Principled Leadership

During my tenure as a university president, I told key members of my executive team to hold me to a standard of what I called “principled leadership.”  My version of that standard went something like this:  “Whenever I make a decision that seems to you to be wrong-headed or strange, please ask me to enunciate the principle behind my decision.”  The finest members of my staff would do exactly that.

Here’s an example of how it worked.   (We’ll call my executive staff member “Q.”)  One day, Q told me that a student was unable to afford the room rent in our residence halls and had been living in his car.  I therefore arranged to find private scholarship funds that could be used to pay for this student’s housing for one semester.  But before finalizing the arrangement I met with the student.  I told him that if his grades did not improve, the arrangement would be ended at the end of the semester.  I thought my solution was both compassionate and fair–one I could defend to anyone who might learn about it and ask.   The student was extremely grateful and promised to exert his finest efforts.

Upon hearing of the arrangement, Q came to see me and asked the following question:  “How is it that you can arrange to pay for this student’s housing when we have so many other worthy students who are struggling to pay their bills for tuition, fees, room, board, and books.  Some have even taken out sizable loans.  Yet you found a scholarship for a student with marginal grades; a student who had not yet taken out a single student loan.  When I told you about Q, my thought was that you would arrange some sort of loan, or perhaps discuss his case with one of the religious organizations who make it a practice to reach out to troubled students.”

I pondered the point Q was making and realized I had made a mistake.  Although I had acted from a sense of compassion, my decision lacked principle, and therefore could not be defended as easily as I had first thought.  If I had discussed the situation with my staff prior to meeting with the student, at least one of them (including Q) would have suggested alternative methods of funding Q’s housing that would have been more equitable when the needs of all of our students were considered.

You may believe I made the right decision.  Or you may agree with Q.  The point here is not to decide who was right and who was wrong.  The point is that leaders need to know the basis for every important decision they make.

In practice, I learned to make it a practice to imagine myself as a judge of a case–one in which I would be required to write a written decision explaining the legal basis for my findings of fact and rulings of law.  Had I written such a decision in the case of the student described above, my decision might have sounded something like this:  “If a student is found to be living in a car, or is otherwise homeless, that student must be granted a private scholarship.”  But note how impossible (and unfair) such a policy would actually be to implement.  Were we to publish such a policy, we would expect that more and more students would learn the trick of claiming to be homeless.  How would we know whether they were or weren’t?  How many nights would a student be required to sleep in a car before claiming that he or she actually qualified for the new housing scholarship?  How could we ever defend requiring some students to pay while others escaped that obligation?

Again, you may come to a different conclusion about how a university should handle housing for a homeless student.  Hopefully, though, you will understand the point I am making about principled leadership.  Whatever the decision is that you must make as a leader, it is important to understand the principle behind that decision.  I would argue that the principle should be one you would be willing to write down and share with all relevant members of your work community.  It should defensible and usable for all future, similar cases–like a legal precedent.

If a leader refuses, or is unable, to operate in this fashion, then that leader’s followers can be excused for claiming that the leader’s decisions are based not upon a defensible principle, but upon mere favoritism or whim.