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A New Age of Leadership at Harvard

The naming of the first female president of Harvard University, a place where, as recently as the mid-1970s, women were barred from entering the main door of the faculty club, has prompted the expected chorus of folks wondering if Drew Gilpin Faust’s gender was the main reason for her appointment. That’s not an unreasonable question since her predecessor, Larry Summers, was pretty much run out of office on a rail after speculating if women were biologically cut out for quant disciplines like science and math.

The naming of the first female president of Harvard University, a place where, as recently as the mid-1970s, women were barred from entering the main door of the faculty club, has prompted the expected chorus of folks wondering if Drew Gilpin Faust’s gender was the main reason for her appointment. That’s not an unreasonable question since her predecessor, Larry Summers, was pretty much run out of office on a rail after speculating if women were biologically cut out for quant disciplines like science and math.

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But the more interesting reason for Faust’s selection may be the one alluded to in last Saturday’s New York Times. Richard Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard, told the paper that he thought the presidential search committee was attracted to Faust because of her management style. “My own sense is that it’s a new template for leadership, and that probably is not unrelated to gender, but it ought not get eclipsed by it.”

Dr. Chait, who studies university management, noted that several major American corporations have recently ousted their tough, even bullying leaders, in favor of more diplomatic, people-oriented managers.

It seems that the softer side of leadership is getting a lot of attention these days. Just last week, Thomas Kuczmarski, who teaches courses on innovation at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, was in our office talking about a new book he wrote about leadership with his wife, Susan Kuczmarski, a cultural anthropologist. It’s called “Apples are Square: Thinking Differently About Leadership,’ (to be published in July.)

One of the things he says he’s now telling his budding MBAs is that the old Jack Welch model of leadership — assertive, aggressive, controlling, and competitive – has to change. “We need more feminine characteristics in management,” he says.

Just don’t call them that, he warned me. Might spook the fellas.

Nancy Pelosi aside, the modern workplace is not yet ready to sign on to something that might lead someone to call the CEO a girly man. The acceptable way of talking about a leadership model that’s more collaborative, consensus-driven, compassionate, and inclusive, he says, is the gender-neutral term “values-based leadership.”

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Call it what you will. But keep your eyes open and chances are good you’ll start recognizing it in the most unlikely places….like at P&G, where A.G. Lafley replaced Durk Jager (who was known as “an aggressive change agent with a confrontational style”) and Disney, where Robert Iger succeeded Michael Eisner (called, by the BBC, “direct, domineering, and harsh.” )

And now even Harvard. Can the Age of Aquarius be far behind?

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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