The Unlikely Choice May Be Chosen

Today I have been reflecting on the challenges of leadership and just how difficult it can be when politics enter into those decisions. In my book, “The Unconventional Journey..the Unlikely Choice “, I described my aspirations for leadership in higher education and my own personal doubts about being given a fair chance. I questioned whether or not I would be considered appropriate for the role and wondered whether or not I was well prepared to lead. Four years later, I am honored to serve and frankly believe I am making a difference.

There is so much in the media today about suitability for leadership as we have all become mesmerized by the politics of the race for the Presidency of the United States. It is frustrating, enlightening, and scary all at the same time as we watch on the sidelines to see who rises to the top.

I have also watched the announcements of several new college/university presidents over the last few months. Most assumed their roles over the summer with a few others being announced to start later in the fall. Unfortunately, there are politics in higher education as well, and I am familiar with just how powerful these politics can be with some unintended consequences of derailing institutional progress and effectiveness.

I am now in my fifth year as president of Des Moines University (DMU) so clearly I can no longer be called the new president. The excitement of the role and the calling to the presidency, however remains, as I continue to feel good about what I do.

At DMU we are looking forward to launching the next 3 years of our plan for the future and we will link strategic thinking to setting priorities to build a case for campaigning for new resources. We are moving forward and the momentum is with us.

As I listen to all the political pundits who are debating appropriateness for leadership, both national as well as local, I find myself reflecting on my selection as the 15th president of Des Moines University.

For most of us, preparing for these roles takes a life time commitment, often tolling in the trenches, seeking new experiences, educating ourselves, all to anticipate expectations for the next level. As for higher education, not all of us follow the traditional path to the presidency and I have described my unconventional journey in my recently published memoir. Whereas, I spent my entire career in higher education, I frankly thought I may be an unlikely choice for president, not so much because I had not prepared myself, but more because of politics and stereotype threat.

So, as reflected in my book, I did not think I would be hired because of my own stereotypical thinking. Yet, all around the country well qualified candidates vie for senior academic administrative positions. Some are well prepared in the traditional sense whereas others less so. And, there are candidates with strong leadership skills who come from outside of the academy.

I believe the choice made typically boils down to timing and fit. What does the institution need now? What type leader do we need now? .. And, what is different about what we need now versus what we may have needed before?

Then, there is the issue of fit…..what is the right style and dynamic that the organization needs.? Is it restoring leadership from strength of academic background or is it more appropriate to have corporate, business expertise to drive the institution forward?

Actually, lay public, and those of use looking from the sidelines may never know the conversations behind closed doors about why a decision was made. The powers that be usually have a better perspective on what is needed now and what is a better fit.

Once the decision is made, however, the onus is on the nominee to step up and lead… build the support within the organization with his or her own unique brand of leadership.Once the job begins, I can tell you, you are in a fish bowl, and every move, every word, every action will be viewed and scrutinized.

I am pleased to be at this place now, five years into my administration. There are always bumps in the road, but it is usually best to start at a place of excitement and hope……then work to build a collective vision for the future.
I will refrain from making any further statement about the challenges of leadership and the suitability of candidates for THE President of the United States. Actually, the Unlikely Choice just may be chosen there as well!

On the other hand, I wish the best to all the “newbie” presidents in higher education who have been Chosen. I hope you will … 1) Be dogged in your determination to do the right thing , 2) persevere and stand on principles of integrity, 3) focus on building good relationships , and 4) remember the Golden Rule. You may be lucky and get a honeymoon phase but the challenges are inevitable and as you enter the “trials and tribulation” phase, stand strong in your leadership. For, ultimately, it is always about the institution and whether or not you can really make a difference.

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