A university is an environment of dizzying complexity because of its mission — teaching, learning, research and service — and a culture shaped by diverse stakeholders. That is why the university presidency is the ultimate test of leadership. CEOs can learn a lot from their counterparts in academia, according to this opinion piece by Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University. He is also the author of Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.

Much has been written about what universities and their leaders can learn from business, but after 45 years in academia and the business world I have concluded that the converse is equally true: CEOs can learn a great deal from university leaders.

In many ways, the university presidency is the ultimate test of leadership. The reason is the dizzying complexity that comes with a great mission — teaching, learning, research, and service — and a culture shaped by a diverse set of stakeholders. Earlier this year William McRaven described the job of a college president as “the toughest job in the nation” (along with being the president of a health institution) as he was leaving the chancellorship at the University of Texas system after three years. Mind you that McRaven is a retired Navy four-star admiral who orchestrated the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as well as the rescue of an American captain from the hands of pirates several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. Dwight Eisenhower, an accomplished leader in the military during World War II and widely recognized as a great president of the United States, had a rocky tenure as president of Columbia University that only lasted two years.

If outstanding leaders who have proven themselves under extreme circumstances in other walks of life are nearly brought to their knees heading up academic institutions, clearly there is something uniquely challenging about the university presidency that requires resilient and adaptive leadership. Considering that constant change and looming reputational and financial risks are the new normal in every industry, it appears pertinent to explore the tool kit of those who have hard-won experience with generating a product of lasting value in the midst of pandemonium.

“If outstanding leaders who have proven themselves under extreme circumstances in other walks of life are nearly brought to their knees heading up academic institutions, clearly there is something uniquely challenging about the university presidency.”

Leading the Academic Enterprise

The academic enterprise is unique and complex for many reasons. For one thing, there’s the human aspect; university leaders are responsible for large numbers of young adults, who bring with them needs and demands that far exceed academics, and for employees, many of whom cannot be terminated even if they are acting out and performing poorly. Then there’s a large real estate footprint that needs to be managed and expanded, and a myriad of enterprises within the enterprise — a med school, clinics and/or a hospital, athletics (a major reputational risk factor with the potential to blow up at any moment), a police force … the list goes on. And as if your hands aren’t full enough, you’ll likely be called upon to serve as a community leader and bear the responsibilities of being a significant economic engine and anchor institution in your community. (After Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, I was asked to chair the mayor’s commission charged with rebuilding and re-envisioning the public K-12 education system.)

So, in what ways do successful university presidents have a leg up on CEOs, and what can business leaders learn from them? (I define successful university presidents as leaders whose tenures exceed ten years and who brought about transformative change at their institutions.)

  • Great university presidents understand that it takes humility and a high degree of emotional intelligence, not just will, to get to right solutions. The mechanisms of higher education’s shared governance model and the diversity of stakeholders keep them grounded. There certainly have been hard-charging leaders in the history of higher education — John Silber, former president of Boston University, is a prime example — but university presidents generally know that they don’t know everything and need to learn from others. University presidents have to be good listeners. A recent survey of college and university presidents revealed “strategist” and “communicator and storyteller” as the most important skills successful presidents need to possess. Basically, to succeed and adapt to an ever-changing world, you need to contain opposites — left-brain capacity to plan and calculate, right-brain capacity to reach out, understand, inspire, and unify vastly different audiences.
  • Universities are often a microcosm of the larger societal trends and issues. Handling those tensions and dynamics equips one with a unique understanding of what the future holds. In other words, university presidents are operating in the future — which may seem counterintuitive given the widespread portrayal of university leaders as risk-averse traditionalists. The truth is that they are in touch with and shaping our future workers, leaders, and consumers as well as the environment that all our organizations and companies will be functioning in. The insights of university presidents into the emerging workforce — and the next generation of leaders — are invaluable for the business sector.
  • Institutions of higher education have an enduring mission and therefore have been around for much longer than just about any business one can think of. Under strong leadership, a college or university not only exhibits a sense of mission, it also is an institution with a purpose, and, dare I say it, a soul. It’s the balance of upholding tradition while actively being part of a changing world that characterizes the job of university leaders. At the root of everything needs to be a school’s unique identity. The million-dollar question that higher education’s leaders constantly ponder is “Who are we?” Since universities are built for the long run and offer a service of lasting value, they are less likely to be lured by trends that promise the moon and stars and won’t quickly change course based on the “fads of the day.” Their leaders have a bias toward change that responds to what they see as significant societal trends and needs and that is in line with their institution’s distinctive mission. It is this long view, coupled with a noble purpose, that has sustained higher education for centuries. Businesses can add substance to the corporate model by defining their mission and purpose (and ceasing to make shareholder profits the sole aim) and thereby sharpen their identity and possibly increase a company’s longevity.

The job of college and university presidents will become even more demanding with inevitable changes to teaching and learning driven by technological possibilities, as well as new forms of financing necessitated by skyrocketing costs (for both the institution and students and their families) and a financial model that is no longer viable. We’ll be wise to look to those who will stand strong amidst all this and lift their institutions and students to new heights. Their wisdom and skills are the future of leadership — in and outside of higher education.