New York Times

Drew Gilpin Faust: Leadership Without a Secret Code

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, says leaders need to communicate that there is nothing mysterious about their roles.

Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, says leaders need to communicate that there is nothing mysterious about their roles.

Published: November 01, 2009

This interview with Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Do you remember the first time you became somebody's boss or supervisor?

A. I became chair of the department of American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, and so it would have been in 1980. But a department chair is an interesting kind of boss, because it's not clear that academics have an understanding of the notion of "boss." So it's a little bit different from having a purely administrative role in an organization.

I had been trained in the department, and yet I thought it was time to shift its focus somewhat, in its relationship to changes in the field, in relationship to changes in the university.

I was pushing for change in an organization that had produced me and that had a tremendous amount of loyalty to what it had been. So there was a friction that emerged from that early on and a sense of resistance to change, and I needed to cultivate a willingness to change. That was an interesting set of obstacles, hurdles to be faced with early on.

One thing I learned, though, very soon, was that people impute all kinds of things to leaders, and sometimes it's thinking of them as disproportionately powerful, and imagining them to be much more transcendently significant in what they can accomplish, to have many more tools and weapons than they actually do.

Another is to imagine that they have all kinds of designs or purposes that they may or may not have. So communication seemed to me something very important from early on, so that people not have that sense of mystery about what a leader is up to.

Q. And was there a moment where you learned that lesson about people imputing things to you?

A. I remember being told by members of the department that it was clear that I was out to hire so and so, who had been my student, and it never occurred to me to hire so and so. I wondered what I'd done to make it seem clear to them that I had this design, when I had no such design at all.

Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you've learned?

A. I think the most important leadership lessons I've learned have to do with understanding the context in which you are leading. Universities are places with enormously distributed authority and many different sorts of constituencies, all of whom have a stake in that institution. You're always interacting with them, learning from them and directing your energies toward helping to pull and push them in the direction you wish to move.

Q. How do you do that?

A. I spend a huge amount of time reaching out to people, meeting with people, trying to move around the campus, either literally or digitally, and with alumni networks all over the world, so that I can connect. Leadership by walking around - that's not just a space anymore, that's a digital space, it's virtual space. So an enormous amount of my job is listening to people, trying to understand where they are, how they see the world so that I can understand how to mobilize their understanding of themselves in service of the institutional priorities.

So it might be meeting with students in a house over dinner. It might be giving a speech to a live audience, taking Q.& A. with that audience, but then projecting that across the Internet so any alumnus or alumna, anyplace in the world, can log in and also send in a question, as well.

It might be having an ice cream social the day I took office, inviting the entire university to come and have ice cream in Harvard Yard, on July 1, 2007, which thousands of them did, so that I could shake a hand, look in an eye, say a name and try to be a person, to be a real person.

Q. But with so many different constituents, you can't make everybody happy.

A. No, you don't make everybody happy, but I believe that if people feel they were listened to, that their views were taken into account, that they had a chance to show you the world from their point of view, they're going to be much more likely to go along with a decision.

Q. How did you learn to do that?

A. When I came to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one of the things that I found most helpful and interesting about my job was how many people there were all over Harvard University who wanted to help.

There's one alum who was an expert in turnarounds, and so I asked him, "What should I do?" He said, "One lesson about change in any organization - communicate, communicate, communicate." So I still think about that all the time, and the scale of communication from the president's office is a very much more elaborate one. It's a bigger scale. You've got to communicate in different ways.

I also spent a lot of time talking with people at the business school. Kim Clark, who was the business school dean at that time, was very helpful. The fundamental principle of Kim Clark's advice, though, could be summed up in, "Invest in people, recognize that you are in the people business and you want to try to support people and make people able to do their best."

For example, one of the things he was a very big advocate of was Harvard's shift to promoting from within, not just hiring stars and having a junior faculty that didn't stay, which had been the custom in an earlier time. Kim said: "You need to have everybody believe in the organization. You need to have everybody think that they're part of it, and they're being invested in, as well as being asked of." So that was one major lesson from Kim that sticks with me.

Q. Who else have you learned from?

A. I found some of Michael Porter's work really helpful. I've gotten to be quite friendly with him. We have breakfast from time to time, and he says, "Just tell me what's on your mind and we'll think about it," which is a wonderful, wonderful help. When I was at Radcliffe, I remember coming across some of his writings, and one phrase in particular was, "Strategy is what you don't do."

For me, at the Radcliffe Institute, where I had to get rid of things and change things in order to reconstruct Radcliffe College into a new entity, that phrase just stuck in my head. "Strategy is what you choose not to do." That's very important.

Q. Anything else you learned from him?

A. Well, I asked him to run a session at the first deans' retreat of my presidency. I said to him that one of my goals was to build more cohesiveness and integration across Harvard to make it really one university, and to help these deans help me invest in that notion. So we talked about what he might do at that meeting to enhance my goal and enable me to move the deans, as a group, toward that.

So one of the questions he asked that deans' group is one that I've returned to again and again. He said to the deans of the individual schools, "How does being part of Harvard University give you an unfair advantage?" What he meant by that is if you're Harvard Law School or Harvard Medical School, how are you able to be a better medical school or better law school - in other words, to do your job as a dean better, to meet your own aspirations as dean of your school better - because you're part of this larger organization.

And it was just the right question for what I wanted to accomplish, because it allocated to the deans both a self-interest in buying into the larger university purposes but also the aspiration of thinking about how we all can be better together, through making schools more integrated, making the university a part of how we think about how the individual schools operate.

Q. And what about historical figures?

A. One of the things that I've thought a lot about with Lincoln is how he dealt with people. Partly what Doris Kearns Goodwin has written about is at the heart of this, which is a team of rivals, bringing different people together. But what I take from that effort is that Lincoln would not allow someone to be his enemy. You just were hard-pressed to be mad at him, because he'd be after you, again, in a way that used his power, his charm and his intelligence to bring you around, to be an ally.

So I've thought about that a lot, as I've thought about the politics of the university and having to deal with people who might disagree with you, who might not like your decisions, to not let that turn into enmity, but to always bring people back around to being contributors.

Q. How do you hire?

A. Well, one of the major jobs of the Harvard president is to choose the deans. I've had the opportunity to choose a considerable number of deans already, so I've learned a lot in the process in doing it. I think, for me, the most important quality as it emerges in conversation is somebody who is about the institution and understands how his or her personal ambition can be marshaled in service of something that's bigger than that person's purposes. Loving the institution and understanding organizations are two key aspects I look for.

Q. And are there phrases that you're listening for?

A. I like "we" instead of "I." I like people who get excited when they're telling me how they see the future.

Q. Given your role, I imagine that people are not shy about giving you feedback about your leadership style.

A. One lesson I've learned has to do with communication. Someone would say, "Well, you've never talked about X," and I'd say, "I've talked about that here, here, here. I talk about that all the time." Then I realize that "all the time" isn't enough. You have to do "all the time," and more.

Q. Even though you feel as if you're repeating yourself over and over?

A. Yes, and that's another thing. As a scholar, you don't want to repeat yourself ever. You're supposed to say it once, publish it, and then it's published and you don't say it again. If someone comes and gives a scholarly paper about something they've already published, that's just terrible. As a university president, you have to say the same thing over and over and over. That's very important.

Q. What's your best career advice?

A. I never planned my career. I never planned to be president of Harvard. People would have thought I was crazy, probably, at the age of 8 or 10 or 20, if I had said that. So what I would say to people planning their careers is to be ready to improvise. Be ready to follow up on opportunities as they unfold. Be ready to jump in directions you never thought you were going to jump if that is what unfolds before you. Watch for the opportunities.

A longer transcript is at /business.

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