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Building a Cathedral: Leadership in American Higher Education

Teresa A. Sullivan
PRSA 2013 Counselors to Higher Education Summit
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Doubletree Hotel, Washington DC

Good evening. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to deliver this year’s “Pat Jackson Lecture.” The lecture is named for a former PRSA President and one of the creative forces behind the Counselors to Higher Education professional-interest section. So it’s an honor for me to join the list of distinguished speakers who have addressed your group as part of this lecture series.

The theme of your conference this week is “Strategic Leadership in a Time of Disruption.” All of us work in higher education, and I think all of us can agree that higher education has entered a period of disruption — a period of severe disruption — a period that will require strong leadership from all of us.

Every university in this country is facing serious challenges, especially the public universities. The challenges include the progressive erosion of state and federal funding; a sharpened focus on efficiency and productivity; the increased demand for affordability and accountability; and the question of how to use emerging technologies appropriately, among many other risks and opportunities.

The financial pressures alone are enormous. Public universities are being forced to cut costs and look for new revenue streams, and the pressures are only intensifying. State appropriations for the nation’s public colleges and universities fell by 7.6% in 2011-12, the largest decline in at least a half-century.

I think it’s fair to say that higher education is under attack nationally, and the attack is not purely financial. Many of the fundamental values of higher learning are being questioned. Among these are the essential value of college education, the value of basic research, the value of the traditional residential approach to teaching and learning, and even the essential notion of public education as an instrument of the public good.

There is a degree of irony in the timing of these attacks, because at the same time that the American media is full of criticisms of higher education in our country, European and Asian countries are racing to imitate our universities, because they see our higher education system as a global model of excellence.

These issues present challenges for me, as a public university president, and they present challenges for you — as counselors to higher education, as the PR practitioners and communications and marketing officers who seek to influence a wide range of audiences and mobilize a broad variety of stake-holders. 

To be a strong leader during a period of disruption, you need to have a strong sense of purpose. You may have noticed that the title for my remarks this evening begins with the phrase “Building a Cathedral.” This is a reference to one of my favorite stories about the power of purpose.

The story takes place in a medieval city in France, and it goes like this …. An observer saw three stone-cutter apprentices pulling hand-carts filled with cut stones.  The observer said to the first apprentice, “What are you doing?”  The first apprentice said, “I am dragging these stones from here to over there.” 

“What are you doing?” the observer asked the second apprentice, and the second apprentice said, “I am building a wall.” 

The observer asked the third apprentice the same question, and the third apprentice said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Later in the day, when the sun got hot and the stones got heavy, something tells me it was more motivating and more fulfilling for the third apprentice to think that his purpose was to build a cathedral — rather than to drag stones around.

In our day-to-day jobs, it may sometimes feel as if we are just moving stones from here to there. But we need to remember our larger purpose. All of us, together, are building a cathedral, by advancing and sustaining higher education in our country. You, as communications officers and counselors, have a responsibility not only to the individual colleges and universities in which you serve, but to American higher education as a whole.

Our country’s higher education system is one of the most powerful, generative forces in human history. Our research universities in particular have been the premier driving force in the American economy since World War II. Our universities have created jobs, improved health care, and led to the discovery of new technologies, new products, new services, and whole new industries that have enhanced the human condition in every conceivable way.

This is one of the great success stories in our national narrative. Telling that story, and working together to ensure that higher education continues to thrive, is the important work before us. That is the cathedral we are building together. And building it will require strong leadership.

During my three-plus decades in higher education, I’ve seen many different styles of leadership in action, and along the way, I’ve come to understand and appreciate some of the fundamental concepts of effective leadership.  So I would like to talk this evening about different styles of leadership, how they work and sometimes fail to work, and how you, as leaders of the public relations and communications functions at your schools, can help create a culture of leadership in your organizations.

“Leadership” is a word that can mean different things to different people. One thing that I’ve learned is that our definitions of the word are often too constricted. When we speak of leadership, many of us mean only heroic leaders – leaders who step up in a crisis and, through sheer force of personality, save the situation. The role of the team behind the heroic leader may be forgotten, or may even be quite secondary, because it is so dramatically clear that it was the hero who won the day. 

There is much to admire in the heroic leader. This is a leader who is single-minded in resolving a crisis, sometimes at great personal risk to reputation or even to life itself. Think of George Washington in the Revolutionary War: Who else could have led the ragtag, starving Continental army to the improbable victory over the world’s undisputed military superpower, the British? Heroic leaders defy the odds, and we tend to idolize them for that reason. On the other hand, it is easy for many of us to exclude ourselves from the ranks of leaders if heroic leadership is the only model of leadership we carry in our heads. 

Heroism is not the only way to be a leader. There are also what I call sustainable leaders, who build value for the long haul and who put in place the systems and culture in an organization to ensure its long-run success. Sustainable leaders are more likely to think in terms of an entire team – who constitutes the team, what kind of training each member gets, which members of the team have the capacity to take on more responsibility, and how the team can continue to function if one or more members leave.  Sustainable leaders build a durable system. While charismatic hero-leaders may still appear within the system, the sustainable leader tries to build so that the entire organization does not rely on the single personality of an individual. 

Although his heroic leadership is perhaps more glamorous, George Washington was also a sustainable leader.  He turned down the opportunity to be king and also the opportunity to be president-for-life, realizing that a peaceful transition of power would help create stability in the new Republic. His refusal to become a permanent executive was a decision about succession management; he knew that the generation of the Founders would pass away and there would need to be new leaders coming from the next generation. 

As the example of George Washington shows, these two types of leadership are not mutually exclusive. The heroic leader may well be able to create sustainable systems once a crisis has passed, and the sustainable leader may well be able to deal with crises as they arise. 

Both types of leadership have their dangers.  The danger for the sustainable leader is that he or she may fade into the woodwork because his or her teams work and function so effectively. The sustainable leader may be overlooked, underestimated, or even assumed not to be leading at all. 

On the other hand, the danger for the heroic leader is that he or she may suffer from a kind of addiction to crisis, and if there is no crisis, the hero might go forth to create one, just to get the adrenalin charge that comes from trying to save the day. The comic book superheroes have a never-ending parade of crises to handle, so creating one never becomes an issue for them.  But for real-life heroic leaders, it can be a temptation.

The point here is that leadership is multi-faceted, and not the prerogative of a single personality type or a specific type of background or training.

Whether you consider yourself to be a heroic leader, or a sustainable leader, or some completely different type of leader, there are a few concepts of effective leadership that transcend personality type and management style. These are the concepts I’ll talk about for the next several minutes.

Here’s the first concept: know your mission.  In order to lead effectively, we need to know what we’re leading toward, or, in some cases, what we’re leading away from. Knowing your values helps you guide your mission. You goal is to achieve your mission while remaining true to your values.

Developing a clear sense of mission, and communicating it to your external constituents and your internal colleagues, is one of the first steps toward strong leadership. The next step is to live your mission, day in and day out. Let the mission guide your thinking. Let it inform every decision you make.

A strong mission statement can help guide your organization’s work. As you know, just about every company, non-profit organization, church, and bowling league in America has a mission statement.  So one piece of advice is to be sure your organization has a clear, concise mission statement that makes your purpose clear.

The University of Virginia Health System has a nice, simple mission statement. Its mission is “to provide excellence and innovation in the care of patients, the training of health professionals, and the creation and sharing of health knowledge.”

That statement gives everyone who works in our Health System two thing: a sense of individual purpose, and a shared ambition. A good mission statement is like a compass: it keeps everyone on your team pointed in the right direction.

Here’s a second concept for effective leadership: know your priorities. Your priorities should flow naturally from your mission and values.

In the military, there is a routine method for naming the priority of a mission called the “commander’s intent.” The commander’s intent is a concise written expression of the purpose of a military operation and the desired end-state of the operation.

By nature, the commander’s intent is more specific than a mission statement. It’s less about broad vision, and more about a very specific, finite objective. Its purpose is to help soldiers in the field prioritize their decision-making so the results align with what the commander hopes to achieve.

The commander delivers the message of intent at the outset of the operation, and it does not change or fluctuate throughout the course of the engagement. Now, it can be hard to lay out a strategy and stick with it throughout a military engagement. So many things can change: the enemy can surge forward or back off; reinforcements can arrive; the weather can shift; other variables can change.

To allow for these fluctuations, the commander’s intent is usually a fairly simple statement, with just enough abstraction to allow for interpretation — something like this: “Rapidly defeat enemy forces and establish a covering force within 24 hours.”

A statement of the commander’s intent gets everyone on the same page, but it allows individual officers in the field to make their own decisions about the best way to meet the commander’s expectations.  If identifying priorities is an important part of leadership, the commander’s intent is a good example of how to identify and communicate priorities.

Here’s a third concept of effective leadership: know the difference between what’s “urgent” and what’s “important.” This is related to knowing your priorities, of course. Your priorities will always remain important. Urgent matters come and go as various crises come and go.

Every day we are forced to balance matters of urgency with matters of importance. As communications officers, you cannot ignore urgent crises when they arise; you have to manage them, without losing sight of your important, long-term priorities. This is a delicate balance:  we need to stay focused on important matters even as we are forced to contend with urgent matters that demand immediate attention. And we have to find a way to be sure the important things do not suffer for the sake of resolving the urgent things.

Knowing what’s urgent as compared to what’s important can help you determine and balance your short- and long-term goals. Take care of urgent matters in the short term, but keep your eye fixed on the important things for the long-term.

As leaders and Type-A personalities, some of us may have a tendency to keep urgent matters to ourselves until they are fully resolved. We have to learn to delegate urgent items to our capable colleagues so we can keep our eyes on what’s important.  For example, as UVa’s president, I try to share urgent items with vice presidents and deans, when possible, so I can stay focused on long-term, important items. If you are surrounded by good people, let them help you with the urgent matters that come up.

From time to time, one or more of your long-term, important priorities may shift to urgent because of a sudden crisis that arises. Budgetary constraints or other financial crises can often force our priorities from the “important” category temporarily into the “urgent” category. But we should never abandon what’s important, for the sake of what’s urgent.

Here’s another leadership concept: be aware of your blind spots. In other words, you need to know what you don’t know, accept that you cannot possibly know everything about your team and your organization, and encourage your colleagues to help you fill in the gaps.

In 2010, when I began work as a brand-new university president in a new state, I knew there was a lot that I did not know about the University of Virginia, its people, culture, and traditions, and the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. So I asked my colleagues for help. I asked my vice presidents, deans, and staff to help me watch out for landmines, and to steer me in a different direction if I was about to step on one.  In exchange for that favor, I promised them this: I’ll never shoot the messenger.

It can be hard to share bad news, especially if you’re sharing it with someone who’s higher in the chain of command than you are. But the perils of not sharing bad news can be catastrophic.

Let me share a story that demonstrates this point. There is a team of researchers at the University of Texas who study the transcripts from black boxes that are recovered after airplane crashes. The purpose is to see how pilots interact in times of extreme duress. One of the transcripts they studied was from the crash of a Japanese airliner. All the pilots on this flight were Japanese. At some point during the flight, the co-pilots realized that the plane was going to over-shoot the runway and land in Tokyo Bay. The co-pilots tried to share this news with the captain, but they were constrained by the culture of deference shown to superiors in Japanese culture. “Captain, we suggest that this might be a good time to review the instruments,” they began, and they continued for several moments in similarly soft-spoken terms. “Captain, we respectfully urge you to review the instruments.” And so on. Well, you can probably guess that the captain never got the message about the flight path, and the plane crashed in Tokyo Bay.

In our leadership roles we need to create cultures in which colleagues at every level are willing to share bad news, as hard as it may be to do that. Deference to superiors in the chain of command may create a culture of reticence, and that can be dangerous. We all know that bad news can turn into worse news if it does not get reported promptly.

This is one reason why we need to create institution-wide cultures of leadership at every level of our schools and other organizations. Those of us who sit in executive offices are often far removed from the institution’s day-to-day activities.

The people on the front lines are much closer to the action, and they sometimes see things that leaders may be missing. It’s important to create a culture of leadership that permeates the entire organization, so the front-line people are encouraged to contribute. A good leader will challenge his team to think independently, speak up, and take action when action is needed, even if it means trying something new. This encourages a sort of “trickle-up” leadership that includes everyone at every level. It builds a stronger organization from the ground up.

Let me share a story from Charlottesville that illustrates this point. On the morning of January 21, at about 5 a.m., a trash truck was driving down one of our downtown streets near the University’s Grounds, picking up trash, when the workers on the truck noticed that the porch at one of the houses was on fire. This was an old, wooden frame house that was home to 13 UVa students. The waste-disposal workers are taught to be quiet so as not to awaken customers when their trash is collected, but this truck driver did something that the drivers are told never to do: he leaned on his air horn, and at the same time he called 911. His partner also did something that workers at his company are told never to do: he picked up stones and began throwing them at the second-floor windows to awaken the sleeping residents. As a result of these actions, two of the students were awakened, and eventually all of the students got out alive and unharmed. 

The waste-disposal workers might say that their “job” is to collect trash, but their larger purpose is to make life better in the Charlottesville community. And those 13 UVa students are fortunate that these men were motivated by a larger sense of purpose and leadership when they saw a house on fire.

Last week in Charlottesville, we celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, our Founder’s Day. Thomas Jefferson believed that the University of Virginia should teach “useful knowledge” to its students to equip them for leadership in the American Republic. He believed that learning and leadership were connected and mutually dependent. This is a concept that has resonated through the centuries in the minds of many great American leaders.

John F. Kennedy planned to talk about the connection between learning and  leadership in a speech that was never delivered, because he was scheduled to deliver it in Dallas on the day he was assassinated. Kennedy’s motorcade was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart, where he would have delivered this speech, when he was shot.

On that day, he was scheduled to speak to a gathering of the Dallas Citizens Council. The Graduate Research Center at the University of Texas-Dallas co-sponsored the event, and in his prepared remarks, Kennedy was going to salute the Council and the Center for representing the best qualities of leadership and education in the city. “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” were the words he planned to say.

In spite of the sad association with President Kennedy’s death, those of us in leadership positions can take a lesson from that line in the last speech he ever prepared. To lead effectively, we have to be willing to learn continuously, all our lives. And of course, this is the purpose that brings you together this week.

What is your “job”?

More importantly, what is your larger purpose?

Your job might be to lead the communications or PR teams at your institutions, with all of the daily grind and long-haul strategy that work entails. But your larger purpose, like mine, is to advance higher education, and to tell the story of its profound impact on our country and its people. That story is chronicled in our individual colleges and universities, and in the collective enterprise in which all of us are engaged.  This is our cathedral, and we are building it together.

When you return to your jobs at colleges and universities around the country after this week, you will begin moving stones from one place to another — and so will I.  But I hope all of us will remember that we are building a cathedral with those stones. And the cathedral is a magnificent one, and well worth the effort.

I appreciate being invited to speak to you today. Thank you all, and best wishes for your conference.