The leader of one of the great breeding grounds of world leaders – Harvard University – earlier this year stepped down in a swirl of controversy and tensions specifically around leadership and management.  Lawrence H. Summers, President of Harvard University, stepped down on 21st February 2006 in what the Summers described as ‘infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future.’

The May-June 2006 issue of Harvard Magazine covered the stepping down in its article “A Presidency’s Early End” which covered the texts of the letters from Summers and the Corporation, a review of the events, but also a series of commentaries from Harvard faculty.  The commentary by Robert d. Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy and past dean of the Kennedy School of Government, articulated the leadership/management imbalance that spelled the downfall to Summers’ prodigious talents and ambitious vision for the school (http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/050697.html):

Achieving such goals requires raw intelligence, which Summers has in abundance. But more crucial to leadership than IQ is the ability to inspire others with your vision and to help them come to see it as their vision, too. You must understand the culture of an institution even as you try to change it. Business Week wrote: “Summers joins the ranks of recent leaders brought in to generate change in organizations only to misfire and fail, [such as] Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard.” Giving orders goes only so far. As the late Richard Neustadt, America’s premier student of the U.S. Presidency, put it: Presidential power is the power to persuade.…

[Summers] came in with much political capital, but frittered it away on battles he did not need to fight. He alienated even those—from all disciplinary and ideological backgrounds—most committed to his goals and to Harvard.

Take one of Summers’ highest priorities—reforming the undergraduate curriculum. Successful curricular reform requires that hundreds of instructors change their behavior in hundreds of classrooms that cannot be policed. The hard part about curricular reform is not finding “the right answer,” because there is no single right answer. The hard part is inspiring and persuading.…

Bold statements and a forceful personality are not enough. Indeed, clumsily applied, boldness and forcefulness can lead to weakness. What was most dispiriting about Summers’s final year to those who shared his values was that he relinquished the capacity to say no, even to bad ideas.…Political correctness was not the root of the problem, and politically correct decisions could not solve it.…

Above all, the power to persuade depends on the capacity to maintain trust. Colleagues need to believe that leaders will not only act honorably but speak truthfully. Once a faculty comes to believe that their president is “less than truthful” (as a former dean reportedly said of this president), the basis for leadership of any kind has vanished.

…Harvard faculty have followed strong leaders in the past, and they will follow them in the future. What Harvard needs now is a boldly reformist leader, but one who actually knows how to make reform happen

Successful executives need to do the ‘right things right’.  Summers bold crusade starkly illustrates the risks Leaders face when not appropriately balanced with effective Management.  Summers himself acknowledges this shortcoming in his resignation letter:  “I have sought for the last five years to prod and challenge the University to reach for the most ambitious goals in creative ways…surely have been times when I could have done this in wiser or more respectful ways.”

 

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