Strong Leadership

Strong Leadership

When Leadership is Required and Management Skills Won’t Work!

This is a message for women, and men too. A message from a woman who has spent most of her life empowering women and supporting women’s leadership. The uproar over what three women university presidents did and didn’t say this past week in a Congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus can teach all women who aspire to be leaders a valuable lesson.

The debate was about university antisemitism, but the problems and solutions at the heart of the issue are endemic to our modern world and go beyond one issue. Leadership is needed everywhere.

The natural skill and tendency of many women is to make peace. To desire to be inclusive and thoughtful is extremely valuable, especially in the current world. However, being an openminded peacemaker frequently doesn’t work when strong leadership is required.  There are many difficult issues facing universities and the American educational system. The state of education in the United States is fraught with problems. Currently, hate and being anti-many things is rampant everywhere. It will take men and women leaders to take on the issues and lead us to a better place.

The university has historically been a place for rigorous debate and even thoughtful protest. It is not intended to be a place for ignorant language, bullying behavior or fear in place of learning. There has traditionally been a university code of behavior that governs debate and learning and the freedom to protest when students or faculty are not being heard or when knowledge has transcended traditional consciousness.

In today’s complex world, we humans need clarity, serious thinking, skillful research, innovative solutions and goodwill to survive and prosper. Educational leaders need to bring serious debate to areas like educational quality as well as fairness for all, cost, integration of the best of the past with the best of the future and, of course, safety. They need to take true educational leadership and promote standards of behavior.

We look to our leaders for clear thinking, focus, direction and thoughtful decisions. Women are capable and competent and can be strong leaders but, in some circumstances, they need to use other more direct and forceful skills. When asked about Claudine Gay not being fired as president of Harvard, recently on Squawk Box/ CNBC, Richard Fischer, former president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and a former overseer at Harvard, said Claudine is new and an experiment. That she needs time but if she doesn’t get stronger, she’ll be let go.

Let’s face it, leading our schools or leading any institution in the United States has never been easy and now requires even greater skill. Our schools have been dumbing down subject matter and rigor for some years. This is due to political pressure, money, incompetence and even lack of current knowledge and understanding of the brain and how humans learn! And everything is caught up in the culture wars.

The three women university presidents were presented with an opportunity for educational leadership, a teaching moment. Teaching can be leadership. This was a time for them to understand and help others understand the purpose of a university. Risky? Yes! But less risky than complete disintegration.

By the way, Dartmouth’s first woman president got it right. Dartmouth acted like a teaching institution. It set up rigorous debates and forums designed to teach with experts on every side, and strongly encouraged students to attend. It focused on facts and education instead of letting the school get caught up in current emotion.

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