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Leadership: Bringing your critics to the table

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Whoever first said it (there’s an argument over that), Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, did it. In 2008, he invited a dozen of his fiercest critics to dinner.

Approaching his fifth year as president, LeBlanc had expanded distance learning and marketing, and people were giving him flak about it. 

He also knew how fast a leader could tank. As a young professor, he had watched a college president grow isolated and be forced to step down. “I took a lot of lessons from watching a good guy fail in the presidency,” he says.

In his e-mail invitation to discuss the future of the university, LeBlanc gave several reasons for choosing his guests, including that they had served in leadership positions, had disagreed with him or “just straight out don’t like me.” He noted that they all cared deeply about the university.

For three hours behind closed doors, the guests hashed out their concerns. Although the pizza dinner started awkwardly (nobody wanted to sit next to the host) and surprised LeBlanc by hitting home (“I thought, ‘Boy, you’ve got a point.’”), it also earned him credit for listening without defensiveness and acting on what he heard.

Among other things, the group nailed LeBlanc for a “ghastly” new slogan that “just made people want to commit suicide,” one straight shooter said. He later dropped it.

Bottom line: Because of the dinner, LeBlanc and his dissidents now have a “reasonably affable working relationship.”

— Adapted from “A College President Breaks Bread With His Foes,” Paul Fain, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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