Leadership lessons from the president of American University

Neil Kerwin became American University's 14th president in September 2007. Kerwin joined AU in 1975 and has held numerous faculty and leadership positions, including dean of the School of Public Affairs. In this interview, he speaks with On Leadership contributor Tom Fox about fostering leadership among AU students and inspiring them to public service. Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What leadership lessons have you learned as the president of American University?

A. The longer I do this kind of work, the clearer it is to me that leadership is a collective activity. This happens here at American University hundreds of times every day at every level of the university, and in our extended communities. Leadership requires setting goals and direction, doing and supervising hard work to reach those goals, and the discipline and honesty to evaluate progress. Defined this way, leadership cannot be the province or responsibility of one person or a small group at the top. At its best, it suffuses the organization.

A president's role is to make that clear, ensure it happens, and provide space, ideas, encouragement and acknowledgement of accomplishments. Vision is essential, but one that colleagues have not contributed to or is not widely shared will not serve the purpose. I have also learned delegation is essential to success and that it is a process of constant adjustment, not a single act. No one is perfect in the work we do, and by recognizing this, you're fostering a healthy culture that supports innovation. And, of course, none of this relieves the president of ultimate responsibility for the institution, and the need to be clearly and visibly accountable.

Another lesson is that crises assume a life of their own--they monopolize energy, alter thought. They are a great time to learn and a bad time to plan. It is when times are good and stable that you need to examine the things that are of the greatest risk to your organization in the long term. As a leader, you must be able to provide the energy and motivation amongst your employees to ask these difficult questions, because difficult times will come.