"Values in Pairs"

On October 27, Adam Bryant published his last “Corner Office” column in the Sunday New York Times Business Section. I have been a reader for many years and will miss learning from the diverse CEO’s he interviewed. As a former corner office occupant, myself, I enjoyed reading about the backgrounds, values and hiring criteria that both differentiated and created common ground among these leaders.

Just the week before I had taken note of the “paradox of ego and humility” described by Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital, a venture capital firm. “A lot of CEO’s are ego-driven people” he said, “but they also have to be humble in precise ways around ideas and decisions, and be able to change their mind. That’s an idiosyncratic combination.”

I have always thought it important for leaders to acknowledge the ego-driven part of their personalities. We are people who like being front and center. The other aspect of ego, however, is that we must be strong enough to withstand the criticism, and even abuse, that comes from this position. Our visibility can make us targets. We must have the confidence to admit when we are wrong, but to not let others undermine our sense of self-worth.

I recently spoke to a president who is anticipating a vote of no confidence from her faculty. In the face of their hostility she has been able to maintain her commitment to moving the college forward and “doing the right thing.” But it certainly takes a healthy ego to accomplish this.

Humility is perhaps a greater challenge. We are hired to lead, and there may be the (misplaced) fear that to admit a lack of knowledge is a weakness. Bryant says that leaders need “humility to know what don’t they know, but have confidence to make decisions amid the ambiguity.”

There are several variations of a quote attributed to Confucius, “If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room.” I first heard it in 2009 as “If you’re the smartest person on your staff, your staff is too small,” from Colonel Williams at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education in Baltimore. In my last presidency I was blessed with an extraordinary team, each of whom knew more than I did about their own area of expertise and more. What I brought to the table was the ability to synthesize their ideas and decide among them. I had to be the big picture thinker. I was happy to learn from them, but accept my ultimate responsibility.

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Bryant said that after 10 years and 525 interviews he had come to see leadership as “a series of paradoxes.” Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of American Food, a venture philanthropy organization, described “values in pairs,” and the “tension or balance between them.”

We talk about “listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity,” she said. “You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is…but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it different, to imagine the way it could be.” She noted that in her world of working with poor communities, it is not always easy to face the world as it is, which I found especially relevant to community college leadership. We must be realists. Community colleges occupy a unique niche in higher education. We serve students of all ages and backgrounds who might otherwise not have the opportunity for an education or job training. Without us, they may have no voice. Lately, there has been increased attention to the fact that many of our students are not just poor, but homeless and hungry. Yet we are accountable for their success. It is challenging but often undervalued work.

The two colleges I have served as president have both been small and rural. Many in the surrounding communities were afraid and often opposed to change. It would have been easy to “settle.”  Even faculty and staff sometimes fell into the trap of “we’re only…” But I always believed our students deserved more and that the past did not have to limit their aspirations or ours.  I had the audacity to “imagine the way it could be.” Even without the trappings of the corner office I intend to fight for that vision.

Barbara ViniarComment