Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia, by Scott C. Beardsley

A defence of non-academic university leaders fails to make the grade, says Amanda H. Goodall

November 2, 2017
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The swing of success: ‘organisations perform better when they are led by leaders who are experts in the core business’

Think of The New Yorker cartoon depicting a passenger on an airliner, facing his fellow passengers, his hand in the air, angrily proclaiming: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

For 26 years, Scott Beardsley was a McKinsey worker bee who fulfilled his dream and made queen, with a place on its board.

In 2015, he realised a second ambition; he became dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, which published this book. Higher ­Calling marks his psychological passage from consultant to dean. He wants to prove that he was justified in claiming a leadership position in a university as a non-academic or “non-traditional” leader.

Beardsley’s sample is small – only liberal arts colleges. These elite institutions educate 2 per cent of US students. In 1950s America there were 700; today there are 246.

So how convincing is Beardsley’s argument? Sure enough, he finds there’s a decline in traditional academic leaders among the colleges in his sample. About a third of presidents did not come through the academic track.

Yet research on “expert leadership” by myself and others shows that organisations perform better when they are led by leaders who are experts in the core business. The more distinguished a scholar as president, the better the later performance of his or her university. This finding has been replicated in studies of academic departments and hospitals, among team leaders in Formula One and coaches in basketball.

So, you can imagine my interest when I came across a figure that shows that the most highly ranked liberal arts colleges are those led by traditional academic presidents. Non-traditional presidents, such as Beardsley, are in schools that are ranked lower.

Beardsley’s only comment is: “Why a top ranked school might be less likely to hire a non-traditional could be a function of tradition, inertia, or risk avoidance.” Since he is a former head of “McKinsey university”, it seems odd that he doesn’t even consider that the thriving colleges may just know what good leadership looks like. Maybe traditional leaders have been good for their performance. There is also another elephant in the room. McKinsey does not appoint non-traditional leaders. Nor do Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, etc. Their top teams come from the womb and stay until they are pushed up or out. Consulting firms do not preach what they practise.

Beardsley summarises nicely why so many academics don’t want to be president or dean – mainly because the job is now bigger, harder and messier. On both sides of the pond, successive governments have overloaded universities with bureaucracy. The attraction of being a vice-chancellor (or equivalent) in the UK has probably declined because of recent complaints about high pay led by Andrew Adonis. Who would want to do the job?

The physician chief operating officer of a large American hospital recently pleaded to his surgeon colleagues to consider becoming future leaders. “Eat or be eaten,” he told them.

Amanda H. Goodall is senior lecturer in management at Cass Business School, City, University of London.


Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia
By Scott C. Beardsley
University of Virginia Press, 280pp, £30.50
ISBN 9780813940533 and 9780813940540 (e-book)
Published 30 September 2017

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Print headline: Don’t give up the day job

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