Wofford President Benjamin B. Dunlap was quoted in an Oct. 31, 2010, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about college presidents and their use of "charm."
October 31, 2010
The Fine Art of Charm
By Paul Fain and Kathryn Masterson
Many college presidents are charming, although few will admit it.
Their reticence isn't just modesty: Presidents know charm is a two-edged sword. They need to be persuasive and likable to succeed, but a campus chief who is too slick probably won't last long.
Ambivalence about charm may be rooted in the word's origins, when it referred to a magic spell or incantation. Even these days, to charm is to attract people and capture their attention—but no president wants to be thought of as a mesmerist.
After all, higher education is a serious place. Presidents would rather be called charismatic than charming.
But as cheerleaders in chief, presidents often employ charm. They chat up everyone from 18-year-old students to well-heeled donors, and pepper oft-repeated stump speeches with humor and inspirational stories. Without charm, it's almost impossible to do the job.
Take Lawrence H. Summers. His notorious thoughts on women in the sciences preceded his forced departure from Harvard University, but faculty members there said his lack of tact in more mundane encounters had already soured them on his presidency. A charming president knows how to tread lightly around the expertise of professors, and their egos.
Of course, even a prodigious amount of charm cannot carry a president. Gene R. Nichol, who led the College of William & Mary from 2005 to 2008, had the room-commanding presence to match his football-player frame. His wit endeared him to many on the campus. But Mr. Nichol also made enemies, who criticized some of his decisions as rash. In his feisty farewell letter, which some said helped explain why things didn't work out for him in Williamsburg, Va., Mr. Nichol acknowledged that he had "sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university."
Ronald E. Riggio, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who studies leadership and organizational psychology, has developed a six-point model of personal charisma. He says that while a president who possesses charm with little depth or empathy can be a bad leader, those who mix charm with intelligence, strategic thinking, smart hiring, and good crisis-management skills are the "superstars."
The Chronicle asked experts on the presidency as well as campus leaders themselves how a president can be charming without seeming hollow. The key is authenticity, they said. Many were reluctant to say more, not wanting to come off as self-help gurus.
But we'll go there. Consider several charming personal attributes and how they can work for, and against, presidents:
Tired of telling that joke? Not as tired as people are of hearing you tell it.
Many presidents say a sense of humor is essential to the often dry and serious job of running a college. For one thing, it's a quick way to put people at ease. But too much levity can backfire.
Something leaks out of a joke each time you tell it, says Benjamin B. Dunlap, and that's the humor.
Mr. Dunlap, president of Wofford College since 2000, has long studied the art of storytelling as an English professor. He has also been a writer-producer for public television, where he spent 20 years in front of the camera.
Presidents have to recycle some material, given how often they speak to people. But Mr. Dunlap says they should strive to be sincere each time they say something, which is tough to do with humor.
Commonly heard laugh lines should be avoided, he says, citing as an example the old saw about a college president's being like the manager of a cemetery: There are many people under you, but no one is listening.
Mr. Dunlap was not aware that Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California, got into trouble last year for using that very joke. He said it during a lengthy, and often serious, interview with Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine. When the interview was boiled down to Ms. Solomon's brief and creatively edited format, his quips fell flat, big-time.
A California state senator denounced Mr. Yudof, and protesters chanting "Shame on Yudof" planted mock gravestones outside his house.
Besides repetition, Mr. Dunlap says, campus leaders should also avoid irony.
"No politician or college president can ever afford to use irony," he says. "There will always be someone who takes you seriously."
Wit, however, is absolutely welcome, he says, and "dispels pomposity."
Share the credit when things go right. Don't be afraid to say you're wrong.
The job of a college president today has much in common with that of a politician. But one difference, says David L. Boren, who has held both jobs, is the willingness to admit when you are wrong.
"It doesn't happen very much in politics," says Mr. Boren, who served as governor of Oklahoma and in the U.S. Senate before taking the helm at the University of Oklahoma. "It's not bad to do in academia."
With so many bright people at a university—a smart staff, brilliant faculty members, sharp students—plus a culture of debate, Mr. Boren says he has sometimes been persuaded during his 16 years as college president to shift his views. "They ought to be able to change your mind," he says.
Humility is a critical element of charismatic leaders, separating good leaders from truly great ones, says Mr. Riggio. A self-deprecating sense of humor helps, too.
Mr. Boren enjoys how comfortable students seem to be around him, despite his intimidating résumé. One freshman recently introduced himself to the former U.S. senator, then concluded the conversation by slapping him on the back and saying, "President Boren, you're doing a hell of a job."
When Mr. Boren was an undergraduate at Yale University, he says, it would have been inconceivable to put his arm around the college president and give him a playful whack.
"I laughed all the way to my car," says Mr. Boren. "It made me feel really good."
Avoid the ivory tower by being yourself.
A common complaint about failed college presidents is that they were aloof. After a firing, students often tell reporters that they rarely saw the imperial president strolling among the little people.
"The public aspects of the job are becoming increasingly important," says Harry L. Peterson, president emeritus of Western State College of Colorado, who has written about the presidency. "You can't disappear in your office as much anymore."
That means a president must toe a narrow line between being a decisive boss and a casual, reassuring presence. And authenticity—being true to yourself—again appears to be the key, current and former presidents say.
Demystifying the office of the president has worked for Wendy B. Libby, who was recruited in 2008 to lead Stetson University after turning around the financially troubled Stephens College, in Missouri. She greets prospective students on tours (a popular technique for presidents who want to stress their accessibility), and she danced down a line of students at freshman orientation this year.
On a recent Saturday, she and her husband stopped for ice cream after a long day of activities and ran into four Stetson students. Ms. Libby bought their treats, and they started talking. The students asked if the couple really lived in the president's home, a grand white house with front columns and a balcony. Ms. Libby invited them over to see for themselves.
"Doing away with the mystery of the presidency sometimes makes a huge difference," she says.
But while being approachable can make things easier, it's not the most important skill a college president can possess, Ms. Libby says. Affability needs to be backed up with intelligence and good decisions. When it comes to making serious decisions that are bound to displease some people, she says, "I don't think charm is a useful strategy."
Lose the talking points. Go from the gut.
A wooden or tired speech doesn't win over any audiences. Being able to read a room and adjust for the audience has a magical quality.
For Mr. Dunlap, that meant tossing aside his prepared remarks for a high-profile appearance at the TED conference, where presenters get 18 minutes in front of a room of luminaries and a large Internet audience. After hearing the inventor Dean Kamen talk about a prosthetic arm for wounded soldiers, Mr. Dunlap strode to the stage and decided he could top his prepared speech, which was a standard trade talk for presidents—clever but safe generalizations and a few jokes.
"I thought, I'm not wasting this opportunity," says Mr. Dunlap. He didn't, masterfully telling the life story of Sandor Teszler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who was a beloved presence on Wofford's campus.
When asked to give a speech, Sanford C. Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, in Florida, prefers to sing, play the guitar, and read poems. He's been doing it for a decade, and pulling it off with panache.
Mr. Shugart says he decided to stop worrying about what audiences thought of him when he added the singer/songwriter side of his life to his day job. "I've never really looked back," he says.
Do: Advocate enthusiastically for your college.Don't: Forget that the college is the story, not you.
Several moist eyes could be spotted in the auditorium after Freeman A. Hrabowski III finished the inspiring story of a lower-income student on his campus, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. It was quite a feat, given that he was speaking to college trustees. But it was hardly the first time that Mr. Hrabowski has brought attention to his university on a national stage.
He has helped to drastically improve UMBC's fortunes during 18 years at the helm. Part of the reason for his success, say many who know Mr. Hrabowski, is his ability to inspire people without allowing his personal charm to steal the focus. That's not always easy for someone with the energy and personal story of Mr. Hrabowski, who at the age of just 12 was jailed after a civil-rights march in Birmingham, Ala.
As a president, Mr. Hrabowski says he prefers to let the campus do the talking. He often invites outsiders to visit the university to "see that my enthusiasm is matched by substance."
When they arrive, he brings visitors to the roof of UMBC's administrative building, where they can view the growing campus and glimpse Baltimore's skyline.
"Once we leave the roof," he says, "the place speaks for itself."
UMBC is a bustling, diverse campus. But just as impressive as how the university appears on a tour is how people react to Mr. Hrabowski. He often knows their names, and his conversations are about them and what they're doing, not about himself.
Ann J. Duffield is co-founder of the Presidential Practice, which advises current and aspiring college presidents. She says successful leaders can get by with charm alone for their first year or so as president. After that honeymoon ends, they need to share the limelight. And the backlash comes quickly when a president's personal story is heard too often on the campus. But the solution is easy.
"You listen," says Ms. Duffield, and "don't get so caught up in your own voice that you can't hear others."
Copyright 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.