Leadership Decision-Making: Lessons From a Blizzard

After a blizzard moved up the East Coast earlier this week, the Mayor of New York City and the state's Governor were being criticized for "over-reacting" and "over-planning." The storm turned out to be less severe than anticipated and the shutdown of the subway system together with travel and parking bans seemed excessive -- in retrospect. Of course, had the opposite been true, namely had there been a huge storm for which NYC was unprepared, its mayor would be taking considerable heat. Mayors across the nation have been criticized and lost reelection bids due to poor snow removal. Basically, no matter what Mayor Bill deBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo did, they were in a lose/lose situation, unless of course the storm proceeded exactly as predicted by the National Weather Service - a near impossibility.

Decisions by leaders are fraught with risk. No matter what decisions leaders make or fail to make, whether on profound or trivial issues, they are bound to be criticized. And, with the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, the criticism is often swift and very public. Consider decision-making by college presidents, the subject of considerable recent media attention. There are so many constituencies that can challenge the leader's decisions -- trustees, faculty, staff, students, parents, alums, neighbors and other community members, elected officials both near and far, among others. It is hard to be "right" and satisfy everyone.

Unfortunately, we treat all decisions as if they have the same impact and importance to a city or institution's well being. And, therein lies the problem.

I remember not calling a snow day early in my presidency, likely an effort on my part to show that a New Yorker was not intimidated by the Vermont weather. I immediately started to get emails along these lines: What are you trying to do? Kill us all? Chastened, I called a snow day several weeks later only to get emails suggesting that I had inconvenienced folks because now they had to make up classes as the semester progressed, and I clearly was a wimp in terms of understanding Vermont weather.

Take another, certainly more difficult, example. To address the fiscal strains most higher education institutions confront and determine where required cuts can be made, a president decides to eliminate two of the more expensive NCAA men's sports it offers; simultaneously, the president adds one women's sport. Now, the student athletes of those terminated teams and their coaches are furious; the athletic conference may be angry too, needing those teams to meet NCAA post-conference eligibility. Alums who played on these teams are fit to be tied and start fund raising on their own to pay for reinstatement or refuse to donate to the college more generally. Female athletes may be pleased, seeing greater compliance with Title IX and more opportunities for women athletes. Faculty and staff could be pleased since the cuts are not being made in their areas, and they desire that more money be directed to non-athletic areas of the college that more effectively serve its mission from their perspective.

Here's the point. My experience is that quality leaders do not make decisions cavalierly. They ponder carefully their decisions before making them; they try to make the best choices with the information they then have. They rely on data models that should have validity. They word their choices carefully when they both speak and write; they think through the myriad of pros and cons. They consult with others with experience. But, no matter how reflective leaders are, they will make mistakes and there are folks who will disagree with them, whether or not the decision is erroneous. It is worth remembering too that twenty-twenty hindsight is spectacularly good.

With all the public hue and cry about leaders' decisions, we do need to distinguish among the types of erroneous decisions that can be made. Some have little or no lasting impact on a city or an institution. Few decisions are truly institutionally transformative or damaging. We need to save our venom for and target our attention on ill-conceived decisions that truly merit the criticism -- decisions made by presidents that are academically and psycho-socially unwise by most measures, decisions that fail to protect students and academic integrity. Best to target our anger for presidents who make decisions that are unethical or discriminatory or reckless. Wise to save the angst for decisions that are misunderstood due to poor word choices or poor planning. There will be no shortage of content.

Bottom line: Give Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo a break on their response to a blizzard. And, give college presidents a break on decisions that are not institutionally threatening, decisions that do not undercut our respect for education and the students we serve. We can't afford, as is presently happening, to lose more quality higher education leaders because the job has become too hard, and leaders are perpetually caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Never being right can't be right.