The Seduction of a College President

In the world of higher education, generating dollars in support of research, salaries, educational initiatives and, of course, bricks and mortar is essential. Jennifer Raab (President of Hunter College) is, without question, a profoundly successful generator and that provides faculty the security they need and students the opportunities that could not be possible were it not for her efforts. The average college or university president lasts less than four years. One of the primary reasons is that they do not know how to do what Ms. Raab does so well. Her record at Hunter is, indeed, remarkable.

After twelve years, the sewer is backing up, and Ms. Raab’s limited skills in her other critical leadership role, that of managing others, are beginning to show (or smell). It does not take much intelligence to identify symptoms of a broken management system.

For starters, the revolving door of faculty, staff and other administrators, while not exceeding the $ figure achieved by her fundraising, takes expensive toll on resources, and productivity in terms of morale and performance.

Each time a mid-level university administrator leaves the cost to the system can be $50,000 to $100,000 in replacement fees. Small change you say. Good universities, and Hunter is one, normally find turnover minimal, since people arrive and wish to stay in an environment that provides intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to be a part of something positive.

If raising money is the only standard against which to measure a president’s performance, Ms. Raab excels. But, there is something deeply troubling about a leader who is unable or unwilling to name even a single “criticism of how she leads.” She is either unconscious, in a self protected bubble surrounded by those afraid to tell her about her impact, or arrogant and unwilling to even recognized the need to look at her effect as leader.

I have worked for fifteen years exploring a premise that most leaders will acknowledge:

The older you are, the more power and influence you have, the less those around your will tell you the truth.

In all those years, sharing the implications of this notion among leaders in higher education, business and politics, I have only received knowing nods from those listening. What I call “Seduction of the Leader”, is alive and well in most organizations.

It is for the leaders to overcome the reality of seduction, to develop ways of protecting those who, as in this instance, live in a climate of fear, and have a lot to say but no security to do so.

So, who are those around Ms. Raab who will tell her of her excesses? What does she do to measure her own effectiveness as both leader and manager? How does she model the use of feedback to allow course corrections in her own leadership or that of those around her?

It is not about her being a woman leader that is to be questioned. It is true of male and female leaders who create a climate where truth and candor go underground and fear trumps trust.

Her statement, “I have a vision and I have always been very, very determined …I am very tenacious” is, I’m sure, one of her greatest assets. It may also be one of her biggest weaknesses. Will her ideas be challenged by others as smart (or smarter) but, perhaps, less certain, less tenacious than she? Can she hear them? Will she seek them out or only those compliant to her strengths?

When Matthew Goldstein, the former Chancellor, was pressed about the case being built against Ms. Raab he said, “but her metrics are very good.” I ask, however, are their metrics about her behavior, about her style, about her impact on staff, managers and others? Did the Chancellor take part in the seduction of  her as a leader by being unwilling to look beyond the metrics he provided?

Without much training or experience in higher education when she entered the Hunter system, there may still be things she can learn that could help her presidency. As an educator, regardless of her degrees, you would want someone open to possibilities and who would be encouraging of others to share their ideas for the betterment of The University. That a minority of her constituents find Hunter to reflect a climate of fear, is something that needs to be addressed. It would logically start with Ms. Raab.


Funny, Marine style.

I should add this to my list of lessons learned as a Marine. But, I’ll put it in the humor chapter of “Seduction of the Leader”.

Marine Tact and Navy Sensitivity:

Years ago, a young Navy Pilot was severely injured while ejecting from his A-4 Skyhawk due to engine failure during a catapult shot from the aircraft carrier, but due to the heroics of rescue helicopter and the ship’s hospital staff, the only permanent injury was the loss of one ear.

Since he was now physically impaired he did not remain on flight status but eventually became an Admiral. However, during his career, he was always sensitive about his appearance.

One day, the Admiral was interviewing two Navy Master Chiefs and a Marine Sergeant Major for his personal staff.

The first Master Chief was a Surface Navy-type, and it was a great interview. At the end of the interview, the Admiral asked him, “Do you notice anything different about me?” The Master Chief answered, “Why, yes, Admiral. I couldn’t help but notice that you’re missing your starboard ear, and I don’t know whether this impacts your hearing on that side.The Admiral got very angry at this lack of tact, and threw him out of his office.

The next candidate, an Aviation Master Chief, when asked this same question, answered, “Well, yes, Sir. You seem to be short one ear.” The Admiral threw him out, as well.

The third interview was with the Marine Sergeant Major. He was articulate, extremely sharp, and seemed to know more than the two Master Chiefs put together. The Admiral wanted this guy, but went ahead with the same question. “Do you notice anything different about me?”

To his surprise, the Sergeant Major said, “Yes, Sir. You wear contact lenses.”

The Admiral was impressed, and thought to himself, ‘What an incredibly tactful Marine’. “And how would you know that?” the Admiral asked.

The Sergeant Major replied: “Sir, it’s pretty hard to wear glasses with only one fuckin’ ear, sir!”

The Hazards of Touching Base

On meeting him, Jay commented casually “Our team gets together once a week to discuss issues, ideas and just to touch base. It keeps lines of communication open, builds trust and camaraderie.”

What if the opposite were true?

“Well,” he would say optimistically at his weekly meeting of fifteen key leaders, “Let’s go around and do a quick check in.”

It’s a common request made a thousand times a day by leaders with their reports gathered around mahogany conference tables.

He fails to recognize the performance and the stars of a play reenacted every week.  They perform for him, to please, to impress, to protect, to hide – habitual patterns defining each person. They give what they believe he needs, or wants, to see. The casual nature of the go round belies the dynamic that continually influences the team in so many hidden ways.

Optimistic Jay believes what each says, takes them at face value. But, he doesn’t really see them. He fails to see the rolling eyes at the onset of the go round as Jane blurts, “It’s been an incredible week, I hardly know where to begin. I’m breathless, was here until l0:00 p.m. last night, (a predictable, significant pause) but let me start with the Jacob’s deal …” She goes on and on as people look down.

She attempts to match Jay’s energy, his effervescent enthusiasm, laying down a trail of “I’s” that seem to propel her forward – framing herself as heroic even in the smallest task, an invisible urgency impels her forward. And, of course, there is never a problem to share, something that would be less than perfect.

Several around the table visibly recoil at her breathless, successful performance they hear every week. Others simply have no reaction – tune her out. Predictably, nobody ever tells her of her impact, so there is no way to realize that the reactions to her performance are cumulative. She has no awareness of the hole she is digging for herself within the group. It is a dishonesty that each member tolerates and supports.

Jack, sitting to Jane’s left and visibly annoyed, follows her – his measured mumbles intentionally imply disinterest yet contain a certain starkness that contrasts sharply with her sparkling narcissism. He casually says, “Not much to report other than that the Pirelli deal went through which should keep us solvent for the next six months.” He loves to undersell himself, to appear almost humble, realizing his success will impress and be dramatic. Yet, he is as predictable as Jane, and irritating in his false modesty.

And, so, around the table they go, each member with their own agenda, each with a style and role within the group that influences others and often reduces their effectiveness. Of course, cordiality reigns and the norm remains never to talk about what it is that builds both distrust and dislike, since there is little reason to stop what appears not to be so apparent. Like a stifling invisibility cloak suffocating spontaneity, intimacy and openness, this little 30 – 40 minute ritual has far reaching consequences. But, since the boss likes it and they like him, they tolerate its grating superficiality and the time it wastes.

Optimism is an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.” Jay’s optimism is inhibiting his effectiveness as a leader. It drives his need to see what he wants to see to confirm his personal bias. (Cognitive scientists and psychologists call this confirmation bias. According to Science Daily it is a tendency to search or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. See how Warren Buffet addresses his own confirmation bias –

The norms (unspoken rules that govern this and so many teams of smart, conscientious people) result in an insidious seduction both of their leader and among each other. How do these norms reflect the behaviors of your own team?

  1.  Never say what you feel – keep things superficial and humorous – then there will be no possibility that underlying tensions among the members will ever surface, or require attention.
  2. Never provide personal / behavioral feedback that might help your peers become increasingly effective as either members or leaders.
  3. Never evaluate any meeting to determine “what is working” and “what is not working” either in relation to the content of the meeting or its process (how the meeting is actually run).
  4. Never be critical of your leader in the group. Whenever possible, agree overtly with his or her ideas.
  5. Always wait until after the meeting to share real feelings or risky opinions with those you trust.
  6. Be free to make commitments to action at the end of the meeting, knowing that without real consequences in your conflict averse system, there is little chance that such promises will be kept.
  7. Be free to talk about others on the team after the session, without the need to share it with them.
  8. Don’t ever raise conflict in relation to how the team operates or why something failed.
  9. Rather than take responsibility for changing something that is not working in the team environment, always complain and blame later – outside of the meeting.
  10. Always take comfort in the status quo and avoid defining what it is to be the very best.

Something as innocuous as Jay’s attempt to touch base can hold symptoms of many or all of the dysfunctional norms identified here. These are good people being unconscious and undisciplined, unaware of the norms that, over time, that keep things nice and, ultimately, conflict averse.

While the team aids and abets such dysfunction, it is the leader, who is responsible for changing the dynamic, increasing the discipline and providing the skills necessary to be truly effective. Jay’s optimism has undoubtedly been an asset over his career. Here it is misplaced as he builds certain lethargy and into his own prized team.