Leadership, the University & Poor vs. Great Leaders


Posted on July 26, 2010 by Blake Leath

While literally countless important questions swirl around us every day, there are few that stimulate me as much as, "What makes a great leader?"

It's a loaded question, of course, because embedded within it is another question, "Are leaders born or made?"  (The short answer, for today, is"Yes."  But more on that Russian doll another time.)

Leadership is such a perennially important issue and this year is no different.  Every generation believes its time is unheralded and novel, and ours is not unique: we continue to live in undeniably tremendous timesan era of explosive growth, ceaseless change and limitless potential.  (But again, the same could be said 4,000 years ago...2,000 years ago, and again during the Renaissance...it is no less true today.)

As always, we need great leaders and greater leadership if we are to continue progressing in fields and practices as diverse as geopolitics, science, economics, finance, spirituality (yes, spirituality), innovation and sustainability.  From natural to man-made disasters in Alaska, New York, Sri Lanka and India to Thailand, Haiti and Louisiana, the importance and effects of leadership (or its absence) areif we are fortunatea broadcast away. 

In future blogs, I commit to writing more extensively about leadership at large, but today I will limit my thoughts to the importance of formal education (e.g., the University) as a mechanism and greenhouse for creating and growing tomorrow's leaders and will then conclude with a rough table differentiating poor from great leaders.

My preliminary comments are inspired today by John Sexton, President of New York University ("NYU").  My later comments are inspired by John Maxwell, author of 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (among other books)

Though I believe there are indeed few 'new things' under the Sun, to the extent these men's ideas are held tenably together, I am to blame.


Universities for Tomorrow

Describing the University for Tomorrow requires a few thousand dissertions and years of research, to be sure, so I will simply take a slipshod whack to get your mind whirring.  You, along with millions of others who are already studying this opportunity, can do the remaining 99.9999% by filling in the gaps.

Fact #1: 70 of today's 85 oldest organizations are, in fact, universities.  (Vatican City and Parliament are examples of the other 15.)

Fact #2: If you want to create a vibrant 'center of thought,' create a great university and wait 200 years.

Fact #3: The universities-within-walls which brought us this far will not lead us into the future.

What NYU is doing in Abu Dhabi is right on the money: it's primarily about people, programs, teaching and research (and just so happens to serendipitously be what my doctoral program was, but on steroids to the 100th power).  I attended the modest Union Institute & University, the first "University without Walls" and participated in classes hosted in Brattleboro, Montpelier, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami.  We regularly embraced eccentric professors on sabbaticals from the Ivy League who operated 'unfettered' from many of the restraints they described occurring in Cambridge, New Haven, Providence, Princeton, Philadelphia, Hanover, Ithaca and NYC. 

...but I digress...

What encouraged me about Mr. Sexton's comments was the notion that tomorrow's university is an open, diverse, ecumenical, organic circulatory system of ideas and best practices that will focus on creative, exploratory thought and nuanced discourse.

I couldn't agree more. 

Indeed, any university, even the ones mired in the past (the ones we revere, historically) are mandated to help students learn to think (and critically) for themselves.  But my impression, far too often, is that university life can quickly become High School 2.0, packed to the gills with memorizing facts, completing rote work, regurgitating information or defending knowledge.  Unquestionably, we should possess societal standards of 'minimum knowledge,' but I expect this work to occur more fully in grades K-12.  The undergraduate years can round-out this process, but the fact that today's ACT and SAT tests still emphasize standardized knowledge, facts, reading, mathematicsand some writing (though many admissions boards admit they don't quite know what to do with this element yet)I remain concerned that our perspectives are deficient.

While the United States is proceeding toward national standards in 48 of the 50 states, China is migrating toward a more exploratory curriculum designed to create great THINKERS and INNOVATORS rather than fact-regurgitators.  The ideal approach is, of course, a hybrid that includes the best of both.  We need a hygiene-oriented 'bare minimum' (which should be rigorous, not minimalistic; a 'threshold knowledge base' if you will) combined with strong creative and critical thinking skills.  IQ has never been a predictor of leadership success and it never will be.  Similarly, while standardized admissions are undoubtedly sufficient at predicting university success, they are representative solely of the coursework comprising undergraduate schoolworkwhich illuminates my point and the 'smallness' of what we expect today.  Moreover, IQ and standardized metrics will never wholly predict a leader's ultimate societal contributions, service to humankind or general performance, so whatever the University of Tomorrow intends to look like, it must quickly learn to shed historic metrics in favor of indices that get at meaning, contribution and potential.

The single greatest determinant of student performance in the classroom is the teacher's expectations.  Knowing this, we should ourselves have the highest expectations for tomorrow's teachers, educators, instructors, professors...and each and every one of them should be well-versed in the Pygmalion Effect.

Finally, the university of tomorrow should be a bastion of deep discourse, not soundbytes.  Mr. Sexton described at length the disadvantage that today's thoughtful politicians start from when they find themselves embroiled in conflicts with opponents adept at dumbing down exceedingly complex issues.  The media loves sticky slogans ("It's the economy, stupid."), but we must have an appetite for prolonged, nuanced, systemic dialogue if we are to more fully understand issues, one another and create students and leaders capable of doing the same.


Poor vs. Great Leaders

Perhaps contary to popular opinion, the leader at the helm of such a university is not terribly dissimilar from the sort of leader who thrives in enterprise.  In the comments of John Sexton and the work of John Maxwell, I see similar threads regarding how students, university officials and tomorrow's leaders interact with the world around them. 

In this light, I conclude today's very embryonic blog with the following table differentiating 'poor' and 'great' leaders.  I trust that it might prove handy somewhere along the line.

More on these and adjacent thoughts in the weeks to come.