On Topic: Nice guys sometimes finish first
Michael Chevy Castranova
So you may recall we had those caucuses a couple weeks ago. Lots of determined people stood in lots of long lines, and a flock of national politicians made astonishingly simplistic pronouncements about how our state, our nation and the rest of world will behave once he or she is sworn in as America’s 45th president.
Since then, the candidates, the two dominant political parties and many self-selected analysts have informed us of what lessons we should take away from the events of Feb. 1 — and, as I clearly remember from my sitting at my desk here at The Gazette, into Feb. 2.
Among those suggestions that have been put forth is the notion that voters, as a whole, appear in basic disagreement as to what sort of leader they want. Do they desire an undoubting hand on the ship of state or a captain who watches for potential shoals? A possessor of vision or of pragmatism?
Which, at the most fundamental level, is pretty much the same question that comes up for any organization when recruiting a leader.
In 2000, some commentators asked: Who would you rather sit in a bar and have a beer with? The implication from that is the person we choose should be likable and chatty.
Which on the face of it seems contrary to the oft-heard proposition that our leaders should run things — our nation, our university — like a business: all calculating efficiency, dollars and cents. It came up when Bruce Harreld, with his MBA from Harvard University and a resume listing IBM, Kraft General Foods and the Boston Market chain, rose up on the lickety-split fast track to become the 21st University of Iowa president.
“Of course a ‘business background’ would be useful to have in someone connected with a major research university’s administration,” UI law professor Nicholas Johnson told The Gazette’s Vanessa Miller this past autumn. “But that person does not need to be, and should not be, that university’s president.”
That is, an academic institution, as with a nation, brings with it many chickens to count and care for beyond solely keeping an eye on the accountants’ balance sheets.
But the Board of Regents hired Harreld to lead the university through challenging times, and that is his background. So we’ll see.
Consider the brouhaha over a statue of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) at Oxford University’s Oriel College. A former student, Rhodes became an extremely wealthy diamond-mining company executive and founder of the Rhodes scholarships as well as a colonialist in southern Africa. A strong hand, smart — but not a good guy, certainly not as judged by contemporary standards and arguably not by those of the late 19th century, either.
As for the likability argument, consider Steve Jobs. While many agreed Apple’s big cheese was a pioneer, no one claimed he was a nice guy.
And think about this: Running a complex organization, with its many people and functions, is complicated. Finding a leader who is good at being both your chum at the neighborhood bar as well as the coolheaded boss who can make see beyond the horizon to make the best decision — whatever “best” might mean — is a tall order.
Unless maybe we start recruiting from Krypton.
• Michael Chevy Castranova is enterprise and Sunday business editor of The Gazette. (319) 398-5873; firstname.lastname@example.org