On Leadership

Mar 1 2016

On Leadership

The following is reprinted from an interview with the Center for Leadership Excellence.

March 1, 2016

The Center for Leadership Excellence (CLE) is proud to announce that Provost Tom Katsouleas has agreed to serve as the CLE’s third executive sponsor, along with Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Pat Hogan, and Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. Rick Shannon.

We recently asked the Provost for thoughts on leadership, especially as they pertain to UVA’s approach to shared leadership:

Q: How do you define leadership? (and how can someone who isn’t a manager at UVA demonstrate that they are also a leader)?

A: Leadership is an action taken by an individual or group that influences others to follow; by follow I mean to act similarly or in support of the original action. There are many forms of leadership that fit this definition. Counter intuitively perhaps, a person need not be an extroverted or persuasive speaker to be a leader. Let me offer an example from my background as an engineering faculty researcher. Consider the case of the solitary genius, working on a new discovery in their lab or office. When that result is published, it may change the direction of research of an entire segment of scholars in that field or open a new field. That is very definitely leadership. This is an extreme example, but it does illustrate how leadership does not require line authority, persuasive ability or charisma (though all of these may help.) All it requires are inspired ideas and a vehicle for communicating them.

Q: What are you currently reading/listening to/watching and why?

A: In the last couple of months I have read The Martian, a book on WWII history (Heroes Fight Like Greeks,) and David and Goliath (by Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink.) I also saw Star Warson opening weekend with my kids (their first Star Warsin a theatre!,) a great UVA musical (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) and regularly enjoy The Big Bang Theory(and appreciate that the fancy physics talk is actually right.) I also read a lot of higher education articles and news; most of them forwarded to me by my leadership team. So, it is a big variety. One of my mentors, former USC President Steve Sample, claimed that the reading most valuable to his leadership was English literature. His point was that reading is less about specific knowledge than breadth of perspective and understanding of human behavior. Of course, you can’t take that advice too literally or you will never read his book (A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership) to find it!

Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

A: I have received so much good advice over the years, it is hard to know where to start. So much of it depends on the situation. But here are a few that stand out:

1. "Leaders are not always right, but they are always clear.” [To this I would add that you need to be right often enough, and about the most important things.]

2. One of the best paths to leadership is to strive to bring extra value to every team activity that you either lead or become part of. [This is my version of “The best way to make more than you get is to be worth more than you make.” Another version is: “Ideally, you want to be doing well the job you want to get.”] That generally gets noticed and the next time an expanded leader role is needed (very often,) people will remember you were helpful before and would probably be helpful to the organization again. Several of my mentors, including Duke President Dick Brodhead, have said that their original goal was simply to introduce improvements to their department where they observed they were needed; not to occupy some high administrative office. Look where Dick ended up!

3. A business school dean once told me that initiatives fail for 3 reasons: The leader is too near, too far, or places blame. Too near refers to not allowing the other members of the team to enjoy and feel ownership of the project. Too far refers to not being there with reassurance and guidance when doubt and uncertainty grip the venture. Placing blame is obvious — criticism is corrosive. One of the best pieces of advice I received along this line is: “Praise in public; criticize in private.” [To this I would add, constructively when necessary, and in person, not by email.]

4. Finally, one of the things I learned from one of my research mentors is to think one level beyond the immediate team goal. If the goal is to be the leading group in the field of laser accelerators, ask yourself what question you could answer or goal achieve that would elevate the stature of the field of laser accelerators (including the competitor groups) within all of engineering and science? The analog in your unit might be to ask not just how my unit could succeed, but what might it do to elevate the whole program around you? How can your group become a driver for all of UVA’s goals?