Monday, November 21, 2011

Inside leader/outside leader

The search consultant leading the hunt for Westminster's next President was on campus today.  In the meeting with him that I attended, he asked a standard question; "Does the college need an inside president or an outside president?"

I know of no other organizational type where the inside/outside dichotomy exists.  It has some value in higher education, I suppose, if only to indicate where a leader (it needn't be a President--the question was common during the recent Gore School of Business Dean search as well) will schedule his or her time.  And it can elicit a view of a candidate's sense of priorities among problems: a self-described "outside leader" thinks a campus needs more fundraising or prestige lifting; an inside leader thinks the curriculum needs work or peace needs to be won between the faculty and the administration.

But the inside/outside way of thinking hides a major truth--that the leader is one person, and as one person, the leader's approach to the outside and the inside will bear each other's hallmarks.  A President  comfortable with hierarchies will pursue the wealthy and powerful off-campus and communicate mostly with the  Cabinet on-campus. A relationship-builder will win donations with a handshake and a dinner while seeking face-to-face solutions to campus challenges. An indispensable leader will want to touch nearly everything regardless of where it takes place.  A collaborator wants more committees on-campus and more advisory boards off-campus.

The problem here, then, is ultimately that the inside/outside dichotomy hides from campus the sort of person taking on the leadership role.  If the campus is seeking an outside leader, or if the candidate says "I lead inside" the conversation stops exactly where it should start.

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