The Missing Factor in Presidential Searches

By Rita Bornstein    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

A president walks into a meeting to find the agenda hijacked by a small but noisy group of participants. This might be a board meeting at which some trustees are reacting to a rumor that the budget deficit is higher than they had been told. It could be a faculty meeting at which professors are angry about an administration proposal to sharply limit the tuition remission benefit for their families. Or it could be a studentgovernment meeting interrupted by student demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans demanding a reduction in tuition.

Presidents are not immune to feelings of anger, hurt, or defensiveness. However, presidents who can demonstrate the set of behaviors known as “emotional intelligence” can typically find ways to approach explosive situations calmly, display empathy, and quietly defuse conflict. Obviously, that is far better for the institution than having the president express irritation, erupt into intemperate language, or cut off communication entirely by withdrawing from the situation.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence in his groundbreaking 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam Books), says that people with emotional self-control “tend to be more highly productive and effective in whatever they undertake.” Fred I. Greenstein, in his book on United States presidents, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton (Free Press, 2000), underscores the importance of a “president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership.” According to Greenstein, Richard Nixon had “great intelligence” and “an encyclopedic knowledge of politics,” but he harbored “deep-seated anger and feelings of persecution” that led to his downfall.

Goleman specifies five general components of emotional intelligence: selfawareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skill. He refers to those who are not in touch with their own feelings or anyone else’s as “emotionally tone-deaf,” and he asserted in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article that without emotional intelligence, “a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

It is true that the behavior and values inherent in emotional intelligence also are prized in leaders in business, government, and the nonprofit sector, and they certainly can help in parenting. However, emotional intelligence is especially important in higher education leadership because the culture of academe makes collaboration, reciprocity, and trust behavioral priorities. So emotional intelligence is a key component of the characteristics that we should seek in a college president. But unfortunately, many, if not most, presidential search committees do not directly take this quality into account.

In the higher education context, emotional intelligence involves being a receptive and empathic listener, controlling angry feelings, radiating optimism, modeling calm behavior in difficult situations, defusing volatile encounters, being inclusive, building relationships, bringing disparate groups together, and generating social capital (a culture of trust and reciprocity). A president must gain legitimacy and be accepted into the culture of an institution, be a good manager and effective leader, and be a model of ethical behavior. A president needs emotional intelligence in order to handle all of those dimensions of leadership.

Of course, the specific type of leadership required in higher education depends on the institution and the situation. At a floundering institution or in a tenuous situation, presidents are called upon to be strong and directive. At a healthy institution or in a calm situation, the president can be consultative and focus on relationships. Just as institutions have different leadership needs at different times, presidents come with different personalities (outgoing, reserved, serious, upbeat). No matter the institution’s needs or the individual’s style, however, presidents are more successful if they demonstrate the cluster of qualities labeled emotional intelligence.

Much more research needs to be done on the relationship between a president’s success and his or her emotional intelligence, but abundant examples of the lack of such intelligence are regularly reported in the news media. Those include, for example, spending excessively on travel, lodging, and meals; engaging in an affair with a staff member; borrowing a large sum of money to support a building campaign without board approval; and downsizing staff or programs without the sensitivity that the culture demands.

Presidents who have a problem in consistently employing emotional intelligence and maturity tend to exhibit poor management skills and sketchy ethics. They have trouble motivating constituents to work together toward a common goal, and they are easily distracted from institutional priorities. The lack of emotional intelligence may present itself in many ways, leading some presidents to be seen as dictatorial, uncommunicative, abusive, adversarial, arrogant, condescending, inattentive, or socially inept.

Questions Search Committees Should Ask

Presidential search committees know that unsuccessful presidencies can be costly to an institution, financially and in terms of morale, institutional reputation, and public trust. Changing the top leadership also is likely to lead to a hiatus in strategic planning and fundraising. These are powerful reasons to incorporate emotional intelligence as an important quality in search committees’ criteria for potential presidents. Fortunately, a committee, whether guided by a search consultant or not, can prepare questions for candidates and for people who have worked with them that explore this quality.

Questions designed to ascertain candidates’ levels of emotional intelligence should seek information about how those candidates dealt with emotionally charged situations in the past and how they would handle hypothetical situations in the future. Questions should address candidates’ actions and reactions in specific situations, especially those that have implications for the committee’s institution. This process is called behavioral or situational interviewing.

Each institution has different challenges, so questions must be tailored appropriately. But the following are some examples of behavioral questions that can be posed with an eye toward determining a candidate’s emotional intelligence:

• Describe a situation in which you had to deal with professors angry about an administration decision. What happened and how did you resolve it?

• Describe a time when you successfully mobilized people to support a major change that some saw as controversial. What was your strategy for achieving this?

• Have you ever had a board member or professor publicly accuse you of covering up a problem (for example, a budget shortfall, increased tuition discount rate, or mission creep)? How did you respond? If that occurred today, what would you do?

• Describe a situation in which you gave a subordinate negative feedback about her or his performance that was poorly received. What might you have done differently?

• Identify one of your administrative goals that has been particularly hard to meet. What might you have done differently to fulfill this goal?

• Have you ever been directed by a board to make significant changes in the institution and encountered a challenge from faculty members, students, or other constituents? How did you resolve this conflict and would you handle it the same way today?

• What job-related situation has made you really angry? How did you handle it?

• Describe a few of your fundraising successes. How did each situation evolve, who was involved, and what was your role?

• How would your colleagues describe you?

Another tool for learning about the emotional intelligence of candidates is to observe their behavior during the search process. A knowledgeable and prepared human-resources staff person can be asked to sit in on the entire process, including the interviews, and look for certain behaviors. Does the candidate make eye contact with everyone, listen as well as talk, demonstrate knowledge about the institution, ask good questions, and interact warmly with staff and others tangential to the process? In informal settings, does the candidate circulate and engage people in conversation? Does the candidate react calmly to unexpected questions and situations?

Alternatively, does the candidate appear uneasy or defensive when asked multiple questions? Does he or she ignore or deflect sensitive questions by repeating pat phrases or exaggerating accomplishments? Does the candidate appear uneasy in social situations with different types of people?

Most candidates perform well during interviews. Those who display great confidence and strong opinions can excite the committee. In a case where a candidate’s bona fides are impressive, committee members may believe that such a pedigree will bring greater prestige to their institution and improve its ranking and reputation. Such reactions can distract members from their responsibility to exercise due diligence. In fact, James P. Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search, has said that candidate interviews “are the least reliable predictor of success.”

Due Diligence Required

After screening candidates to identify those who best meet their criteria and interviewing the top prospects, committee members, along with any search consultant, must engage in the process of extensive due diligence. That includes, says Ferrare, calls to references (both to those on the candidate’s list and to appropriate people not on the list) and electronic research (for example, using Google, Wikipedia, LexisNexis, and so on). For an institution with the resources, a visit to the final candidate’s current place of employment is invaluable, especially with some unscripted time for informal conversations. That may not be feasible for reasons of confidentiality, but a search committee that does not talk with current and past colleagues is deprived of important information about a candidate’s temperament and leadership.

Questions about emotional intelligence can be especially helpful when talking to people who have worked with a candidate. They might be asked to describe a situation in which the candidate lost his or her temper, or they might be asked whether they have witnessed this candidate handle an emotionally charged confrontation. How does this candidate respond to negative feedback? Can they give an example of the candidate’s ability to build support for a new project or an institutional change?

Search committees, working under the direction of the board, hope that the effort and time invested in the process produce a finalist who will serve the institution long and well, enhancing its quality and reputation. Exploring issues surrounding emotional intelligence will help to filter out candidates who are not up to the task. In the process, the committee should not overlook the possible candidacy of any internal leader who has the potential to be a good president. The level of emotional intelligence of internal candidates should be well known.

The search process for new presidents is long and arduous. Members of search committees get tired and are eager to return to their usual lives and activities. But they also do not wish to be part of a failed search. The danger is that, if the top one or two candidates decline the position, search-committee members may rationalize the choice of a second- or third-tier candidate who does not fully meet the institution’s needs and may not have had the exposure and vetting that the top choices have had. To avoid that temptation, committee members should agree in advance that if none of the remaining candidates meet the criteria, the committee will be reconstituted and the search begun again. It is better to employ an interim president than to hire the wrong person.

Committee members, other trustees, and faculty members should spend enough time with the finalist to feel comfortable about the appointment. A little extra time can reveal whether the candidate holds up well under a grueling schedule, remains focused and open, is a good listener, has a sense of humor, and deals well with unexpected situations.

High-functioning boards collaborate with their presidents and faculties to build the social capital necessary to move the institution forward. A president with emotional intelligence is a vital element in that endeavor, and the presidential search committee is key to finding a person with this quality.

In Greenstein’s book about American presidents, he cautions, “Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes.” This warning should put members of college and university presidential search committees on the alert to look for highly developed or underdeveloped emotional intelligence in the final candidates. Such vigilance will help ensure that the search process yields a president with all the characteristics needed to succeed.

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