Lawrence H. Summers arrived at Harvard University in 2001 with an ambitious agenda. He wanted professors to spend more time with students, get more poor and lower-middle-class kids into the university, and build a second campus across the Charles River in Boston. Most of all, he wanted to expand math and science at Harvard by building a new engineering school, boosting biotech research, and dramatically updating the basic liberal arts curriculum to give every graduate a grounding in bioscience and technology.
Unfortunately, in his leadership style, Summers has proven to be more provocateur than persuader, more lecturer than listener, more threatening than reassuring to the very people whose culture he is trying to change. In his latest dustup with the faculty, his third or fourth in as many years, Summers antagonized many of the very same science faculty and researchers he needs to build his dream of expanding science throughout Harvard. The same intellectual style of challenging conventional wisdom and questioning basic principles that made him one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history also gave him a patina of arrogance that irked members of Congress when he was in the Clinton Administration and now angers much of Harvard's faculty.
Summers joins the ranks of recent leaders brought in to generate change in organizations only to misfire and fail: Durk I. Jager at Procter & Gamble (PG), Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard (HP), Howell Raines at The New York Times. Jager, to take but one example, was the epitome of the hard-charging leader who, in his 17-month tenure, ripped through P&G, bullying, gruffly talking to employees, and generating waves of initiatives. But in publicly pitting himself against the corporate culture and the employees who lived it, Jager failed to gain a mandate, and his reorganization effort quickly failed. His successor, Alan G. "A.G." Lafley, in contrast, has turned P&G into an innovation powerhouse, and he did it by being more coach than Captain Bligh.
Which is precisely what Summers is not doing. He was right to challenge the Harvard faculty to be open-minded about why there are so few tenured women in university science departments. But by asking the gender question so insensi-tively and with so little intellectual rigor, he antagonized many and now risks much. By not bringing enough of the faculty along with him in making needed changes, Summers has reduced his chances of ever making those changes, even if he continues to receive the support of Harvard's governing body.
Good intentions are no substitute for good management. Creative organizations, be they universities or corporations, cannot be coerced into change. In the 21st century, they must be coached, cajoled, and coaxed.