PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: C. K. GUNSALUS
C. K. Gunsalus, former Associate Provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is Special Counsel in the office of University Counsel and on the faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The College Administrator's Survival Guide (Harvard University Press 2006). Read an excerpt.
A recent study of CEOs in the computer industry raises some interesting questions for universities. Chatterjee and Hambrick of Penn State looked at signs of narcissism in CEOs, such as frequent use of “I” in communication and use of large personal photos in annual reports. They found that the most narcissistic CEOs favor more volatile strategies than those who are less narcissistic. They make a fascinating observation: “[s]ince narcissism had no discernable effect on level of performance in the highly dynamic industries we studied, we might reasonably expect that it would have a more negative effect in more stable settings.” Could this study be relevant to today’s university administrators?
Universities are said to be among our oldest institutions (along with churches and breweries), and their mission is generally stable: to educate so their students become productive and contributing members of society. These observations about narcissistic CEOs, along with other trends underway in higher education, are worth careful consideration by those concerned about universities today. The corporatization of our universities and the increased importance placed on publicity as a means of fundraising are troubling developments. There are reasons for both, but their combined effects are worth thinking about.
Have you noticed how often the advent of new leadership on a campus now regularly triggers a new strategic plan these days? Google “university strategic plan” and see how many entries you find. I found more than 45 million. How is it that an institution that has existed for decades, if not more than a century, needs a new plan for its future every time the person at the top changes? Does the fundamental character of the institution change? The constituencies that it serves? And why are so many of these strategic plans developed on an expedited basis? My current favorite academic oxymoron is “emergency strategic plan.” What, exactly, is such a beast, especially as they tend to be developed following the advice of external consultants, and have remarkable similarities?
The days of the reluctant academic leader—an accomplished scholar who took on the role to serve the institution or to give something back—what we used to call the servant-leader, have been washed away in a tidal wave of narcissistic, corporate-style leaders. Characteristics of these leaders include highly personalized “branding” of leadership, often complete with a theme or tag-line and much publicity for the leader’s individual virtues. Web pages often prominently feature images of the leader, including events where the leader has recently been feted or headlined.
If you look carefully at the evidence-based management literature, you’ll see that many of the corporate fads our leaders are buying into, including huge status and salary disparities, financial incentives for the select few and centralization of decision-making, actually degrade productivity and performance in organizations. This is especially the case in organizations where at least some of the work force is driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, as is the case in those who self-select for careers in education rather than in more lucrative sectors. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford business professor who has written extensively on evidence-based management, pointed out in Congressional testimony that lists of high performance work practices commonly include: an egalitarian culture in which formal status distinctions are downplayed; delegation of decision-making responsibility so that skilled and developed people can use their gifts and skills to make real decisions; employment security; and a policy of mutual commitment.
If you work with department heads and deans, as I do, a frequent topic of conversation across the country these days is the erosion of faculty loyalty to institutions, with commensurate mercenary job-hopping and bargaining for perks. While the messages of the larger society are surely affecting university environments, maybe we need to think more about the messages our own leadership trends are sending. Maybe it’s us, not them, driving these trends. Maybe our waning interest in home-grown, mission-driven leaders has more pernicious effects than we’ve considered. Maybe developing our own is a virtue the value of which we ought to reconsider, and find ways to bring back into the equation as part of our overall balance.
Maybe, even, we ought to start rewarding in our top leaders what the best department head training programs already inculcate—that leadership is about what’s best for the unit, not the leader—rather than its polar opposite.
We all know that leadership matters. If, as asserted by other organizational researchers, “organizations become reflections of their top executives,” are highly narcissistic leaders really good for universities?