Leaders do not operate in a vacuum. But after decades at the top, some executives lose their bearings and come across as imperious.
Gordon Gee has spent nearly 30 years running prestigious U.S. colleges, including Brown University and Vanderbilt University. For the past six years, he was president of Ohio State University—until he retired amid controversy a few months ago.
College presidents must speak with tact and diplomacy. Eager to cultivate wide-ranging relationships, they cannot afford to alienate any constituency.
Often prone to foot-in-mouth disease, Gee went too far in the months before his retirement. In an internal meeting that was recorded, he told colleagues that you can’t trust “those damn Catholics” (referring to rival Notre Dame). He questioned the academic integrity of another rival—the University of Louisville—and insulted students in the Southeastern Conference.
When news broke of his comments, Gee issued an apology. Ohio State’s trustees initially said that Gee was undergoing a “remediation plan” in light of his remarks. Within a week, however, the 69-year-old announced his retirement. In describing the remarks as “inappropriate,” Ohio State’s trustees added that Gee’s comments were “not presidential in nature.”
To maintain credibility, a CEO needs to speak with prudence and show judgment. Flinging accusations at groups of people, even when you’re joking is bound to backfire.
To make matters worse, Gee was the third-highest paid public university president in the country. He earned almost $2 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
When you’re compensated well to run a large organization, it’s even more important to watch what you say.
— Adapted from “Gordon Gee’s comments and the sway of college sports,” Jena McGregor.
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