• August 30, 2015

The Right Kind of Nothing

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Two qualities characterize an academic administrator. The first is a capacity to take responsibility. The second is a need for control. Your position on those two dimensions determines how effective you can be as a manager, and for how long.

The most successful administrators—the ones who accomplish the most and don't burn out—have an enormous sense of responsibility but a very small need for control. And they know just when to do the right kind of nothing. Let me tell a story to illustrate, and then explain what I mean.

In which I try to steal a euro. Last summer, I lived in Bavaria, in southern Germany, for four months. I don't speak German, and was reduced to watching how people did things. The biggest problems were situations that seemed like cultural cognates, where the proper behavior seemed predictable. Like going to a grocery store.

In Europe, grocery stores require cart deposits. You put a euro in a slot to (paraphrasing Ray Charles) unchain your cart. Return the cart, get your euro back. It's a fine system.

But I knew nothing of it. And I didn't know that I didn't know.

Well, an elderly woman was pushing her cart back toward the rack. I couldn't speak to her, but I pantomimed that I would save her the trouble of returning it. Her reaction surprised me: She scowled, and then dodged left and right. I had the angle on her, though, and cut her off, grabbing at the cart.

She surprised me even more by screaming. And then a large policeman ran up and started yelling at me. I tried to explain that I didn't speak German. He shouted, "What are you doin'?" The uber-Oma (she was five feet tall, in heels) rammed the cart into the rack, chained it, got her euro, and held it aloft, a gleaming talisman of victory.

I explained to the policeman that I didn't know about the deposit and that in the United States, carts are loose. He was still giving me the stink eye and asked for my identification. Since carrying a passport in town meant I risked losing it, all I had were my U.S. driver's license and my Duke University faculty ID. The cop said, "You are at Duke? Really? My nephew went there for business school, the executive program." Turns out the officer had been in the German military before retiring to police work and had lived near U.S. bases for years. I was lucky.

Half-smiling, but not looking around, the cop said: "She's still watching, isn't she?" I glanced over and saw uber-Oma, peering at us from behind a post. I nodded.

And the policeman said, "OK, here's what we are going to do." And then he started yelling, shaking his head angrily, and thumping my chest with his finger: "I'M PRETTY SURE SHE DOESN'T SPEAK ENGLISH. SO IF YOU JUST LOOK SCARED, I THINK THIS WILL END OUR BUSINESS TOGETHER HERE TODAY." I nodded, much abashed. The cop walked away. Uber-Oma gave me a final frosty nod and marched back to her car. I went shopping, putting groceries in my pack. Then I went home to hide in my bathtub.

Responsibility and control. After a while, I recovered a bit, though of course I still felt like an idiot. Then it struck me that the policeman had illustrated the two main principles of effective public service. And administration in a university or college setting definitely should be thought of as public service. It is certainly not why most of us went to graduate school.

So let's return to those two fundamental principles of good academic administrators:

  • Have an expansive capacity to take responsibility. If something is bad, or even just not very good, try to make it better. Don't even think about whether it is your fault; just ask yourself, "Could this be done better?" And do it with a roving eye, nothing too big, and nothing too small.
  • Have a sharply circumscribed need for control. There are many things you won't be able to fix. And of the things that can be fixed, other people may have to do the fixing. Giving orders and taking personal control of everything are likely to make your administrative career frustrating and short.

That's all there is to it. Every minute of every day, ask yourself, and those around you, "Could this be done better? Are we doing this the right way, and getting the most done for our expenditures of time and money?" Whether you are designing a new science quad or picking up trash in an old quad, try to look at everything around you as if it were new. Forget things you know, and learn something.

And then, let it go. If it turns out that you don't need to take action, and that things are moving in the right direction, move to something else. Sure, it will be hard for you to take personal credit for the improvement. Worse, things may not turn out the way you would have done them. But letting go of the need for control acts as an enormous force multiplier: You can be in many places at once because others have taken ownership through your leadership.

The German policeman could easily have just decided that I was trying to steal a euro from an old lady. In fact, that is just what I was doing, albeit unknowingly. But he asked a few questions, learned more about the situation, and then realized that he could fix all this simply and neatly by doing a particular kind of nothing, the right kind of nothing. He was immediately responsible for solving the problem, but recognized that he need not take control and decide who was right, who won and who lost.

If at the end of your day as an administrator, you do the right kind of nothing, and everyone around you is happier and more productive, that's a good day.

Michael C. Munger is chair of political science at Duke University, a position he has occupied since 2000.


1. sanworker - January 07, 2010 at 06:32 am

This is laugh-out-loud funny, and very wise. As an administrator sometimes wearied by the tedium of administration, you help me remember that such work can actually be creative and rewarding. Many thanks!

2. jeff1 - January 07, 2010 at 07:21 am

Michael, this is great advice. Of course the Seinfeld approach of doing nothing is the right way to go. The work of administration is incredibly fun and rewarding in my view. That said, it is not always possible to do nothing or the right nothing given most of us report to someone who may require action and sometimes specific actions. I have been a VPAA for the past ten years and your simple advice about taking responsibility and attempting to improve things are well taken.

3. tridaddy - January 07, 2010 at 09:54 am

At a previous institution of employment, the administrators of the college lived by the motto "High Intensity, Low Attachment". We went about our job tasks with vigor and enthusiasm, but knew and were willing to let go of control. Since moving on to a university administrative position, I cannot count the times I've repeated that motto (mantra) as a way to re-ground my approach to dealing with a variety of issues. Nice article.

4. tac3017874742 - January 07, 2010 at 10:46 am

Great story and your advice is on the money as far as I'm concerned. The one place where this approach may not cut it is when your immediate supervisor is a "church lady egotist" who want to take credit for everything and wants you to do everything right away not matter what the real priority of the matter is. I have enjoyed most of my higher education administrative experiences in three countries (i.e., USA, Canada and the UAE) and there are real distinctions to be found in each of these countries in relation to how such a "take action and not control" style of administration is viewed. Variety has been the spice of life for me in my career and I wouldn't have it any other way.

5. gnickles - January 07, 2010 at 11:50 am

Great story except for this one thing, and maybe I missed something here. I do get the point about control and responsibility, but I think the anecdote undercuts the message: Up close, both players knew what was going on. There was an agreement between the two that one would look chastened and perhaps, into the bargain, stupid. Imagine this scenario played out in a department meeting. Public humiliation, no matter what the agreement between authority and employee, is a raw deal.

6. ambicatus - January 07, 2010 at 02:25 pm

Agreed that this would be nice, but you are assuming that the answer to "could this be done better" is going to be provided by someone with the ability to accurately answer (let along assess the need for improvement) the question. I'm not so confident that the ones asking the question are the ones who should be providing the answers.

7. robjenkins - January 07, 2010 at 03:16 pm

I really like your theory, Michael, and I've certainly found it to be true. We could even take it a step further and devise a Covey-type grid, with four quadrants:

1) high responsibility, high control
2) high responsibility, low control
3) low responsibility, low control
4) low responsibility, high control

Those in quadrant 2, as you say, make the best administrators, while those in quadrant 4 make by far the worst--the ones who are hated by everyone else. (You could also argue that that's the largest single group.) Quadrant 1 administrators are often well-liked, or at least appreciated, but tend to burn out early or experience health problems. Quadrant 3's may be well-liked, because they leave everyone alone, but they aren't respected and eventually fail because, essentially, they're lazy.

In short, I think you have a book here. You could even change the word "administrator" to "leader" and include CEO's, politicians, etc. It might not sell as many copies as "7 Habits," but who knows?

Whether you ever write that book or not, thanks for the column. It was a great read.

Best wishes,
Rob Jenkins

8. new_theologian - January 08, 2010 at 03:26 pm

I agree with Jenkins' comments. In particular, I have seen the damaging effects of the low responsibility/high control (LRHC) type. It destroys morale, and is counter-productive in other ways, by refusing to allow people to contribute from their true strengths. Good leaders know they look good when the people they manage do well. Bad leaders are afraid to let others receive credit, because they imagine that it makes them (the leaders) look bad or upstaged. If we've hired the right people, and delegated authority (and control) responsibly, however, we should be able to trust that these people will know, more or less, the best steps to take in advancing the vitality of the community. This is what shared governance is really all about, isn't it? It's not pure democracy, but it's the recognition that if the faculty are competent in their fields, they'll have a very good idea about what to teach, how to teach it, to whom, etc., and what sorts of resources and time they will need to meet the full panoply of their obligations responsibly. A good administrator respects this expertise, and understands that the faculty have to have a say in determining what the reasonable demands upon their time and energy would be--what the threshold is between maximum contribution and exploitation leading to burn-out and collapse. It's a matter of recognizing human dignity, valuing it, and realizing that by defending it, the administrator will fulfil his own responsibilities best.

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