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'To Nourish Hope: A Leader’s First Job'

President Denise Trauth
April 17, 2009

Today I want to talk about leadership in a period when the future seems more uncertain than at any point in my adult life.

Yogi Berra used to say “the future ain’t what it used to be,” and, oddly, we know what he means and agree! In this context, I want to share five characteristics of a good leader.

Communicate and listen

My first point is that good leaders communicate. This is the simplest-sounding point I’ll make today – and the hardest to do. Allow me to pass on to you some observations that I have made over the years about effective organizational communication.

Good communication means avoiding the fear trap because fear proliferates in the absence of good communication. Rumors replace facts, and rumors are worse than facts.

Another observation is the wisdom of transparency. With the media today, everything is public anyway, so you might as well make transparency work for you.

In today’s world, also, leaders must give people information where they know to look for it. We work hard at luring people to our Web site. We use it for emergency notification, as well as for sharing information about subjects that affect our mutual work lives. For instance, when one of our university boilers broke down recently, it meant that many of our residence halls were without hot water for several days. We used the Web site to keep students (and anyone else who wanted the information) up to date on our progress through banners on the homepage. When the university is closed because of weather, we put a banner on the home page first, because that is where people will look first for information and that is where we tell them ahead of time to look first. I also use the Web site and e-mail for sharing such information as progress on our next budget and legislative updates.

In the wake of Virginia Tech, we have installed crawl signs in classrooms and offices to give the campus information on bomb threats in buildings and other emergency situations. These signs are digital clocks when they are not used for emergencies. We also have a text messaging service so that we can instantly communicate such situations to anyone who gives us a cell phone number. And we have a new siren system with different tones that can signal emergencies.

All of this has helped to eliminate the fear trap.

Good communication heads off “toxic emotions.” Peter Frost of the University of British Columbia explains these phenomena in his book Toxic Emotions at Work: Toxic emotions bubble up when companies merge, routines change, systems break down, stress piles up. The emotions become troublesome when people “feel stripped of their confidence, hope or self-esteem through the harshness or disrespect in the message they get….Employees infer that their feelings don’t matter, that they are not in control of their work lives, that their contributions don’t or won’t make a difference.” The result is that employees disconnect from their jobs and focus on the pain they feel.

This isn’t to say that good leaders can never cause pain: Pulling people out of their comfort zones, changing expectations, reorganization – all of these cause pain, but good leaders know how to head off toxic emotions.
Good communication also ensures that all leaders in the organization are singing from the same page.

And good communicators admit when they are wrong and move on. Stubbornness and pride are dysfunctional. President Obama, after the appointment of Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services, said “I screwed up” and it was front page news.

Another aspect of good communication is good listening. A good leader seeks out and listens to diverse points of view. We do this with our student open door and faculty-staff open door.

A good leader surrounds herself with people willing to disagree and/or give the leader “bad news.” What leads a Detroit CEO to fly in a private jet to Washington, D.C., to ask for a taxpayer bailout? Either no one around them thought this was wrong or they were reluctant to speak up.

The issue of staying in touch is more complex than it may seem at first glance.

I was a 32-year-old faculty member in a department full of my friends when I was first named department chair – and my colleagues began to treat me differently. It was not intentional, but it happened. This is how isolation starts, and you have to work hard to keep it from happening. The antidote is to surround yourself with people who tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

Think long-term

My second point is that good leaders think long-term. They right size rather than downsize during a downturn. Actions during a downturn should not be equal and opposite to those during expansion. Fixed costs such as building and equipment are not flexible during a downturn, whereas labor costs are deceptively flexible. Reducing payroll can equate to loss of talent that will be needed during the recovery. Across-the-board cuts are the easiest to make but not strategic. We are using this downturn to hire faculty from states worse off than Texas!

Another aspect of long-term is the “leader bench.” If I were run over by a truck tomorrow, the university would not miss a beat because I have a strong provost. Some leaders do not want a strong No. 2 person. I do, and I require my vice presidents to have one. Walter Lippman said, “The genius of a good leader is to leave behind a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully.”

Look to history and current events

My third point is that good leaders look for lessons in history and in current events. They must take risks, especially strategic risks.

We have spent much time looking at the Great Depression recently. FDR did many unpopular things. He took risks when he challenged the gold standard and destroyed agricultural products to raise prices. FDR believed that he was saving capitalism.

Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor because he believed he was saving the nation from the agony of a presidential trial. This probably cost him the next election.

LBJ knew when he worked to pass civil rights legislation that he was risking his political career and the future of his party.

Two contemporary strategic risk takers are Brian McCoy and Cork Walgreen. When Brian McCoy took over the McCoy enterprise, he sold the banking business. When, according to the book Good to Great, Walgreen decided to be “the best, most convenient drug store,” he jettisoned its lunch counter business. Both were risky things to do.

Opportunity in tough times

My fourth point grows out of taking strategic risks: Good leaders look for opportunity in tough times. Leaders are born on the battlefield. Tough times give us the chance to fix things that are broken, like a broken mortgage market.
My predecessor, Jerry Supple, seized a tough time to fix something very important to Texas State. In the early 1990s, the whole country was going through the demographic trough of 18 year olds. In other words, our enrollment was going to drop anyway, so Jerry picked this time to introduce higher admissions standards. Enrollment decreased even more, but when we came out of that trough a few years later, we came out of it with a much more accomplished student body.

Tough times give us an opportunity to adjust, make changes, be strategic.

Instill hope

And my last point: Good leaders instill optimism, hope and vision. Our nation is hungry for hope. It’s like a comparison of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and the movie Doubt.

People respond to leaders who give them hope. I was impressed by how Pike Powers handled the loss of the battery consortium to Kentucky reported in last Friday’s Austin American Statesman: “I am disappointed, but there are other real opportunities that we have….We are now free to team with any number of people to get federal stimulus dollars. Our chances are good.” And he said they would go to work immediately to find new partners.

Optimism is an essential element of leadership, and it is contagious. Hire people with optimism. Most successful people are optimistic. They are also more fun to be around.

Even in a “global recession,” we need to be optimistic.

Psychologist Martin Seligman has been doing research on optimism for 20 years. He says the “mechanics” of optimism has two components: the permanent versus the temporary, and the universal versus the specific.

Seligman’s research has demonstrated that optimism can be learned and that there is a relationship between thinking optimistically and succeeding. Optimistic, successful people believe that most problems are temporary. A current problem is specific to a situation and not universal. Failure in one area does not guarantee failure in all areas. Seligman also reminds us that we have more control than we think.

Being optimistic can be learned and does not require a lifetime of good fortune.

That’s it. Those are my five points:

  1. Good leaders communicate and listen.
  2. Good leaders think long-term.
  3. Good leaders look for lessons in history and in current events.
  4. Good leaders look for opportunity in tough times.
  5. Good leaders instill optimism, hope and vision.

Thank you for your kind attention.