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A World in Need of Leaders: NEAIR 2003A World in Need of Leaders: NEAIR 2003
President Peggy Ryan Williams

2003 North East Association for Institutional Research Conference
Newport, Rhode Island, November 16, 2003

I am honored to have been invited to speak with you today.

I will spend the next 20 minutes discussing my thoughts on leaders and leadership.  I will include the findings of a leadership survey, summarize the thoughts of one of today’s most respected authors on the subject, and give you a look at how the leadership process works at Ithaca College.  Finally, I will share my personal thoughts on what I believe a leader is and what a leader should be.  

Leadership is a topic of great interest to me.

It is also a subject of interest to people around the world.  If you search the Internet for the term "leadership" on Yahoo!, you will get more than 27 million web links.  If you search Amazon.com, you will get nearly 14,000 book titles on the subject.

Why are we so fascinated with leaders and leadership? Every one of us is affected by good or bad leadership every day of our lives. We greatly admire good leaders and feel sorely disappointed when our leaders fail us.  Most of us believe that we live in a world in need of more good leaders.

What leaders do you admire?  Mahatma Gandhi?  Martin Luther King?  Rosa Parks?  Harriet Tubman?  Parker Palmer? Abraham Lincoln?  George Washington? Eleanor Roosevelt?  Warren Buffett?  Stephen Covey?  The Dalai Lama?

When I recently asked a woman on the Ithaca College campus what leader she admired, she mentioned David Smith.  His name I do not expect you to recognize.  Nor do I expect most of you to recognize another person whom I consider to be a role model for leaders.  Her name is Pai.  I will tell you more about David and Pai a little later.

First, perhaps we should define what a leader is.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a leader is someone followed by others.  The dictionary further defines leadership as direction, guidance, control, management, and supervision.  Personally, I do not find either definition very inspiring.

I prefer to think of leadership as a means of affecting positive change to achieve a challenging goal.  Likewise, a leader is a person who stimulates positive change to take place.  Put more simply, I would define a leader as a catalyst or agent of change.

Let us consider other points of view.  For example, International Survey Research of Chicago (ISR) recently queried more than 360,000 employees at 40 companies.  As a result of this research, ISR concluded that an effective leader has six qualities:1

  • An effective leader provides direction, has clear goals and objectives, and possesses an inspiring vision of what she wants her organization to be.
  • A successful leader is respectful and therefore includes employees in his thinking.  He recognizes the values that their diverse talents and perspectives bring.
  • A good leader keeps employees informed about plans and progress.  She communicates promptly and regularly about important matters that affect employees.
  • An effective leader promotes ethics and standards to which they want their organization to subscribe.  His own decisions and behaviors are consistent with these ethics and standards.
  • Effective leaders cut through bureaucracy and red tape to establish clear action, plans, and priorities.  They make prompt decisions to ensure that their company achieves -- and maintains -- a lead position in the marketplace.
  • Finally, according to ISR, an effective leader cultivates a management style that encourages employees to give their best.  She sets an example which her employees are motivated to emulate.

I cannot argue with these conclusions.  All of them make sense.  In an ideal world, all leaders would exhibit these six characteristics.  However, I think there is a problem with ISR's conclusion.  The basic premise is that leaders are people in a position of power at the top of the organizational structure.

That is not how I define a leader. I will go into more detail about that in a minute when I discuss David Smith and Pai.

I admire the work of Daniel Goleman.  His best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, and his more recent book, Primal Leadership, are insightful.  In essence, he says that emotional intelligence is more powerful and more important to good leadership than IQ or analytical skills.  He says that a person’s ability to work well with others is the critical characteristic of an effective contemporary leader.

Goleman says there are five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.2  In other words, how someone connects with, or resonates with, another person makes the difference between being an effective and ineffective leader.

  • Goleman defines self-awareness as the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as the effect they have on others.
  • He defines self-regulation as the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses or moods.  Self-regulation allows you to suspend judgment and to think before you act.
  • Goleman defines motivation as a passion for work for reasons that go beyond money or status, and a desire to pursue goals with energy and persistence.
  • He defines empathy as the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people, and he lauds those with the ability to treat people according to their emotional reactions.
  • Finally, he defines social skills as the abilities to manage relationships and build networks.  These abilities enable the individual to find common ground and build rapport.

Goleman quantified the results of his research, concluding that emotional intelligence is twice as important as technical skills and IQ.  He also concluded that 90 percent of the difference between so-called star leaders and average leaders was attributable to their emotional intelligence over cognitive abilities.

Goleman’s work is groundbreaking, and I admire him for it.  However, I take issue with Goleman’s definition of what constitutes a leader, just as I did with the ISR study.  In both instances, the focus was on executive-level leaders, a person in a position of power and authority at or near the top of their organization.

I prefer to think of a leader as a person who stimulates positive change, who helps the organization meet its goals and realize its strategic vision, no matter where that person resides in the organization.  My definition assumes that everyone in an organization is capable of leading.

Don’t get me wrong.  The vast majority of people working at colleges or universities are not leaders today, nor are they encouraged to lead.  Without guidance, hard work, and, most of all, commitment and encouragement, they are unlikely to emerge as leaders.

When I joined Ithaca College as president in 1997, I was asked what my vision was for the institution.  I think I unnerved some people by replying that I did not have one.  To be honest, I did not want to answer the question.  I certainly had my opinions.  But I felt that it was wrong for me to answer the question without first asking others for their opinion.

Thus, one of the first things I did as president was to invite 25 people from across the campus community to work with me to decide what our vision should be.  Then I asked them to devise a plan for realizing our vision.

These 25 people would become members of what we call the Planning and Priorities Committee.  I then rounded out the group by adding still more people to the committee to ensure that we had a good mix of people who represented the diverse interests and perspectives of the whole community.

In total, 45 people participated in a retreat to identify our key planning priorities.  We came away with nine areas for Ithaca College to address, from enrollment and academic program development to facilities, diversity, and technology.

But that was just the start.  The committee solicited help and input from more than 400 other people affiliated with the College, including students, faculty, alumni, even trustees, to tackle each of the nine priorities.

They then developed a list of goals for each priority and invited everyone on campus to speak up, debate, and express their ideas and points of view about them.

Eighteen months later, we had an institutional plan in place.  The plan was the result of a process that was visible to all and one that invited everyone to participate.  As a result, when it was rolled out and presented for all the world to see, it received widespread support.

Everyone had had a chance to weigh in on it.  The entire campus community had a sense of ownership.  It was their vision.  It contained their goals.  They had laid out for themselves the path Ithaca College would take into the future and had agreed on what that future should look like.  At the conclusion, everyone who participated in the process could say with pride, “We did it ourselves.”

As part of the Institutional Plan, we increased our emphasis on staff development.  A key initiative was to create a leadership development program open to everyone on campus.  And so we kicked it off, reviewing admissions to the program from people who nominated themselves, as well as from people who were nominated by others. 

The leadership development program is now in its second year and has graduated 48 new leaders -- leaders from the grounds and maintenance crew, the library sciences, communications, and legal and office support roles.  Inviting people from all levels of the organization to attend the program is consistent with my notion that leaders can emerge from anywhere.

We now have 48 leaders we did not already have.  People who, as Parker Palmer would say, cast light instead of shadow.  People who seek to understand before being understood.  People who take home with them their new-found emotional intelligence skills and use them in all aspects of their lives.

That’s where David Smith comes in.  You will recall that David was named by a woman on campus when I asked her what leader she admired.

What I find so interesting about David is that, while he has always been a superb functional expert and manager, he was not considered to be a leader by others, nor did he see himself as one.

After a year in the leadership development program David had changed.  How do I know?  Because people in his department, including his supervisor, approached the program director without being asked to tell her that David had changed.  They were deeply impressed with how he had renewed himself.

David had clearly developed some of the emotional intelligence skills that Daniel Goleman would appreciate.  He came to understand the difference between a manager and a leader.  He gained a new appreciation of the value of good coaching.  Most important of all, he learned to listen much better.  He solicited other people’s opinions and considered their opinions before making decisions.  He noticed that his new, inclusive approach made people more open to him.  They better understood his view of things.

I have mentioned Ithaca College’s institutional planning process and our leadership development program to illustrate what I believe in my heart.  I can accomplish nothing without the support, drive, enthusiasm, and understanding of people from across the Ithaca College community.  It is not my College.  It is an institution loved by thousands of people, myself included.

It is my place to help people who love the institution to find their way.  We will work together to advance our collective thinking.  It is my place to ask questions.  It is my place to listen with an open mind.  I do not always have to agree with people, but I have to understand them and respect them.

It is my place to see their potential and help them realize it.  Leadership development consultant Linda McCann says that the role of the leader is to help us when we’re in trouble, to improve morale and productivity, and to solve conflicts.3  That is all true.  However, it is also my role to set an example for balance, for tolerance, for open-mindedness, and for patience. It is my role to help everyone on campus to connect with the life, heritage, and meaning of Ithaca College. Finally, it is my role to help the campus community to be excited about making Ithaca College even better.

This brings us to Pai, whom I mentioned earlier as a leader I much admire.

Pai is the main character in the movie Whale Rider, a modern-day myth of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.  It is the story of an emotional journey of Pai to become the leader of her impoverished tribe.

Pai, a young girl, is discouraged at every turn from participating in the life of her people as a leader.  Yet it is she who succeeds in connecting her people with their past through myths and her own heroic determination.

In describing Pai’s impact on her people, Rick Lash, a management development expert and psychologist, said, “Each of us carries the hero within us that seeks to take on difficult challenges, driven by an inner passion that transcends our current challenges and self-doubts, a hero who seeks to achieve the impossible and who is willing to suffer the hardships, setbacks, and loneliness of the journey in order to realize that deep, inner calling.”4

Pai modeled the values, courage, and determination her people needed to see in order to regain their heritage.  That’s what leadership is all about.

Rick Lash said, “Like Pai, perhaps the corporate leader’s true role is to remind people once again of their calling and summon them on that journey.”

I do not have Pai’s youth on my side, but I do have a strong desire to help the Ithaca College community stay connected to its past while writing a new chapter in its history.

I think Lou Gerstner said it well in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?  “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game -- it is the game.  In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”5

I agree.  I believe that every person in every organization is critical to its well-being.  And I believe that everyone has the ability to be a leader.  Everyone has the ability to help their organization to change, to achieve strategic goals, and to stimulate others to change and advance the mission.

When it works, the entire organization becomes organic and moves ahead together.  The potential that could be realized in any organization -- if a greater percentage of people were rowing in the same direction -- is monumental.

Sadly, we rely on too few of our people to lead.  This is borne out by a 2001 survey of Canada’s Conference Board, which found that only two percent of its members believed that they had the leadership capacity to implement major change.6  Two percent, a disappointing figure, is down from a confidence level of only five percent in 1999.  In other words, we rely on a fraction of the people in our institutions to lead us forward.  That is not sufficient.  It need not be so limited.

You, as experts in institutional research, for example, have the expertise and knowledge of the facts and figures that are critically important to your institutions.  You have knowledge that can be used to inform people in your organization and help them make better decisions.  You have the ability to provide the analysis and illumination of critically important information that others simply cannot see.

I believe your value is endorsed by Lou Gerstner, who said, “Good strategies start with massive amounts of quantitative analysis, hard, difficult analysis that is blended with wisdom, insight, and risk-taking.”7

That’s where I believe you come in.  It is where you become a leader. By helping others to see what you see, you advance the cause.

I sincerely believe that every person in a college or university can advance its mission, can break new ground, can push boundaries, can take risks, and can both stimulate and inspire their colleagues and customers to achieve new heights.

To quote the writer, teacher, and education advocate Parker Palmer, “Even I, a person who is unfit to be president of anything, who once galloped away from institutions on a high horse, have come to understand that for better or for worse, I lead by word and by deed simply because I am here doing what I do. If you are also here, doing what you do, then you also exercise leadership of some sort.”8

I agree with him and sincerely believe that he is speaking to you.  Your work is vitally important to the success of our institutions.  I hope you all will heed the call, whatever your position and whatever your ultimate career aspirations may be, to become the leaders our institutions need you to be now.


[1] International Survey Research (ISR) of Chicago, "DRIVER Model for Leadership Effectiveness," http://www.isrsurveys.com.

[2] Daniel Goleman, "What Makes a Leader?" Harvard Business Review 76, no. 6 (1998): 93-102.

[3] Mary Lou Santovec, "Overmanaged? Underled? How to Develop Good Leaders." Women in Higher Education 12, no. 6 (2003): 8-9.

[4] Richard Lash, "Share the Wisdom of the Tribe," Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ont.), p. B21, August 29, 2003.

[5] Louis Gerstner, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Inside IBM's Historic Turnaround (New York: Harper Business, 2002), p. 182.

[6] Canada’s Conference Board

[7] Gerstner, p. 223.

[8] Parker Palmer, Leading from Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership (Washington, D.C.: The Servant Leadership School, 1990).