Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is by all accounts a mensch. And what people used to call a stitch. When you meet him — for me it was at a BankInter-hosted gathering of scientists, business innovators, and policy experts in Madrid — you're struck by his no-nonsense style and gruff Brooklyn charm. No matter your age, Trachtenberg is likely to address you as "kid." The straight-talking President emeritus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. is the son of working-class, New York Jews who seems never to have forgotten where he came from.
Trachtenberg is a lawyer by training who earned degrees at Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. He did a stint in the Johnson administration before becoming an exceptionally successful university president. From early days, he was a scrappy leader. A Jesuit friend of mine at neighboring Georgetown once told me, with admiration, how for years Trachtenberg outfoxed the rival school in everything from strategy to marketing to real estate acquisition, and in the process transformed underdog GW into a national powerhouse.
At some point in his nearly two decades at George Washington (he retired in 2007), Trachtenberg must have noted that he was beating the odds on tenure. Meanwhile, for his peers in US higher education, those odds are only getting worse. From 2006 to 2011, presidents' average length of service dropped from eight and a half years to seven, continuing a long-term trend.
A few years ago, Trachtenberg, together with Gerald B. Kauvar (a research professor and expert in Victorian literature) and former university chancellor E. Grady Bogue, undertook to discover how it is that seemingly competent leaders so often find themselves out on the street. The series of interviews they conducted turned into Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (Johns Hopkins University Press). It's a book with relevance far beyond academe.
Some of the case studies put forth by Trachtenberg, Kauvar, and Bogue yield straightforward lessons. Their basic words to the wise? If you don't want to fail as a university president, 1) always meet your business objectives; 2) communicate clearly; 3) never stop tending to your key constituencies; and 4) be resilient. The last, referring to the ability to adapt to the unexpected and recover quickly from setbacks, is particularly hard to master. I have also heard General David Petraeus call it the single most important aspect in running a counterinsurgency (which some university presidents might sometimes feel called on to do).
The derailed presidents in the 16 case studies assembled here all stumbled badly in one or more of the above-mentioned areas. Sometimes a divided or misguided board contributed to their derailment. The book is spiced with anecdotes, although in most instances the authors seek to protect the identity of those involved.
But beyond these basic rules, there's also a valuable reminder throughout the book that durable, effective leadership is an "intricate dance," as the authors put it, too nuanced to be explained by one-size-fits-all formulas.
Case in point. Trachtenberg thinks a university has to be run like a business. Bills have to paid, money has to be respected, he told me in a recent email. Yet the book also emphasizes that the academic enterprise is unique. An institution of higher education, with its hearts-and-minds mission and its complex blend of stakeholders — students, faculty, parents, trustees, alumni, donors, state and local authorities and community — is hardly a business pure and simple. (The same, by the way, can be said about newspapers. So I hope Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who just acquired the Washington Post, will add Presidencies Derailed to his reading list.)
Incidentally, Trachtenberg has his critics — any strong leader does. But he's a guy rooted in something, who seems to be comfortable in his own skin. After meeting him, I also looked into his last book, Big Man on Campus, a memoir. It's good storytelling, with pearls of wisdom enclosed in vignettes that make you laugh out loud. Or at least chuckle. Like the occasion when Trachtenberg bumps into a desperate student who borrows a few bucks to get himself through the weekend. The student, without knowing whom he's dealing with, tries to give the president an unsigned check as reimbursement.
My own takeaway from reading both books is this. Great leadership seldom results from a focus on ROI über alles. And it is possible to discern patterns in the successes and failures of leaders. But no great leader's accomplishment can be wholly described by the few lessons that are transferable from enterprise to enterprise or across different fields and industries. The central and most fascinating pieces of the leadership puzzle are judgment, wisdom, character, and emotional intelligence. So simply stated. So elusive time and again.
How do you train a leader to be a mensch?