Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Antioch College's Lack of Leadership

We see failures big and small when we analyze leadership, but not many times do we see an organization failing to the point of closure. Last school year Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio closed its doors after 156 years. The college maintained a reputation of progressive liberal teaching and culture especially made famous during the 1960s. Since there have been many presidents and members of the Board of Trustees during the declining times of Antioch, this post will focus on leadership failure as a whole.

Antioch College began suffering in the early 1970s from lack of a cohesive vision, a lack of community and a true lack of leadership. After experiencing a period of growth, the college began to expand outside of its original focus of undergraduate education. The unofficial campus motto had been to “take education to the people”, but what no one was prepared for was the massive expansion resulting in four graduate campuses being opened in less than eight years. The name was legally changed to Antioch University, although the undergraduate campus was allowed to maintain college. The faculty and students on the undergraduate campus began to feel alienated from the mission of a strong liberal arts undergraduate-focused education. Enrollment steadily dropped and eventually fell under 200.

The theory that this most closely follows is Selznick’s outlined in “Leadership in Administration”. Antioch’s administration from the president to the Board of Trustee’s failed to set long term goals for the institution that were cohesive with the college’s image. I agree with Selznick when he said that when there is a failure at the institutional level it is “more often by default than by positive error or sin” (25). No one at Antioch wanted the institution to fail, but goals were not communicated. They hoped to expand the institution beyond the undergraduate sector and capitalize on the financial stability. Antioch fell victim to the pressure of opportunistic forces of grow, grow, grow. Selznick specifically uses university administration as an example of leadership misinterpreting success while “steadily growing larger” (27).

Selznick goes on to talk more about the values and goals of an organization as something that must “infuse the organization on many levels” (26). While the faculty was seeking structure and stability in the undergraduate education structure, the administration was expanding to graduate education that did not follow the mission of the school.

The closing of Antioch College is perhaps an extreme example because we often don’t see institutions closing. I would argue though that there are many other examples of organizations that are experiencing a lack of leadership. Do you think the positioning of a strong leader would have been able to change the course of Antioch College? On a side note, an independent organization has been moving to reopen the school with an entirely new administration. Do you think that the school will be able to reopen and find success?

Cleaning Up (Your Own) Leadership Mess

In another class we have discussed several times the decline of Starbucks and what they are doing now to try to turn it around. It has lead my mind to the question of the company’s leadership – because what I didn’t know before studying the company is that former CEO Howard Schultz, who saw the company through its massive and in the short term successful growth during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, returned to the helm in 2007 after a seven year absence during which he served as chairman and focused on global operations.

Upon Schultz’ return, he sent a memo to top management criticizing and taking personal blame for some of the profit-boosting decisions that lead to the dilution and commoditization of the branded “coffeehouse experience” that carried Starbucks to its heights. A few examples of these decisions include stream-lining store designs, sales of non-coffee products, hasty openings of neighboring stores, installing automated brewing machines to shave seconds from drink-making time, and other cost-cutting measures. Schultz has pledged to get back to the “experience” in order to turn the company around.

In order to do that, hundreds of stores are being closed and thousands of jobs being cut. Without getting into whether his methods will be able to make the company profitable again, what characteristics of leadership will Schultz most need to demonstrate in order to be an effective leader, to improve the reputation of the brand, and to gain/keep effective followership while closing stores and cutting jobs – a solution to a problem that developed on his watch?

Immediately Geneen comes to mind. He states that “One of the essential attributes of a good leader is enough self-confidence to be able to admit his own mistakes and know that they won’t ruin him.” (Geneen 1998) It appears that Schultz has this one covered by taking blame for much of the demise of the company. Geneen also says that firing is one of the true tests of leadership abilities: “the alert leader will recognize the clues and will move forcefully as soon as he learns the facts. And when he does, he will earn the respect of all the others who are hardworking imaginative and productive.” (Geneen 1998) How does a leader recover when he was, himself, the individual an effective leader should have fired?

Another thing to note: The memo to top management was leaked to the public. Was the “leak” a strategic move by Schultz to ingratiate him to the public? If it was purposeful, was it a good idea?