The v-c’s of­fice is no place for a ti­tan of in­dus­try

A de­fence of non-aca­demic univer­sity lead­ers fails to make the grade, says Amanda H. Goodall

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Amanda H. Goodall is se­nior lec­turer in man­age­ment at Cass Busi­ness School, City, Univer­sity of Lon­don.

Higher Call­ing: The Rise of Non­tra­di­tional Lead­ers in Academia By Scott C. Beard­s­ley Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Press 280pp, £30.50

ISBN 9780813940533 and 9780813940540 (e-book) Pub­lished 30 Septem­ber 2017

Think of The New Yorker car­toon de­pict­ing a pas­sen­ger on an air­liner, fac­ing his fel­low pas­sen­gers, his hand in the air, an­grily pro­claim­ing: “Th­ese smug pi­lots have lost touch with reg­u­lar pas­sen­gers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

For 26 years, Scott Beard­s­ley (pic­tured in­set) was a McKin­sey worker bee who ful­filled his dream and made queen, with a place on its board.

In 2015, he re­alised a sec­ond am­bi­tion; he be­came dean of the Dar­den School of Busi­ness at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, which pub­lished this book. Higher Call­ing marks his psy­cho­log­i­cal pas­sage from con­sul­tant to dean. He wants to prove that he was jus­ti­fied in claim­ing a lead­er­ship po­si­tion in a univer­sity as a non-aca­demic or “non-tra­di­tional” leader.

Beard­s­ley’s sam­ple is small – only lib­eral arts col­leges. Th­ese elite in­sti­tu­tions ed­u­cate 2 per cent of US stu­dents. In 1950s Amer­ica there were 700; to­day there are 246.

So how con­vinc­ing is Beard­s­ley’s ar­gu­ment? Sure enough, he finds there’s a de­cline in tra­di­tional aca­demic lead­ers among the col­leges in his sam­ple. About a third of pres­i­dents did not come through the aca­demic track.

Yet re­search on “expert lead­er­ship” by my­self and oth­ers shows that or­gan­i­sa­tions per­form bet­ter when they are led by lead­ers who are ex­perts in the core busi­ness. The more dis­tin­guished a scholar as pres­i­dent, the bet­ter the later per­for­mance of his or her univer­sity. This find­ing has been repli­cated in stud­ies of aca­demic de­part­ments and hos­pi­tals, among team lead­ers in Formula One and coaches in basketball.

So, you can imag­ine my in­ter­est when I came across a fig­ure that shows that the most highly ranked lib­eral arts col­leges are those led by tra­di­tional aca­demic pres­i­dents. Non-tra­di­tional pres­i­dents, such as Beard­s­ley, are in schools that are ranked lower.

Beard­s­ley’s only com­ment is: “Why a top ranked school might be less likely to hire a non-tra­di­tional could be a func­tion of tra­di­tion, in­er­tia, or risk avoid­ance.” Since he is a for­mer head of “McKin­sey univer­sity”, it seems odd that he doesn’t even con­sider that the thriv­ing col­leges may just know what good lead­er­ship looks like. Maybe tra­di­tional lead­ers have been good for their per­for­mance. There is also an­other ele­phant in the room. McKin­sey does not ap­point non-tra­di­tional lead­ers. Nor do Deloitte, Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers, KPMG, etc. Their top teams come from the womb and stay un­til they are pushed up or out. Con­sult­ing firms do not preach what they prac­tise.

Beard­s­ley sum­marises nicely why so many aca­demics don’t want to be pres­i­dent or dean – mainly be­cause the job is now big­ger, harder and messier. On both sides of the pond, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have over­loaded uni­ver­si­ties with bu­reau­cracy. The at­trac­tion of be­ing a vicechan­cel­lor (or equiv­a­lent) in the UK has prob­a­bly de­clined be­cause of re­cent com­plaints about high pay led by An­drew Ado­nis. Who would want to do the job?

The physi­cian chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of a large Amer­i­can hos­pi­tal re­cently pleaded to his sur­geon col­leagues to con­sider be­com­ing fu­ture lead­ers. “Eat or be eaten,” he told them.

The swing of suc­cess ‘or­gan­i­sa­tions per­form bet­ter when they are led by lead­ers who are ex­perts in the core busi­ness’

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