Leadership lessons from the president of American University

December 13, 2013

Neil Kerwin became American University’s 14th president in September 2007. Kerwin joined AU in 1975 and has held numerous faculty and leadership positions, including dean of the School of Public Affairs. In this interview, he speaks with On Leadership contributor Tom Fox about fostering leadership among AU students and inspiring them to public service. Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What leadership lessons have you learned as the president of American University?

Jeff Watts
(Photo by Jeff Watts/Courtesy of American University)

A. The longer I do this kind of work, the clearer it is to me that leadership is a collective activity. This happens here at American University hundreds of times every day at every level of the university, and in our extended communities. Leadership requires setting goals and direction, doing and supervising hard work to reach those goals, and the discipline and honesty to evaluate progress. Defined this way, leadership cannot be the province or responsibility of one person or a small group at the top. At its best, it suffuses the organization.

A president's role is to make that clear, ensure it happens, and provide space, ideas, encouragement and acknowledgement of accomplishments. Vision is essential, but one that colleagues have not contributed to or is not widely shared will not serve the purpose. I have also learned delegation is essential to success and that it is a process of constant adjustment, not a single act. No one is perfect in the work we do, and by recognizing this, you’re fostering a healthy culture that supports innovation. And, of course, none of this relieves the president of ultimate responsibility for the institution, and the need to be clearly and visibly accountable.

Another lesson is that crises assume a life of their own—they monopolize energy, alter thought. They are a great time to learn and a bad time to plan. It is when times are good and stable that you need to examine the things that are of the greatest risk to your organization in the long term. As a leader, you must be able to provide the energy and motivation amongst your employees to ask these difficult questions, because difficult times will come.

Q. How were you able to build trust amongst your faculty, staff, students and donors during the early stages of your presidency?

A. As an internal candidate, my route to trust building was very different than that of an external candidate. It was important to show that I could assume leadership at a very different level and prove that I would hold both myself and others accountable. The development and implementation of a comprehensive strategic plan, which included input from the entire university community, also enabled me to demonstrate that the plan was going to be different, both substantively and procedurally, from prior plans. Then, I showed that I was willing to be held accountable for my responsibilities as president. I continue to spend a considerable amount of my time keeping the lines of formal and informal communication open. You’re not going to last very long if the community begins to feel that you’re not telling them the whole story in an accurate manner.

Q. How are you fostering leadership among American University students and creating the next generation of leaders?

A. We’re often described as the most politically active campus in the United States, so we start with a very strong base of students who are predisposed to leadership. Twenty years ago, we began a leadership program in the School of Public Affairs that has graduated thousands, and we’ve expanded these types of programs to other areas of the university. We are also aggressive in pushing our students to enter various competitions to help instill self-confidence, which is fundamental to leadership. In addition to the formal education, we have developed a co-curriculum that gives students opportunities to test their leadership skills, and some of the personal consequences that comes with leadership. Leadership comes with great opportunity, but also with a price that you need to learn about early in life.

Q. How can agency leaders help inspire the next generation to pursue a path into public service?

A. We have to demonstrate that great things can be accomplished in government and through public service, and in some cases done better than by other sectors. Every federal employee in a position of authority needs to demonstrate where these opportunities lie. Today’s students understand they will not just change jobs in the course of their lives, they’ll change careers. They’ll move more fluidly between sectors, which will be beneficial to the workforce if managed properly. Leaders need to convince them that government is a place where they will be given important, impactful work while also developing as individuals.

Q. Who are your leadership role models, and what are some of the lessons that you have taken from them?

A. My role models change every day, and I’m at the point in my life where I don’t think so much in terms of particular individuals. What I’m always impressed with and admire deeply are people who confront really difficult situations, either in their lives or work, and are willing and able to gather the strength and courage to make very hard decisions. You could point to any number of public servants, many who will never be household names, who have done this magnificently. There’s heroism in public service today. It’s in the people who are willing to sacrifice more lucrative careers, because they believe deeply in an agency’s mission. I think the role models we really need to look to are in front of us every day, and they’re not famous names. They’re just people doing the right thing under difficult circumstances.

Read also:

Those in their 20s and early 30s currently represent only 8 percent of all federal employees.

How to update government service

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