When those in a senior leadership role – that is, in a position that assumes some level of authority, responsibility and thus leadership – do not lead, someone will always fill the vacuum; someone will lead and as often as not it is not someone in a genuine position of authority and responsibility and thus not someone who is accountable for their leadership.
Many years ago now I stepped into the office of the president of an institution where I served and made the point blank observation: “either you lead and do what needs to be done, as the president, or someone else is leading.” And that someone else did not reflect either authorized leadership or accountable leadership or leadership that in the end reflected the core values of the institution. As the president, I essentially said, you need to do what only the president can and must do when it comes to those action items that necessarily fall on the desk or the person who has the senior leadership role in the organization.
Leadership needs to be accountable and transparent. We must reject any thought that the only kind of leadership is that where a person has to be autocratic or lead by executive fiat. Consultation is imperative with all those who might be affected by a decision. But then, leadership still needs to happen.
Two examples where leadership get’s co-opted. In so many academic institutions, presidents or principals will defer to the chief financial officer. They will claim, even, that the CFO has the final say on the budget but not then note that this necessarily means that the CFO is the de-facto leader of the institution. As one person recently put it to me about a president he worked with: he would “hide behind” the CFO, so that he did not need to take the heat for a difficult decisions. But also the key issue here is not merely the transparency and accountability question, but also that the president is tasked with the keeping the organization on mission. And ultimately all financial decisions are questions of mission. The budget serves the mission; thus the person ultimately responsible for the mission has to have the capacity to make the final call on budget matters. And then, of course, acknowledge this and live with the fall out of those decisions.
This can be difficult to manage, of course, if the CFO assumes that he/she should have the final say and given that boards will often defer to their CFO on critical financial questions. But if the working relationship between the CFO and the President is healthy, with honest conversation and shared values, where the CFO will let the president be the president, the net outcome is always a healthier institution.
And second, every organization will have those who assume a kind of entitlement that, in their mind, should privilege their voice. Perhaps it is longevity within the institution or perhaps other factors, such as their self- perceived unique or special qualifications, have them assuming that they have defacto veto power on decisions or that they have an inside voice or influence. Sometimes they lead by intimidation – the bully. Sometimes they lead by a dogged persistence – at the mike at the general meeting or in a board meeting or faculty meeting speaking again and again to their point until they get their way. Sometimes they use emotional manipulation or play on fear to get their way. Either way, what is happening is that someone is leading or trying to lead and the person who is supposed to lead is either not willing to challenge them or not wanting the emotional pain that will come in disappointing them.
And so, we have to say to one another – and I say it to myself as the president of a university: in my situation, what is needed from the president by way of actions and decisions that if I do not make those decisions, if I do not do what needs to be done, someone else is essentially doing the leading and more than happy to lead and get their way? This is not a comfortable place to be; who does not like to have to avoid the difficult policy or personnel decision that will bring stress and grief and perhaps anger from this or that quarter? But, this is part, at least, of what it means to provide senior leadership.