What Teresa Sullivan has learned — and can teach us about leadership

According to the  June 25 Washington Post Andrea Newman, a member of U Michiganʻs Board of Regents, and a former colleague of Teresa Sullivan, described her as a “change agent.”

Ousted, and now returned, to her position as University of Virginiaʻs president, “Sullivan arrived at Virginia’s insular state flagship two years ago as the ultimate outsider. And she worked her way in, building a support network and winning allies across the length and width of the Grounds — from stodgy, old-guard alumni to the freshly minted students on the Lawn, from suits at the business school to costume designers in the drama department.

“You can move fast, or you can move incrementally. But it doesn’t matter unless people follow you,” said David Leblang, the politics department chairman. “People follow her.” (from the same Post article cited above.)

Indeed, they do follow her! So loyal were faculty, staff and students that they protested, quit and lobbied to have her returned, despite the Board of Visitorʻs discontent.

Now reinstated, she looks forward with an new eye to her leadership, past and present, according to the August 15 Washington Post.

Sullivan (on right): starting over…

Here are some of the good leadership lessons she shares:

1. Learn from your mistakes, and admit them. “I didn’t really want to put the university through a difficult period,” she said. “As it turned out, I did not save the university from a difficult period at all. In retrospect, I wish I had communicated more frequently with more members of the board,”

2. Donʻt hold on to the past — especially in public. Move forward, and think about the good of the people you lead. When asked how it all went wrong, she said: “I think it would be very easy to get psychologically stuck on an episode like that, and I don’t think that would be healthy — not healthy for individuals and probably not healthy for the institution. I think moving forward right now is probably the best thing we can do in terms of the institution. . . . I don’t think reengaging past events right now is going to take us where we need to go.”

3. Deflect trouble and defuse tension with a politic sense of humor. When pressed by her interviewer, she said, “There was certainly lots of speculation. . . . On the other hand, academics are very good at theories, so there were a lot of theories that went around.”

She may have to lead forward, but no doubt the issues raised will reverberate as the controversy is dissected. There is more at stake here than one womanʻs job. Sullivan must deal with more than bruised relationships and broken trust. She will be very visible as she grapples with a core challenge in public education: “how public universities must work to overcome dwindling financial resources and how the nation’s top institutions should transform with technology, blending brick-and-mortar education with online, open-course endeavors.” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The University of Virginia Magazine published Chair of the Faculty Senate George Cohenʻs remarks supporting Sullivan, describing her authentic leadership style and the deep respect from the university community.

“We believe President Sullivan has been an effective president. Why do so many people in the University community believe that? Because President Sullivan embodies a set of principles and acts on those principles. That is what makes an effective leader. What are those principles? Honesty, candor, openness, transparency, inclusion, consultation, communication, fairness, dignity, and trust. These are time-honored principles, and they work. What observers of our community are witnessing is our commitment to these principles. We stand here for these principles and we will continue to stand to ensure they are upheld.”

This public debate about the president of such a public institution raises and praises many of the qualities of good leadership we value and need now. Sullivan returns to a strong foundation of support at the University of Virginia, where all of her leadership skills will be needed to steer the stateʻs flagship to smoother waters.

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