No confidence votes by faculty against top administrators are a common occurrence in higher education. It seem that no confidence votes come about for one primary reason: The president or provost does not know how to lead people. The problems cited are typically general in nature, such as incompetence, dictatorial leadership style, lack of transparency, and poor decision-making. In addition to poor leadership, these problems are seen by faculty as antithetical to shared governance, which is greatly valued.
No confidence votes have become over-used and are meaningless. In most cases, their only effect is to signal to regents that it is time for them to issue another form letter stating their support for the leader who received the no-confidence vote. I joke with colleagues that the Faculty Senate should simplify the matter and pass one blanket resolution of no confidence for whoever happens to be leading the leading the university. But, that would be unfair to someone who might really know how to lead a university.
University leaders receive votes of no confidence because of what I consider to be amateur, rather than professional quality leadership, due to the hundreds of basic errors that most leaders make. Good leadership requires purposeful practice and dedication to improvement that is akin to what people go through to become capable musicians. Because leadership and general management is generally poor in all organizations, higher ed or otherwise, 80 to 90 percent of leaders suffer from a lack of confidence among their followers – whether it is voted on or not.
So, the bigger picture informs us that most leaders are poor at their core job of leadership. People love big titles and big salaries and big perks, but are most leaders are unwilling to engage in the daily practice routines that are required to become great at what they do. So what can be done?
No confidence votes are a type of formal feedback given to the leader by faculty. Yet the feedback is usually ambiguous and late, creates animosity, and does not lead to improvement. Faculty can provide better and more timely formal feedback to university leaders by pointing out the specific leadership errors that they make. This re-orients the feedback from criticism, which results in defensive behaviors, to specific opportunities for improvement. That’s important, because everyone wants to do better in their job and be more successful, but they often don’t know how because the feedback lacks specificity.
So, what faculty can do is identify the specific leadership errors that leaders make and provide a steady flow of feedback (e.g. quarterly or semi-annually) to both the president and provost, with copies provided to human resources and the regents. Fortunately, faculty will not have to think too hard to do that. They can simply select from hundreds of common leadership errors organized into 15 routine leadership processes. The documented feedback need be no more than one-half to one page, and cite the top 3 to 5 errors which, if corrected, would improve leadership. They should also indicate 3 to 5 things that the leaders does well.
Rather than triggering a form letter from regents in support of the leader, regents are put in the uncomfortable – but now responsible – position of having to address specific errors and identify corrective actions that the leader must take. Of course, leaders must make an honest effort to improve and accept the fact that nobody is exempt from improvement. Their failure to do so will quickly indicate to regents that the leader, while perhaps valuable for fundraising or other type of work useful to the university, is not the right person to lead the university.
This feedback process should be made public, while the specific leadership errors made can be kept private. In doing so, I expect that the process would scare away many candidates for leadership positions because they don’t want their poor abilities be exposed and made visible for all to see. That would be good thing. But, it would also attract candidates for leadership positions who are serious about improving themselves and the university. That would be a better thing.