Leaders Who Listen

As Harvard begins to turn its attention to selecting a new president, one of the most important considerations is what type of leadership will be best for the University. Last week, my friend and colleague Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker was quoted worrying that after the possible departure of University President Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard might appoint a “namby-pamby” as president like every other university. I can understand Pinker’s desire to justify some of the remarks made by Summers. But having studied leadership for many years and having had the opportunity to know a number of impressive heads of educational institutions, I cannot accept Pinker’s dismissal of others who occupy the demanding position of college or university president. The most effective academic leaders do not rule by fist, fiat, furor, or fear, but rather by listening, building consensus, and creating a context for the institution to thrive.

Leaders, as opposed to managers, are expected to have a broad vision of their institution, a set of ambitious but manageable goals, the skill to choose and trust lead staff members, the capacity to devise and implement strategies that allow them to advance toward their goals, and the agility to shift course when doing so seems necessary. In an authoritarian regime or in a corporation that is organized hierarchically, leaders can often proceed quite quickly and with relatively little regard for the beliefs and feelings of others in their organization. On occasion, such a peremptory approach is even essential.

In the United States today, leadership of colleges and universities is an entirely different affair. Leaders must rely primarily on their abilities to inspire and persuade faculty, students, and staff; if they attempt to proceed too quickly or in a fashion that disrespects others, they are likely to encounter increasingly stiff opposition. Strong leaders “listen charismatically” and earn the respect and even admiration of their constituencies. In my studies of leadership of what I term “voluntary organizations,” I have been impressed by those individuals who can convey a powerful positive narrative about their organization and who can indicate how members of that organization can find meaning and fulfillment in working toward those goals. The strongest lever available to these leaders is their personal embodiment of that narrative—as the saying goes, “They walk the talk.”

A good concrete example is James O. Freedman ’57, who in the late 1980s was appointed to the presidency of Dartmouth College. His principal missions were to upgrade the intellectual quality of students and the level of discourse at the school, and he achieved this goal by devising a number of programs that rewarded high-quality scholarship. More importantly, in his speeches and analyses of problems at that university and in the wider society, he exemplified what it means to be a thoughtful analyst, rather than a glib or judgmental one.

Freedman also confronted a crisis on campus: an increasingly malicious publication called the Dartmouth Review. For a time, Freedman followed the advice of others and ignored the excesses of that publication. But when the Review published anti-black and anti-Semitic material and personally attacked both faculty members and Freedman’s own family, he convened a series of University-wide meetings and conversations at which he delineated the line between free speech and personal abuse. Freedman was willing to confront a firestorm, and, because of his timing, conviction, and eloquence, he succeeded in marginalizing the Review.

Freedman is not a “namby-pamby.” Nor was Derek C. Bok, an articulate leader of this University and of American higher education for 20 years. Other admirable leaders in the recent past include Vartan Gregorian at Brown University, William G. Bowen at Princeton University, Nannerl O. Keohane at Duke University, and Charles M. Vest at MIT. Nor is there a dearth of impressive leaders today: Leon Botstein of Bard University has been a vigorous spokesperson on a variety of issues for many years, and Shirley M. Tilghman has already put a distinctive mark on Princeton University in a much shorter period of time.

This is neither the time nor the place to comment on Summers’ tenure; it will take some time to sort out his contributions. But the turmoil at the University during recent times should not blind us to the possibility of effective, decisive leadership at our great universities.

Howard E. Gardner ’65 is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has been at Harvard as a student, researcher, and faculty member for 45 years.