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Post mortem on a failed presidency

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

It wasn’t merely Lawrence Summers’ perceived arrogance and abrasiveness that sank his presidency at Harvard University. Large structural changes in higher education—including the rise of science and technology—also contributed to his downfall.

Here are a few actions Summers could have taken to shore up his standing:
  1. Show integrity. Candor, transparency— whatever you want to call it—is much more important than tact (although that’s nice, too).

    At a faculty meeting, Summers appeared evasive when asked about a friend and fellow economist whose program in Russia ended in scandal. Trust is the basis for all leadership. A leader will find ways to acknowledge problems and ask followers for their help in making things better.

  2. Pay attention to all stakeholders, not just those in booming departments. That means listening and not talking down to people. Both faculty and students (Summers’ employees and customers) want to be consulted on decisions that affect them.

  3. Build social capital in every department, piling up the widespread support to accomplish reforms. By questioning the capacity of women scientists, Summers lost a huge chunk of his constituency. If he had honored them instead, he could have gone about building consensus, developing a collective vision and putting together a fair process for making important decisions. No change agent can succeed without good will.
—Adapted from “Why Harvard Is So Hard to Lead,” Warren Bennis, Hallam Movius, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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