It's Hard to Say Goodbye

Brian Taylor

April 25, 2010

Why do presidents stay too long in a job? Why do they risk their accomplishments—and thus, their legacy—by overstaying their welcome? Is it hubris? Self-deception? Duty? Confusion about what to do next? Fear of mortality? Cluelessness?

Happily, as search consultants, my colleagues and I are not charged with figuring out the whys and wherefores of that all-too-familiar syndrome. But we do find ourselves charged with helping institutions figure out solutions to the leadership dilemma it creates.

Don't misunderstand me: I am a big fan of college and university presidents. Virtually all the ones I know are mission driven, intent upon doing the right thing, and more than adequately self-aware. At least, they are when I meet them, which is, more often than not, when they are hired in the first place. They take office in a flush of excitement, and pour enormous amounts of energy, intellect, and personal capital into what needs to be done for the future of their institutions.

But many don't finish that way.

In the past couple of years, I have had two search assignments that derived from presidents staying too long. In both cases, the incumbents had been viewed as terrifically successful, especially early in their tenures. They had led their institutions—of different types and in different parts of the country—from difficult, even dangerous, circumstances to positions of relative stability, even health. They were celebrated for those accomplishments and destined for honored places in the leadership pantheons of their institutions.

Then they ran out of gas. They stopped going the extra mile to be personally engaged in campus life. They spent more time with family and friends and less at campus events. Rather than sacrifice their personal lives, they spent less time on the road raising money and making friends for their institutions.

Perhaps most problematically, their circle of advisers became narrower and narrower until key decisions seemed to be coming from only an inner circle of close confidants, or worse, from their own imaginations.

The rest is a familiar story. Key constituents lost track of their relationships with the presidents. Preternatural academic politics began to take the place of open discourse. Conspiracy theories abounded, in some cases urged on by the presidents' detractors. The trustees supported the presidents for a while—perhaps too long—justly grateful for services rendered in earlier times. Eventually, however, a combination of turnover on the governing board and a growing volume of campus dissatisfaction eroded trustee confidence and led to departures that were far less gracious than the presidents' overall performance merited.

Certainly, the job itself is no picnic. How many years of 24/7/365 in the fishbowl can one take? How many opportunities does one have to catalyze transformational change? How many times can one make a passionate, compelling case for financial support? How often can one say no? How many family nights, weekends, and vacations can one sacrifice for the sake of the institution? How many miles can one travel? The very responsibilities and environment of the job would seem to give it a built-in obsolescence that is eminently predictable.

Then why do people hang on past their expiration dates?

I can see various reasons, but they all seem to stem from an eroding sense of self-awareness. Presidents—the vast majority of them, anyway—work like mad to position their institutions for greater success. But that work tends to isolate leaders from key constituencies, particularly internal ones.

Presidents are primarily external agents—raising money, working with board leadership, keeping the public profile of the institution high, and so on—and, thus, can become less and less of a presence on their own campuses. They are regularly feted by admiring audiences, and their involvement is sought by other organizations, including in the commercial sector, for their wisdom and judgment. They also tend to have staff members who protect their time and their psyche. Presidents seldom become more accessible as their tenure lengthens. All those factors interfere with a clear-headed sense of the institution and of the self that guided the president at the outset.

How, then, are presidents to maintain—or regain—the sense of perspective that made them so very qualified for the job in the first place?

Presidents need some sort of unfettered, unbiased system of feedback, someone to whisper in their ears, "Remember, thou art mortal." The obvious source would seem to be the governing board, and especially its chair. After all, the board is the president's boss, providing formal and informal advice and charged not with the well-being of the president but with that of the institution. In the optimal scenario, then, the board chair would have the sort of hierarchical and interpersonal relationship with the president that would allow for candid exchange.

In reality, though, boards work that way all too infrequently. Some are highly politicized, with factions taking sides for or against the institution's leadership. Some are absentee, taking the president's word for conditions on the ground at the institution. Some are micromanaging, far too deep in the weeds to observe the entire gestalt and therefore unable to assess the viability of leadership. A great many possess that most attractive human combination of empathy and gratitude that nonetheless leads all too often to tolerance—and inaction.

While it is far from perfect, the presidential-search process may provide some food for thought about presidential performance and efficacy. A standard search is dominated by trustees but involves key groups—faculty members, students, staff members, local leaders, alumni, and so on. Those people not only represent constituencies but are also charged with using their best judgment for the benefit of whole institution. They seek out public opinion, speak candidly about their findings, and come to understand and eventually to prioritize the institution's assets and liabilities in ways that inform the choice of its next leader. Sometimes, search committees hire outside experts to provide impartial guidance and balance out the oft-competing interests of the various constituencies.

Might those same techniques be used to advise a president that it may be time to move on?

Everyone would seem to gain from such an approach. The institution has much greater odds of maintaining and even enhancing the momentum built by a successful and energized president. That president has the opportunity to "re-pot" him or herself before unwittingly breezing past the point of diminishing returns.

Yes, saying goodbye to a cherished leader can be a bittersweet experience. Unfortunately, waiting too long to say it often allows the sweetness to fade.

Dennis M. Barden is a senior vice president and director of the higher-education practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit organizations.