The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Talking leadership with Georgetown’s president

John J. DeGioia became president of Georgetown University in 2001 after holding a variety of senior administrative positions at the institution, including senior vice president and dean of student affairs. DeGioia spoke about the challenges of leading a major university with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

A. I aspire to a style of leadership that you would expect in a university, and that is a collegial style — one that tends to be inclusive and seeks to ensure that we all understand that we are in this together.

Q. How do you maintain collegiality while making tough decisions that may upset some people?

A. There are three really important things. Leadership must consistently authenticate and validate the dialogue process that produces a coherent narrative about who we are, where we are, what the challenges are and what will be required of us to fulfill our promises. Second, every organization confronts constraints to its growth and development, and the responsibility of leadership is to ensure we identify those constraints and subordinate the work of the university to those constraints. And third, it’s communicating widely and regularly about the narrative and about those issues that are really constraining us. Everybody needs to be aware of the forces that are impacting our ability to sustain our mission into the future.

Q. Have you found certain communication techniques more effective than others?

A. There is no substitute for face-to-face encounters. This year, I will deliver about 230 speeches to a mostly Georgetown audience of one size or another. Probably most important for me are a regular series of town halls were I report out on the issues, challenges and progress to date and take questions from the members of our community. We’ve also tried to use social media in a way that enables us to reach a broader audience. We have found Facebook to be particularly effective to share some of the activities that I am personally engaged in and that characterize what the university is doing.

Q. What are some of the biggest demands of your job?

A. There are great demands to be the public face of the university and to be out with alumni. There is almost no limit to the time I could spend traveling on behalf of Georgetown, particularly now as we are in the middle of a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign. And there is no amount of time that would be too much to devote on campus. Finding that balance between the appropriate amount of time on campus and fulfilling the external obligations is really one of the toughest balancing acts.

Q. What are your goals for Georgetown University?

A. The disruptions and challenges we face are unprecedented. What we’ve tried to do is position the university to effectively engage those challenges as opportunities. For example, we have embraced the Massive Open Online Course technology, that is aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the Internet. We are very excited to be a part of it. We opened up the imagination of our faculty. One of our most distinguished faculty members, Ted Moran, who has been with us for more than a generation, went online with his globalization course and more than 30,000 people participated. We’ve embraced technology, and we’re looking to see how we can use it to become that much better at what we do.

Q. What do you think are some important management challenges facing government?

A. The same kinds of disruptions that higher education is wrestling with are confronting every one of our federal agencies. We know we’re dealing with forces of change. Perhaps one of the lessons from a university that might be relevant for any government agency is managing continuity with change. So I think there’s a reframing of some of the work that we do in our government that might benefit from watching how other enduring institutions are wrestling with these same challenges.

Q. Are young people interested in government service?

A. Last November was such a poignant period in remembering President John F. Kennedy and those words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That spirit is something that we all need to share — a commitment that we need to revive. Many of my colleagues who have had the opportunity to serve at a senior government level will tell you it was the greatest experience of their lives. There is something about doing the work of the people that is powerful and meaningful, but it can be hard to see that when there are so many extraordinary things a young person can do.

Read also:

Leadership lessons from the president of American University

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.