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Leadership Tips for College Presidents and CEOs

Presidents Schapiro and Glassner share expertise in The Wall Street Journal

EVANSTON, Ill. --- “Think first, talk later.” “Talk less, listen more.” “Show up.” “Don’t take things personally.” And: “Don’t believe the hype.”

 As commencement season nears, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and his co-author Lewis and Clark College President Barry Glassner weighed in with those words of wisdom in an April 29 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The two college presidents shared in the WSJ piece 12 pithy tips from their own experiences about what makes someone a successful leader -- with a humble caveat.  “Some [tips] we discovered by failing to do them ourselves, and others we picked up from our mentors and colleagues.”

As college presidents and business leaders throughout the country are preparing commencement addresses about entering the “real world,” President Schapiro and President Glassner suggested in the piece that soon-to-be graduates might benefit from the two leaders’ experiences during their long tenures at the top of the academic hierarchy.

They noted that “the college presidency has become a high-risk occupation and CEO turnover is accelerating, with 131 leaving their jobs in January alone.”

“Everything you say will be taken literally,” the two presidents said in the first tip in the WSJ op-ed about thinking first and talking later. “An offhand comment or ill-considered joke, once it has made its way through the local gossip vine or the national blogs, is guaranteed to haunt you. Don't ever think you're ‘off the record.’”

The tip about talking less and listening more, they said, is especially true for a new leader brought from the outside. “Folks will immediately ask for your ‘vision’ for transforming the place. This is a test: No one can reasonably expect a detailed plan before you understand the place's idiosyncrasies,” they wrote. “Do not offer a grand plan before one exists.”

Showing up, they stressed in the WSJ piece, is a must. “Every constituency wants you to be physically in the room on important occasions; they don't want your surrogate. What you actually do when you get there -- offer a toast, introduce a speaker, tell a quick story to kick off an event -- may be less important than your physical presence.”

Everyone, whether leading or following, could learn from their tip about not taking things personally. “Faculty, staff, students and alumni, and likewise, customers, employees, suppliers and regulators, can exercise amazingly bad judgment, imperiling themselves and the good name of your organization,” the presidents observed. “Many of the most spirited attacks have more to do with the attacker than with you. Don't beat yourself up, and remember that things are never as bad as they look.”

On the other hand, another tip cautions leaders to not believe the hype. “Things aren't as good either,” they advised in the WSJ piece. “If you are tempted to trumpet your company's quarterly returns or latest, greatest product; your school's academic rankings, athletic record and fundraising success; or your own popularity, you are setting yourself up for a fall. Hyping short-term success can undermine long-term progress.”

The two leaders, who have co-authored a number of op-eds published by major media, reflect the perspectives of college presidents from both liberal arts colleges and major research universities from coast to coast. 

Working on the frontlines of education, President Schapiro, also a Northwestern professor of economics, is well known for his expertise on the economics of higher education; President Glassner, a sociologist, has been a commentator on American culture for many years.

The last tip in the WSJ piece offers critical words to live by: “Don’t neglect your health,” the two presidents wrote. “Reserve time to enjoy your life. If jogging is your thing, make time to run. If it is attending religious services, do so regularly. Some presidents wonder how they can find the time to do those sorts of things. The answer is simple: Act like a president, and take control of your schedule.”
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