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Summers’ folly: ‘Dis’ half your staff

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers provides a lesson in what not to do as a leader: alienate your people by telling them they’re probably not genetically equipped to do their jobs.

Summers’ remarks that gender differences might explain why fewer women than men excel in math and science triggered a volcanic eruption among educated people, obscuring the initiatives he’d taken as Harvard’s new leader. But his remarks had the most direct effect on his own faculty. Why?
  • They could be taken—and were —as a lack of confidence in Harvard’s female science and engineering faculty members.

  • Seen from the start as an interloper, Summers continued to grate against Harvard’s culture. “If you look at the sad story of presidents who fail,” says Rita Bornstein, an expert on college management, “usually, it is because they don’t try to fit into the culture of the institution.”

  • He immediately scared away new talent—both faculty and students— further demoralizing his people.

  • The dust-up might even affect the school’s bottom line. In fund-raising, as in markets, perceptions matter.
If Summers is to save himself as Harvard’s leader, he’ll have to become more collegial in a nanosecond.

— Adapted from “No Longer Most Likely to Succeed,” William C. Symonds with Aaron Bernstein, BusinessWeek.

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