Still More Crazy Things that People Do

Note: As promised last week, here is another (real) case history from my 38-year work history. Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 can be found here by scrolling down.

My first job in the professional world was in 1978 as the (first) Business Development Director for a community college near Seattle, WA. The College had been in existence since 1965, and the founding President had just retired the year before I arrived. The new President had arrived just before my recruitment and had served for many years as an Associate Dean of English for an extensive community college system in Bakersfield, CA. Visually, he was a prominent person and very much looked the part of a President of a college.

The previous President had assembled an incredible team of 16 Deans from each Department of the College that were a competent, and efficient team. Unafraid of conflict, this group regularly employed good conflict skills to get to a resolution on the tough challenges facing the growing school.

We noticed fairly quickly that the new President spent a lot of time in his office as a "Wizard of Oz" type administrator; always behind closed doors and was mute in the weekly Dean's Council. His management style was definitely "hands-off", in stark contrast to his predecessor, who was, in essence, a benevolent dictator. The Council scrambled to try to adjust to the new boss' leadership style, but his style was almost impossible to ascertain.

Very quickly, without a moderator for making decisions, the Dean's Council soon found itself at odds with each other and the once powerful group of 16's unity had become too attenuated to be effective. Soon, individual Dean's were regularly in the President's office, lobbying for their pet project or, worse yet, their budget, often to the detriment of the entire college. The atmosphere at the Dean's Council became very adversarial, and decision making ground to a halt as the President always deferred hard decisions to subsequent meetings. Then, at those meetings, he would barely acknowledge that a decision was still pending and yet more decisions were put off until, yes; never.

One day, the most senior Dean, called all the Dean's and senior administrators together for a meeting when the President was off campus for the day. Very quickly, as people began to compare notes about controversial decisions and their individual meetings with the President, they discovered that the President was agreeing with whatever POV was presented to him by each Dean!

The realization that the President was incapable of engaging in conflict, and making decisions, dawned simultaneously on almost everyone in the room. At the same time, the awful realization started to sink in on how we could we deal with this dysfunctional leader?

The Dean's decided to take this challenge head-on and confront him at the next Dean's Council by forcing him to make decisions on the long list of unresolved issues. It was a disaster; even as the issues were still being presented, the President rose from his chair, left the meeting, and closed himself in his office for the rest of the day.

The President and I had bonded early on as we were the two new guys on the team and I decided to jump in and see if I could help move this stand-off toward resolution. I knocked on his office door soon after the horrible Council meeting, and when he said to come in, I entered and found him writing at his desk. He asked me to sit down and then, he handed me the piece of paper he had been working on and asked for my opinion. I was stunned to find that he had been writing poetry, which, although it was quite good, seemed to be totally inappropriate for the occasion.

I was so flummoxed by his behavior, that I stammered that I needed to go to a meeting and left his office. I resolved not to say anything until I had a chance to sleep on what had just transpired. The next morning, I realized that, as the most junior administrator at age 28, that I was in no position to take a leadership position at the same time that I also concluded that our President was incompetent!

I decided to confide in the most senior Dean, (the same one who had convened the previous meeting) and told him what I had experienced the day before. He took it calmly and said he would assemble the group of Dean's to decide on a course of action. What happened next was amazing. The voted to do nothing except to start running the college together and only "FYI" the President when necessary.

I went back to the same Dean and asked why they didn't go the Trustees as a group and inform them of what was going on? He said the majority of the group were only 5 to 10 years away from retirement and didn't want to jeopardize their retirement benefits from the State of Washington.

So, now we had written the perfect recipe for total dysfunction because no one wanted to engage in real conflict to come to a resolution on a singularly critical issue. I was very discouraged by all of this and lost a lot of respect for the Dean's Council.

Fast forward to a social event, a post-commencement celebration with parents, students, trustees, and staff; a send-off for the graduating class of 1979. There was a band playing, and the dance floor in the Student Center was rocking to the oldies. My courage bolstered by too many drinks, I stepped onto the dance floor and was soon immersed in the moment. Given that very few males were dancing and with lots of willing female dancers, I became very popular. I soon found myself taking a turn on the floor with one of the College's Trustees, who slyly squeezed in a question to me about how I thought the new President was doing? Without thinking, I poured out my whole story to her, thinking that, finally, I had an audience for my frustration. She said she would look into it and get back to me.

At the beginning of the next week, I was called into the President's Office, where he summarily fired me. I was stunned. I said goodbye to some of my colleagues, packed up my office, and left the building wondering what was going to be my next step in professional life.

A month later, my former boss, the Assistant to the President, called me and gave me the best news ever. He said that I had my job back and that the Trustees had just fired the President. It seemed that my action of talking to one of the Trustees had finally inspired the Deans to speak to the Board and let them know how dysfunctional the President was, and the deed was done.

What did I learn from this whole sordid affair? Well, for one, courage is rare and rarer still in the workplace. For another, being alone and out in front of controversy can often be a lonely place. Last, even though pioneers often get arrows in the ass, doing the right thing can be very rewarding.


Note: Next week - more interesting case histories from the client folder