Take Us To Your Leaders

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

by Judith R. Shapiro, President, The Teagle Foundation

This piece was originally featured in The Teagle Foundation 2014 Annual Report

Those of us in the grantmaking business like to note how much we learn from our failures. We are not alone in this. Nor are we alone in preferring to succeed.

A key factor in the success of a project, along with its design and its fit with the granting organization’s mission and focus, is the quality of leadership to be found on the grantee’s side. In the case of grants in the area of higher education, we are speaking for the most part of leadership on the part of presidents, chief academic offices, and faculty. How do we look for and recognize effective leadership in these roles so that we can enhance our own opportunities for success as philanthropists?

Leadership—what it means, what it takes, how to acquire it—has been a topic of interest for some time, gathering momentum as a variety of leadership programs continue to emerge. At this point, it seems useful to take a step back and consider the way in which views about leadership have been shaped by two other dominant cultural values: innovation and individualism.

Innovation is something we have slipped into viewing as a virtue in and of itself. But, of course, it is not. The point of innovation is to make things better. To be sure, innovation in and of itself requires an ability to look beyond things as they are. But, in making a fetish of it, we are substituting the means for the end.

Silicon Valley is the virtual (in all senses of the term) epicenter of innovation. The communication revolution in which it has played a starring role has brought us many things we now feel we cannot do without. But we are also experiencing the less-than-life-enhancing results of having much of our daily existence shaped by only-recently-out-of-their-teenage-years young men with possible attention deficit disorder. And so there are a variety of counter movements urging us to slow down, to concentrate deeply on one thing at a time, to experience the natural and social world actually around us, and to remember that a relentless quest for “cool” is not the same as getting a life.

In the world of higher education, the premium on innovation is held somewhat in check by an accompanying assessment movement, which emphasizes the need to evaluate the results of whatever innovations we attempt. Given what successful assessment entails—in terms of time, of resources, of formulating consequential goals and designing studies that reveal relevant outcomes—this is a task to approach with a combination of hope and humility.

It is perhaps our cultural focus on the individual that most distorts our concept of leadership. This fuels the level of desperation in many presidential searches and the choices that get made in which some abstract sense of what “leaders” possess carries the day over choosing someone who actually knows the territory. The result is a trend toward shorter tenures and a failure to enact the deep and persisting transformations that generally come with longer presidencies.

Long-serving presidents are likelier to understand what they owe to the others they work with. The overestimation of a president’s role in accomplishing positive change in a college or university is revealed in the usual language of the memo that goes out from the board on the occasion of announcing a presidential retirement. We are told of all the wonders that have come to pass on the particular president’s “watch”: from new buildings to breakthrough research to curricular restructuring to new service learning programs, etc. etc. Wonders that were, in fact, the particular achievements of various members of the staff. To be sure, the president had to have the wit to hire such staff, the commitment to work collegially with them, and the painful resolve to terminate the employment of some the president had come to hold dear, but who were not doing the job that needed to be done. But the fact remains that leadership is a group effort.

A key responsibility of the president that is all to often overlooked is the president’s role in creating a powerful sense of community at the institution she or he serves. We have a “lonely at the top” trope of leadership that can cause college and university leaders to view their own situations in an overly isolating way. And, indeed, there are lonely moments when some difficult and generally unpopular decisions need to be made. Requirements of confidentiality may limit how much a president is able to explain about the reasons for a specific action. But, most of the time, effective leadership is the opposite of loneliness. On the contrary, ties to the community can be so intense and unremitting that the real challenge is catching some moments of restorative solitude. At the same time, the social demands are themselves rewarding if one enjoys the company one is keeping.

As for chief academic officers, when they work in close partnership with the president and at the same time enjoy the trust and respect of the faculty—and this actually can and does happen—then the results are likely to be good. Which brings us to the faculty themselves.

If the goal of an initiative is to improve undergraduate teaching and learning, then an indispensible form of leadership must come from the faculty. Treating them as the enemy will not get us far.

Faculty leaders are those able to see beyond their own research specializations to the kind of education their students need and deserve. They must care not only about their departments (truth to tell, there are some faculty members unable to manage even this); they must concern themselves with the welfare of their institution—the place where they live their lives and earn their livings. They must also extend their horizons beyond their respective institutions to form professionally enriching relationships with colleagues elsewhere on the basis not only of common scholarly and scientific interests, but also by virtue of their common vocation as teachers.

All of which is to emphasize that there is enough leadership to go around.

This is the message for leaders of philanthropic organizations as well. A foundation president should be creating a strong sense of community among the staff and supporting them in the leadership role they take vis-à-vis grantees.

And, since initiatives do not succeed without partners who are themselves leaders, it means first recognizing and then enhancing the leadership effectiveness of key dramatis personae in the projects being supported. It means actively seeking out strong partners, learning from them and thus being in a better position to guide other grantees effectively. It means creating productive relationships among grantees so that they can learn from one another.

Leadership in philanthropy is thus thinking with your grantees, not thinking for them. It is respecting the experience and wisdom they have accumulated over the years. It is coming to understand the obstacles that stand in the way of positive change. It is coming to view those obstacles with the right combination of critical intelligence, irony, and patience.

Presidents of philanthropic organizations need their own version of the famous serenity prayer: to acknowledge that there are some problems they do not have the resources to address; to have the will to keep addressing those problems they can contribute to solving; and the wisdom to know the difference.

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