Slice of life: Lessons in leadership

Slice of life: Lessons in leadership McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 29, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > January 29, 2000 > Slice of life: Lessons in leadership

Lessons in leadership


| It wasn't all that long ago that Alan Shaver was a rank and file chemistry professor, respected by his peers, a fellow who would stand up in Senate once in a while to challenge the administration's position on some matter or other.

Now Shaver is the administration and he's the first to admit it's taken some getting used to.

"At the beginning, you don't know why some people are so mad at you," says the dean of science. "It took a while before I realized that I represented something I didn't represent before.

"You learn to tolerate the way you're treated sometimes. Sometimes I'm treated too well. It's embarrassing and inappropriate."

Academic leadership positions elicit strange behaviour. People gripe about their deans and vice-principals, but treat them deferentially at the same time.

"In the real world, who cares who is the departmental chair or the dean?" wonders English professor David Williams while acknowledging that, in the academic milieu, "these jobs can be tremendously attractive in terms of their prestige."

Williams has had the opportunity to examine the notion of university leadership from different vantage points.

He's been a leader (as a departmental chair), helped select a leader (as part of the committee that chose Principal Bernard Shapiro) and wrestled with leaders (as a onetime president of the McGill Association of University Teachers).

"Whatever you're the leader of, you have to somehow win the respect of the people you're leading," says Williams. "You also have to be seen as someone who really cares about what you're doing."

Williams says university professors find ways to rebel against someone who comes across as too much of a careerist.

"I think you need humility. If you walk around with the attitude of 'I have a title, I'm the boss,' that's a sure way of causing yourself problems. It's fatal to be seen to be ambitious.

"In our culture especially," adds Williams, "you have to be seen to be working at least as hard as the people you're leading. You can't be someone who just sits back and directs other people as they work."

A proven track record as a solid scholar "helps a lot, especially if part of your task is bringing people up to a level of excellence. You can't ask people to do something you yourself haven't achieved."

Management professor Rabindra Kanungo, an expert on leadership, says that leaders, wherever they work, share one essential attribute.

"A leader has to be the embodiment of the core values for his or her organization and should be able to express those values forcefully."

Principal Bernard Shapiro, speaking of his job, says, "The most important thing is to have ideas about what the future might be like, on the one hand, and an idea about how you might get there, on the other."

"You have to have the ability to express yourself well. There is a lot of convincing to do, with both your internal and external constituencies. You have to convince people that the road you're taking is worthwhile, if they are going to go on it with you."

"These are jobs with enormous satisfactions," says Harold Shapiro, a McGill graduate who has gone on to lead the University of Michigan and, now, Princeton.

"They offer extraordinary variety, for one thing."

There are lessons to be learned as one takes on these jobs.

"The things that get done in a university take a lot longer to do than I had imagined before I became a dean," says Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard.

"The one thing I've had to learn in this job is how to be patient. I wasn't a particularly patient person before I became dean.

"As a professor, if you're really excited about something going on in your research, you can go into your lab and get it done right now.

"As a dean, you have to go through all the processes of approval to create something like the McGill School of Environment. It takes a lot of time. You have to be determined and keep pushing things forward."

A good idea can be years away from implementation once you factor in getting the necessary approvals from various committees, getting the government's okay, soliciting fundraising support and so on.

"People have the impression of McGill that it takes a long time for change to happen. When you become part of the administration, you realize why that is. The pro-cesses themselves are largely there to safeguard the stability of the institution. It certainly ensures that we're never reckless."

"You learn to really accept other people's ideas, instead of just listening to your own," adds Shaver. "You have to train yourself to really listen to other people's ideas. You argue to understand instead of arguing to win."

Leaders also learn when to back off.

"Once a project gets going, even if it's dear to your heart, you have to let it go at some point and trust somebody else to carry on," says Shaver.

"You have to delegate — you simply can't do everything yourself. That's a big challenge for an academic who is used to being in charge of everything going on in his lab.

"I'm much more of a team player now than I ever was as a professor."

Political science professor Sam Noumoff, who has made it his business to ask university leaders tough questions during Senate sessions for years, says a constant danger that faces university leaders is the onset of a "bunker mentality," in which leaders "only seek counsel from those who already agree with them.

"The circle becomes ever narrower. I believe it's more prudent, and more appropriate to what we do here, to cast a wider net.

"I'm not saying we should load the important committees with people who are totally and absolutely negative for no reason." But there are people outside deans' offices and outside the James Administration Building who are loyal and thoughtful and who have different ideas about the way things should be run.

Noumoff says leaders "can set a tone," either letting people know that their contributions to decision-making are welcome or "telling them that their views are insignificant and they ought to go back to their labs and classrooms."

"In a university, there is a gap between responsibility and authority," says Bernard Shapiro, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario. "When I was in government, if I wanted to do X, I just did it. Governments are much more hierarchically organized. The decisions you make have a much more instant effect.

"Universities are different and that's appropriate. To create a consensus in a university requires much more effort, much more imagination."

"Faculty are part of a partnership," concurs his brother Harold. "As a president, you may be the senior partner, but you're still only a partner. The other partners have to be enthusiastic about their role in the partnership. You have to make sure that they share your strategy and vision. You can't just order them around."

The nature of top university jobs has changed over the years, notes Robert Rosenzweig, president emeritus of the Association of American Universities and the author of The Political University: Policy, Politics and Presidential Leadership in the American Research University.

"In the old days, before the 1960s, the presidents of major universities were typically chosen with a heavy emphasis on their scholarly records and acceptability to the community as scholars."

Then came the student riots and social upheavals of the 1960s.

"We suddenly found several law school deans moving into those positions. The boards of trustees came to see the requirements for these jobs as being the talents that superior lawyers had — rule-making, negotiating, politicking."

Today, presidents of major universities in the U.S. are rarely chosen unless they have proven managerial skills.

"The boards of trustees believe it's not a good idea to put a billion-dollar-a-year operation into the hands of someone who has never had to run anything before."

Fundraising has become a bigger part of the job as well.

Rosenzweig recalls talking to one well-known university president who took pleasure in regularly attending faculty meetings in the early years of his presidency.

Then this president became involved in a multi-year, multi-million dollar capital campaign.

"He was always travelling as a result. He lost touch with a large segment of his faculty and they knew it. It undermined his ability to lead. And it wasn't as much fun anymore."

"Being a dean is really quite an absorbing job," says Buszard. "There are so many things one wants to be involved in. It's easy to get completely swamped. It's very important to find time to do other things, to have a life. You have to find a few hours now and then and read up on the research in your area, for instance.

"Sunday shopping is a godsend."

"The best thing about the job is that you're involved with something that is crucial to society's future," says Bernard Shapiro. "You also have access to so many talented people and to so many exciting young people. That refreshes you."

"The satisfaction in the work comes from helping other people reach their objectives," says Harold Shapiro. "That's a little different than being a faculty member where you're largely free to choose your own problem and have some fun exploring that." Leaders "do things that serve others' agendas.

"When people look back on an era," says Shapiro, "they don't really care about who the president was. They want to know; What did the students accomplish? What did the faculty achieve?"

Alan Shaver agrees.

"Seeing the eyes of the people you're helping when their projects are realized, that's just a tremendous kick. That makes the job worthwhile."

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