Public Purpose Magazine, Spring 2009
Public Purpose Cover Spring 2009

The Emotional Dimension of Leadership: 7 lessons from 3 decadesBy Constantine W. Curris

In a world awash with excellent leadership tomes (the writings of Jim Collins and William George are personal favorites), my thoughts on this topic may be of little added value. Nevertheless, twenty-six years in the university presidency and another ten working with university leaders provides a perspective I gladly share. Seven leadership lessons learned over the decades follow:

1. Get Good People.

From my perspective the most important leadership task is to identify and retain men and women of talent, temperament and commitment. This task overshadows all others. In the words of a former colleague, Dero Downing, “Get good people and good things will happen.”

Every president I have known agrees with this call, yet many do not move beyond rhetoric. In some instances colleagues become smitten with a candidate and neglect to make (note I did not use the phrase “ask others to make”) reference calls— particularly to colleagues. In other instances, especially after presidential action removing a vice president, dean or coach, presidents abdicate their responsibility to search committees. While there is immediate gratification in giving friends of the aggrieved a role in the selection process, presidents often back away from the selection process and find themselves saddled with candidates not of their preference. Presidents should be truly engaged with the search committee. Leaders fail to recognize that the judgment of others on a personnel dismissal is often deferred until a successor is chosen and evaluated. “Get good people” is measured by outcomes, not processes.

2. Establish a Decision-Making Framework.

A multitude of decisions are made throughout the university—mostly outside the offices of the president and provost. By default the framework for most of those decisions is based on authority. The question too often asked is “who should make this decision,” rather than “how should this decision be made.” In unionized campuses struggles unfold as to who should have the authority (“power”) to decide what question. And even on non-unionized campuses, reoccurring disagreements focus on what authority does this office or person or senate have.

I have long favored, and have had success (in some instances limited, in others extensive) with a decision-making framework built around the concept of “expertise.” This approach identifies the individual or team of individuals best capable of understanding an issue and asking this party to recommend a proposed solution or resolution. That proposal in turn needs to be shared with a) those who will be affected by the decision, and b) those who must implement it—for their reactions and recommendations. Frequently, a clear consensus emerges; in other instances, the expert revises the proposal to accommodate concerns that have been raised. Granted, there will be instances when no consensus emerges or an impasse develops, at which the issue of who has the authority to decide resurfaces. But throughout the campus, that should be the exception, not the norm.

Advocating in Tough TimesBy Michelle R. Davis

When South Carolina’s Clemson University has an issue before the state legislature, the tap of a keyboard can help school officials find out which alum was the roommate of a key lawmaker, or which graduate attends church with a critical committee chairman. Using those alumni connections, Clemson has been able to reach out to state lawmakers at budget time to safeguard state funding and save programs on the legislative chopping block, says Beth McInnis, director of advocacy for the university.

“We have this powerful database that can tell me the nature of [an alum’s] relationship, whether it’s business, personal or close professional,” she says. “I want to have someone call a member knowing they’re going to get a call back.” The university’s high-tech database of about 1,000 people has taken alumni advocacy into the realm of the digital age, McInnis says, and there are plans to push these efforts even further, while still maintaining traditional grassroots efforts.

As the economy continues to falter, colleges and universities across the country are rethinking the ways they use alumni, students, staff, parents and other school supporters to make the case for higher education funding, to recruit high-caliber students and to push for donations. It’s a tool that many say doesn’t have to cost much, but can reap significant dividends in an economic climate where every dollar counts.

“It’s not expensive and if done properly it doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but when you get into it, you find there’s a lot of grassroots interest out there,” says Alan Janesch, the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Grassroots Network. “Once you engage these people and help them understand that their voices make a difference . . . it can’t help but have a huge potential impact.”


Talent Management:Getting the Most from Your Greatest StrengthBy Kevin Boatright
Getting the Most from Your Greatest Strength
by Kevin Boatright


“Welcome to your first day on the job at Beige State University, ‘Where People are Paramount™.’ You found our vaguely written ad, endured our tedious search process, and now you’re fully prepared to be disillusioned. Once we find you a desk your orientation will be complete. As your new boss, I look forward to providing meaningful feedback the next time they tell me I have to. Again, congratulations!”  

The way some universities hire, integrate and nurture staff, it’s a wonder anybody works there. The rush to fill a slot, the ambiguity of committee-written position descriptions, and the view that new hires should sink or swim practically ensures hit-or-miss personnel decisions.

“It’s ironic,” says John W. Moore, president of Penson Associates, Inc. and president emeritus of Indiana State University, “that, although our mission is the development of human capital, we invest only minimally in the training and development of our people.” Instead, “new faculty are left on their own, promotion occurs without systematic evaluation of performance, socialization is left to chance, and we keep our fingers crossed that the right people will influence their careers.”

“Deliberate, Unified Process”

It doesn’t have to be that way. During the past decade, the concept of “talent management” has emerged as a business-world response to the perennial and expensive challenges of finding, energizing and retaining productive people. The goal is to reduce the cost and disruption of turnover, enhance a sense of teamwork and worth, and focus the efforts of employees on a clear-cut mission.

  1. Broadly defined, talent management includes such elements as:
  2. Having and implementing coherent strategic business plans;
  3. Creating candidate profiles and attracting new staff in light of those plans;
  4. Integrating new hires into the culture of the institution as much as the job;
  5. Developing, keeping and promoting current staff; and
  6. Communicating useful feedback and sharing overall objectives.

Taken in isolation, there’s nothing new about the items on the list. In practice, however, they tend to remain isolated, becoming the responsibility of human resources, the hiring department, the supervisor, the employee, or no one. What’s often lacking is the commitment to making this a deliberate, unified process that’s practiced at all levels of the organization throughout the person’s employment.

Moore, who coordinates AASCU’s annual New Presidents’ Academy, says he challenges universities to look at their budgets for professional development. While the needs are different for faculty and staff in student affairs, finance or advancement, the “HR office is usually not a high priority, nor is the training and development of talent,” he says. All too often, universities focus on hiring and terminating and the rest is neglected.



Endsights:Advocacy for Good Times and BadBy Anthony J. DiGiorgio

Early in my presidency at Winthrop University, I asked my leadership team to think beyond our extended campus community to identify groups who always would have a stake in Winthrop’s continuing progress.

In short order, we had list of more than 30 stakeholders, ranging from businesses that hire our graduates, to businesses that sell us supplies, to charities that benefit from our volunteer service, to families that attend concerts and athletics events, to local governments that benefit from the taxes we pay. But it was the newest member of the leadership team who identified the most important of stakeholders for Winthrop and, indeed, for all of public higher education, by asking this question:

Isn’t the future a stakeholder, too?  

Indeed, the future remains arguably our most important stakeholder—the one shared by all the others.

Fast-forward to 2009, when that particular higher education stakeholder—the future— has more at risk than ever before, all across America, but particularly in South Carolina. The global economic crisis has hit public higher education with three simultaneous roundhouse blows: state appropriations are continuing in free fall, endowments have been deflated by plummeting stock values, and many families have been caught up in personal crises that mean tapping kids’ college funds to meet day-to-day expenses.

Yet concurrently, higher education in 2009 is universally recognized as one of the essential drivers for America’s economic recovery. Accordingly, the U.S. Congress, with encouragement from AASCU, responded quickly to the economic meltdown, fast-tracking approval of an emergency economic stimulus bill. Most states already are seeing that assistance arrive to help to stabilize state budgets and payrolls through aid to education. Most states, that is, except South Carolina, though our state already has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation.