Godwin’s Law

Recently, I was discussing the back-and-forth on the blog in response to my post on our 10KSB students with my son. I was interested in responding to Kamran Swanson’s comment about my style of leadership and whether my use of the Tao Te Ching quote was ironic. My son cautioned me by invoking Godwin’s Law. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or Nazis approaches 1,” advised my son. It is gratifying and humbling to see one’s children articulate wisdom their parents have yet to obtain.

I am hoping to skirt Godwin by posting a new entry to the leadership discussion. Also, given the intensity of comments regarding my selection of a new Vice President, I thought the time might be right to share my thoughts on leadership, and more specifically, my leadership of Harold Washington College.

Professor Swanson himself, after calling attention to his view of the difference between my self-professed “bias toward action” and passive leadership he feels the quote describes, tells us that sometimes Confucius calls for action. I believe that to achieve the ideal the quote describes, one needs to be active, but not necessarily active in the way the Professor is thinking.

I believe my role as HWC’s leader is to create the space, freedom and structures to enable our people to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. To use my old consulting lingo, I want to create frameworks within which people can innovate, educate, counsel and guide our students to success. I believe that the greatest moment of value created at our college is when an instructor connects with a student to change their way of thinking about their life or a set of pre-conceived ideas, whether it be the role of a citizen in a democracy or the structure of the atom. We create other moments of value when advisors connect with students about their academic path; when counselors connect on their emotional and social well-being; when financial aid counselors connect on their financial well-being.

I am not involved in any of these connections. I have had my own highly rewarding connections with students in my short time here. Yet these small number of interactions are dwarfed by the thousands of interactions faculty and staff have with our students. My role as the leader of HWC is to make sure that there is room for those interactions to be enriching, enlightening and transformative. To paraphrase an old BASF commercial, I don’t make the interactions happen; I lead an institution that makes the interactions possible.

What does leading in this context mean? First, it means that I ensure we have the financial and physical resources to host our faculty, staff and students. I spend a lot of my time working on our budget, enrollment, programs, and facilities. While I am active in procuring our budgetary resources for the year, once approved, I delegate the responsibility for managing these resources to the departments, giving them as much autonomy as possible, within the confines of good stewardship of taxpayer resources, to achieve their goals for the year. This is, I feel, a good example of activist leadership creating a framework in which people can then lead for themselves.

Another area that takes a great deal of my time is the selection and development of our people. I spent a lot of time reviewing tenure portfolios this summer. (And yes, Professor Swanson, I read yours, and I must say I was very impressed with your gaming class, and want to talk to you about how we bring it to life more broadly in the college.) I interview every full-time hire to whom we make an offer. I counsel, guide and coach our people. And while at the end of the day our people are doing all the work, it is my job to make sure we have the right people with the right resources to fulfill our mission. This is another example of activist leadership creating the human capital framework in which people can then take credit for accomplishing great things.

Let me wander for a moment and reward those of you who have gotten this far in the post to discuss the recent hire of Margie Martyn, our new VP, which seems to be the hot topic on the Lounge. I believe this hiring process says a great deal about my style as a leader, and it is appropriate for faculty and staff to judge me both on the process of hiring as well as the outcome.

The responsibility for hiring Margie is mine. I did create a search committee to advise me on candidates, but at the end of the process, I am accountable for the hire. Let me posit a hypothetical counterfactual. Let’s say I had hired a candidate who in the judgment of the committee was highly qualified to fill the role, and was highly ranked by the committee, but in my interview revealed her/himself to show a history of treating faculty poorly and fostering unnecessary conflict. A year from now, when confronted with angry faculty who had endured a year of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of this rogue VP, would anyone cut me slack if I said, “Well, I had concerns about this candidate, but the committee rated them highly. You should talk to the search committee if you don’t like the choice.” While the search committee advised me, I am accountable for the hire, not them.

While I would ask the search committee members to respect the privacy of the candidates who applied for the job, they should feel free to share with you their view on the process. Here is my view. In consultation with Dean Sarrafian, we formed a search committee made of up faculty (representing a variety of constituencies), union leaders and members, a student, and administrators. Dean Sarrafian screened resumes and worked with the committee to come up with a list of interview candidates. I screened the resumes as well, and added two names to the six the committee had decided to interview and asked they include them in the interviews, based on my read of their qualifications. I met with the committee early on to share my thoughts on the type of candidate I wanted to see in the role. The committee then interviewed a subset of candidates on a Friday (I bought them lunch, in the interest of full disclosure, but I do not believe it influenced their choices) and afterward, I debriefed with the committee. I wanted to know what they thought about the candidates while the interviews were fresh in their minds.

On Monday I met with the committee again, this time to not only understand their impressions from the second round of interviews, but to share with them my thoughts on the first round candidates I now had had an opportunity to interview. From my standpoint, the discussions were open and honest. I wanted to test my thinking on the candidates and understand if I was missing anything. Finally, after I completed my interviews with the remaining candidates, I met with the committee once again to share my impressions and to once again test my thinking. In my view, and in the view of a few of the committee members, the process was highly transparent in the context of a confidential search. Committee members had ample opportunities to lobby me for their favorites, question me on my thinking, and challenge my statements and ideas. More than one committee member called it the most unusual search in which they had been a part. From my point of view, I conducted the search consistent with my leadership style, which is collaborative and active. I wanted as much open dialogue as possible to make the best pick for the college.

In the end, I made the choice. To answer a few questions from the Lounge, Dr. Martyn received no special treatment because she is married to someone from District Office. In fact, it was a minor negative because I was aware of the potential questions the selection would engender. I went to the Chancellor to tell her that my likely choice was a spouse of a current employee. We discussed it openly. The Chancellor told me that she trusted my leadership and would defer to me if I thought Dr. Martyn was the best choice. As to why I did not select John, I will say only that John has demonstrated grace and class from day one on the job with me, and that continues to this day. I wish him the best in his future role at Wright College and know that he will enrich Wright’s environment as he has enriched ours. I owe John a great deal and am appreciative of his work these past sixteen months. I made a choice consistent with my view of who would best serve where I want us to go in the future.

So I have now created a framework in which Dr. Martyn leads the academic life of our college. If she succeeds brilliantly, as I am confident and hopeful for the sake of HWC she will, then I credit the search committee for advising me so ably and Dr. Martyn for her stellar performance. If she fails, I alone am accountable.

I acknowledge that I fail as often as I succeed in aspiring to live my life by a set of core values. Having gone public with them, and public with my process in choosing a new VP, I welcome people holding me accountable. To the extent HWC is not a place where faculty or staff feel they can operate in the best interests of our students, I want to know about it. Where there are obstacles I can remove that are preventing our faculty or staff’s success, I will remove them. Where we disagree on the definition of success, I pledge to engage and seek to understand. In an effort to reconcile the Swansonian paradox presented at the top of the post, I want to play a very active role in helping people take leadership in their areas of responsibility, all focused on helping our students be successful. If, in the end, the faculty and staff get all the credit and glory, then I will retire content.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

7 thoughts on “Godwin’s Law

  1. In the consulting world it may be common practice to replace personnel if you can find someone you think could do the job better, but in academia this is not a well-regarded practice. Certainly you can find examples of underperforming professionals in academia who have managed to just stick around, but John was an exceptional VP and didn’t deserve this. His status as interim allowed you to replace him with your own choice. Let’s at least call it what it is. While you may perceive yourself as the only one held accountable, this decision impacts us all (not to mention John in a major way). The values and principles that you are conveying with this decision are more in line with a dictatorship than your characterization of collaboration. Callaboration is not lobbying the president to make the decision you would like. A much more ambitious goal would be to strive for callaborative decision making, which is fundamental to effective leadership in higher education. While you have done a commendable job so far, this poor decision is likely to follow you for some time to come. However, I think we all appreciate your effort to explain your decision and to engage in dialogue about the subject.

  2. As a member of the committee, I can corroborate Don’s description of the process. Any unusual aspects of it were steps we willingly agreed to (and, I think, collectively appreciated and benefited from).

    In an email on the subject that I sent just today to my Faculty Council colleagues, I wrote (in part):

    “[M]y experience on the committee was that Don was clear from the beginning that he’d take what we had to say under advisement and that it was his decision to make (which it is). I think he took the decision as well as our concerns, suggestions, advice and deliberations seriously. I think the committee deliberated fairly, thoroughly, thoughtfully, and argued vigorously about and for the various merits (and questions) regarding every single candidate and Don made his choice. And the consequences (potential and real, which were discussed in committee) are his to bear.

    “We did our job, he made his choice, and that’s that. The committee, I think, had the same understanding throughout–we had no illusions that we were picking the VP and the deliberations were educational…

    “As for the committee, I said it at the table, and I’ll say it here…the work we did on that committee was one of the best experiences I’ve had on any committee. I was genuinely surprised at how much I learned from the experience. Initially, I respected everyone on the committee, and I left respecting each member even more than before. I mean, I thought EVERY SINGLE person added a lot to the process and represented themselves and their areas well. I think everyone said what they thought and challenged what they disagreed with (respectfully, intelligently, and forcefully), heard each other, revealed and were open to challenges to their personal commitments/biases. And, I would go as far as to say that while maybe everyone didn’t agree with the choice that Don made, we all had an understanding of why he made it (or at least his professed reasons for making it).”

    Oh, and the committee, chaired by Armen Sarrafian (Dean of Instruction), included Cecilia Lopez (AVC of Academic Affairs and former HW VP), Wendell Blair (Dean of Student Services), Kent Lusk (Director of Finance), Jesu Estrada (Local Union President), Floyd Bednarz (Adjunct Union President), Rosie Banks (Faculty Council President), Brandon Pendleton (HR Director), Irene Castaneda (Career Planning), Rotimi Akindele (HWC Student Body President) and me (ad hoc faculty rep). Nary a shrinking violet among us.

    It was a hard process, not the least because we all know and personally like John, which made things very complicated (at least for me–I suppose I should speak for myself to be safe), but in the end, setting aside the outcome for the moment (no offense to our incoming VP intended), it was for me at least very satisfying. We challenged each other and challenged ourselves to be sure that we sounded the candidates thoroughly and gave our best advice which, in this process, was not simply handing over a list of names, ranked in order, and I think the process was better for that difference. When the committee adjourned I was far from certain about who Don would pick, but I had no complaints about the process at all.

    1. PS: I was referring to Don, too, as well as the other members of the committee, when I wrote this: “I thought EVERY SINGLE person added a lot to the process and represented themselves and their areas well. I think everyone said what they thought and challenged what they disagreed with (respectfully, intelligently, and forcefully), heard each other, revealed and were open to challenges to their personal commitments/biases.”

      He was not merely a silent, passive recipient of our wisdom, but, as he says, was involved in three separate sessions of give and take discussion, asking questions of us and answering our questions, clarifying terms and challenging observations.

      Just in case that wasn’t clear from the above.

      1. PPS: Just to clarify, the “setting aside the outcome” comment in the last section is not intended nor should it be read to express any sort of preference on my part among the candidates (I was unable to attend Dr. Martyn’s interview and besides all of that stuff is confidential).

        I ONLY meant to separate consideration of the process from consideration of the outcome, and with respect to the process, as I say, I was highly satisfied.

        And now I stop.

  3. PhiloDave,
    Are you telling us that the search committee for the vice-president position submitted a ranked list to the president? Before I retired nearly five years ago, the required procedure was to submit a list that was not ranked. Has that requirement changed?

    1. Hi, Glenn.

      No, I meant to say that our process was NOT that for anyone who thought or imagined that it was. The President was involved in discussions all along and so gathered our feedback along the way. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

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