world.”

Most of us weren’t born or trained as leaders; instead, leadership is often thrust upon us—and at midlife, after we have moved up to the rank of full professor. I was in my mid-forties when I was appointed a center director—a job with no manual; the training was on-the-job. I had never really collaborated with a team, preferring the freedom and autonomy of single-author scholarship. Feeling inadequate, I wondered if “academic leadership” was not an oxymoron.

I wasn’t the only one to ponder that issue. In “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber dwelt at length on the inadequacy of scholars and teachers as leaders. Football coaches are leaders, he said, but the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader; if a teacher proves to be a good leader, it is purely accidental.

Regardless of that Teutonic disparagement, the reality is that American universities are not corporate hierarchies. Rather, the leadership you are called upon to exercise is a collegial one—you are a leader in the sense of primus inter pares. This requires both thought and creativity—if not a redefinition of what it means to be a leader. We all know how hard it is to get people to do what they ought to do, without being asked or told. It is harder when the incentives for non-cooperation are stacked against administrators. Of the triad we expect of the faculty—teaching, service and scholarship—it is often the last that is more intellectually compelling and rewarding.

This managerial relationship, combined with a culture that is inherent to academic settings of inquisitiveness and openness, requires that chairs navigate relationships horizontally and not vertically. In many ways, however, that makes “academic leadership” less an oxymoron than a harbinger of the future in workplace organization. Collegial leadership is the modal form of leadership in a democracy, here and in our relationship with the world—even if the current Congress missed that memo. It is leadership through persuasion and example, not by hierarchy or threat.

The best skills of your collegial leadership are in demand as never before. The decade ahead will see the College grow and be transformed in ways rarely seen before. As you know, the College anticipates absorbing the majority of the undergraduate enrollment planned by the University through 2018-2019, and with it, there will be a corresponding growth in faculty size; we estimate it will produce 63 new faculty lines. Add to that the reality of the retirement surge of eminent faculty, especially in the sciences, and the normal turnover associated with departures, and we anticipate mounting more than 200 faculty searches in the next five to seven years. To give you some sense of this magnitude, this is over one third of the total tenured and tenure-track faculty in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

There are stupendous challenges ahead of us, not the least of which is the sharp erosion in the competitiveness of our salary structure, as the University enters its fourth year of no salary increase for faculty and staff. The static compensation issue is very much at the forefront of our thinking at the moment, because it is absolutely critical for recruiting and maintaining excellent faculty as well as their morale. On top of this, we must also initiate a program to create more faculty positions over and beyond the 63 mentioned above, in order to bring down the ratio of students per faculty. The success of this program—a new campaign we expect to launch for the College in the fall—would mean that the total number of searches for the next seven years could be as high as 265.

A year ago, I delivered a vision statement for the College entitled “Something New Under the Sun,” which was a paraphrase of Mr. Jefferson, who was in turn paraphrasing Ecclesiastes to describe the utter uniqueness of the American Republic. In the coming decade we have an opportunity, through faculty turnover and expansion, curriculum reform and new scholarly research, to reinvent the College and create something truly new under the sun in American higher education.

This new reality dictates that the most important role of chairs is to recruit top scholars and promote excellence. This often means being hard-nosed in maintaining high standards, but it also means being creative in finding diamonds in the rough, budding scholars whose promising futures lie ahead. Facing such a large turnover in the next decade, the importance of your role, and your firm guiding hands, is immense.

Max Weber, who was so (self-) critical of scholars as leaders, had also written a companion and better-known piece called “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay he argued that the three eminent qualities in political leadership are passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. By passion he meant the devotion to a cause—to take a stance—ira et studium. By responsibility he meant a “romanticism of the intellectually interesting,” rather than the easy path of routine bureaucratic duty. And by a sense of proportion, he meant an ability to remain realistic and dispassionate, to retain a sense of distance while getting things done. The forging of passion and dispassion in the soul of the modern politician was the vexing question that he sought to understand. Had he lived another hundred years, however, he would have seen that the question is no less germane for the academic leaders of the twenty-first century.

In 1911 Weber wrote that German students hated intellectualism as the worst devil. Not despairing, Weber exhorted them to greater effort: “Mind you, the devil is old; grow old to understand him.” Most of us were in midlife before embarking on our path of academic leadership, and that is a strength; we are fortunate to have gotten old enough to know a little of the devil in life. Watching years come and go, having experience, learning from our own and others’ mistakes, makes us better leaders. It helps us regard life with a certain dispassion, having known the twists and turns, understanding the possibilities and limits. It is another way of saying that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk—or in our case, let us hope, at mid-career.

10 Responses to “Leadership at Midlife”

  1. Miriam Bryant says:

    Dr. Woo, I have been a silent fan of your blogs for several months now. You have an uncanny knack of articulating thoughts that have a profound relevance. I’m not an academic leader, but a mid-life leader, and your words ring true in my employment arena of city government. These are changing and exciting times frought with challenges. Thank you for sharing Max Weber’s words and for your leadership of the College of Arts and Sciences. I am privileged to be a UVA parent and grateful for the academic opportunities available to my daughter.

  2. G Steven McKonly says:

    I’ll reread this essay later, for Tuesday morning may not permit me to devote appropriate concentration. However, Dean Woo, you are younger than I am, and for almost five years I have been stating, without ever receiving credit, that sixty is the new middle age. Accordingly, you have advanced into a position of leadership before that time. Facing that age late this year is why I continue to surf the waves of New Jersey at least once a month through the close of 2011.
    Steve McKonly
    College ‘ 73.

  3. While “so little” may have been written about academic leadership, I remain unconvinced that this makes leadership in an academic institution unusual or dramatically different from leadership in other organizations in our society. What Dean Woo describes is, to my mind, a fairly common situation. You have a large number of people in your department who are great at what they do. Great teachers, researchers, etc. They are individual contributors who have attracted the attention of those in management, and then recruited to become a Department chair, Program Director, etc. And, yes, few have been formally trained in leadership and management. How does this differ from the great nurse who becomes a nurse manager?; the software engineer who finds himself a software engineering manager?; the physician in a community hospital who becomes department chairman or chief of staff?; the attorney who finds herself the managing partner?

    The point is that great individual performance, built on the foundation of clear purpose and a strong sense of core values, created through the crucible of reaching mid-life, is the preparation needed to begin playing a bigger game…the leadership game where collaboration and the ability to create through the efforts of many what cannot be done by individual efforts no matter how great. The challenge for those taking on this badge of leadership is that they are too often leading a large group of highly successful individual performers who have yet to make the shift to the world of collaboration. The individual performer approach is too real, too successful,…too comfortable. All the power of the individual is tied up in their own individual knowledge and expertise. And for that knowledge and expertise they have been rewarded by promotions from TA to full professor. In other words one is evaluated for what he knows and does (teaches and publishes if you prefer).

    And this is not much different from what we see in business organizations. Individual knowledge and expertise leads to promotions into management for which most have rarely been educated or sufficiently trained. This is, in my experience, a near universal phenomenon regardless of what business the organization is in.

    The challenge for UVa Department Chairs and program directors differs little from managers and leaders who have a staff of great performers for whom their own individual greatness, their own individual performance, is the primary driver. One need only take a short walk east of the Lawn to the University Medical Center to see this very scenario in play in the “real world” of health care.

    It is this very real scenario that managers find themselves managing each of these individual performers on a one-on-one basis. I would argue that the shift for great leaders (in any venue) is to begin talking with people who are individual performers in the language of the team (we, not me) and where the leader is constantly seeking to create, sustain, and nurture relationships between people that requires collaboration in pursuit of goals and achievements that any one person in that relationship could not accomplish alone. The characteristics of inquisitiveness and openness are vital to successful collaboration, but they will be useless in creating something bigger, something beyond the individual contributor model, unless leadership creates the circumstances where they can be applied in a way that leverages the talents of the many to create what the one cannot. The shift is, simply stated, from I’m great to we’re great.

    While I would love to claim these thoughts as original, they are, in fact, the product of my study of the research of Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright in their book “Trial Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization.” I highly recommend it.

  4. John Martin (CLAS '95) says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am an alum (CLAS ’95) who took an academic career path. Circumstance (and my training as a Wahoo to be an active citizen) has thrust me into a position of academic leadership early in my career. I’ve had some recent trials in my capacity as a faculty leader and found some comfort in recalling the values I learned at The University. What I experienced as a CLAS student centered me and has served me well. Your post is an encouraging reminder to me to be true to those ideals and serve my fellow faculty with honor.

  5. Nicole Bossard says:

    Good morning, Dr. Woo!,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this morning’s blog about leadership at midlife among the other exciting challenges and adventures that await the College in the coming weeks and months.

    As the College and its department chairs and program directors prepare for the immediate challenges and demands of this academic year, I was struck by your calls not only to excellence but creativity as well.

    It seems that in the current climate of static pay increases, faculty turnover and attrition, that our institutions are called to extend themselves beyond the singular focus on rigorous scholarship. The circumstances are calling us to once again nurture a new sensibility towards collaboration, shared leadership, and relational accountability not only among faculty but students as well. As you so eloquently described, these are exciting times that will stretch us all to reconsider how we bring forward the best in ourselves and those around us. This, I believe, is an important key for unlocking creative potential in ourselves and others: to take seriously those values that reinforce our highest ideals of collegiality, authenticity, and mutual respect. It is these qualitites, alive throughout the organizational context, that can spur the personal courage and limitless creativity needed to navigate the murky waters of uncertainty that the College now faces.

    I am excited to hear and read more about the future of the College as these creative warriors clear new trails to the future. Keep up this goood and noble work to create new possibilities out of the uncertainty. Oh, also thanks for the Max Weber lesson too!!

    In joy,

  6. Kirt Kirtland says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you briefly at my 35th reunion in June, 2008 and felt at the time you were the right person for your relatively new position. This has been confirmed a number of times with your messages to the College alumni and this blog is another example. Leadership is a taxing and yet critical component of any institution’s well-being and you have laid down in this posting an intelligent and compelling argument as how to proceed. Bravo and may your continued leadership match your well devised plan.

    George W. (Kirt) Kirtland, Jr.
    College ’73

  7. Dean Meredith Woo, your words are always inspiring and enlightening, and your presence is reassuring—especially now that you have embraced midlife. One of your best allusions is “you are a leader in the sense of primus inter pares,” which reminds me of the essays of Robert K. Greenleaf, and his concept of “servant leadership.” (Wasn’t he a visiting lecturer at UVa, some years after he retired from being chairman of AT&T?)
    Something in the Jefferson lore regarding leadership that also impressed me: TJ expected members of his board of visitors to attend all meetings—even when they were sitting Presidents of the U. S., as were both Madison and Monroe. Let’s trust they complied to the expectations of their mentor, and let us also hope that the current BOV will give all UVa leaders—new and old—all the support they can muster, as the University faces the huge academic challenges that Dean Woo has described here.
    May she and her colleagues, and President Sullivan, be granted the ability to learn from our country’s and our commonwealth’s past mistakes and to teach the young people of today that “to err is human, to forgive divine,” as we all seek a means for healing our country.

  8. J.R. Hipple says:

    Dr. Woo…Your sage advice about leadership and management applies outside academia. The top salesperson who is promoted to sales manager. The skilled surgeon named chief of staff at a hospital. A diligent corporate lawyer who rises to general counsel to the CEO. The best leaders are those who are most effective at building trust by facilitating and engaging their colleagues. In 2010, IBM conducted 1,100 one-on-one interviews with CEOs around the world that revealed that CEO’s believe creativity and integrity are the two most important skills for leaders over the next five year–displacing strategy and finance, the stalwarts of previous surveys. This suggests to me that academicians as leaders and managers have a leg up on many of their counterparts in the private sector. And your post is the encouragement that will help them recognize that. Regards, J.R. Hipple

  9. Charlene O'Brien says:

    Dean Woo,
    I enjoyed your essay topic. I am an elementary school language arts teacher who also happens to lead/coach/facilitate other teams. The universality of your message crosses over to all of us who are working to maintain and balance motivation and challenge as we help build capacity and develop relationships among our colleagues. No easy job in these times of doing more with less. Your message about collaborative leadership is important at all levels of education. I feel a little more buoyed in my work after reading your essay.

  10. Patrick Deaton says:

    Be careful not to confuse exercising leadership with exercising with authority. A person in a position of authority (department chair) certainly has an opportunity to exercise leadership. But so do all the members of the department as well as the students. Leadership is helping a group resolve a problem it needs to fix. That leadership can come from the department chair or it can come from someone with no authority who is sitting in the back row at a meeting.

    One of the best features of my education at UVa was learning potential we all had as citizens to exercise leadership even if we were not in positions of authority.

    Thomas Patrick Deaton Jr.
    College 1973