CEO’s Letter: “Wrecking the Moment” and What We Want From Leaders

At HRO Today, we usually stick to HR-related news and avoid the maelstrom of mass media stories that circulate in the toxic stew of controversy, propaganda, and political factionalism. Today, I am venturing into an international story not because I want to take a partisan position, but because I think it is a troubling lesson in leadership.

I am discussing the recent Congressional testimony by the presidents of three of this nation’s most prestigious universities. I am a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce of the University of Pennsylvania, so I watched the hearing with particular interest. One has to recognize that the event itself was part of the ongoing political circus created by a cable TV/social media culture that emphasizes surface over substance, but nonetheless, the protest rhetoric at these schools had reached a level that was alarming for most Americans and thousands of alumni like myself. I wanted to see how these esteemed academic institutions were “threading” their approach to this very difficult topic. What I was looking for? In a word, leadership.

That is how this hotly debated event/debacle has come into the pages of HRO Today and my column. Aside from the political ramifications, “culture war” ramifications, or even the academic oversight ramifications, I wanted to see leadership. Each of these university executives is supposed to be shaping the young minds that will someday lead the world in science, commerce, and government. They should model the best of what leadership represents. I doubt anyone reading this column wants to argue that is what they saw. Each one of the presidents leads a community composed of academics, students, alumni, and other stakeholders. I was part of one of those communities. I do not believe we saw leadership; I think we saw quite the lack of it. As someone who has spent their life helping to identify leadership, study leadership, and encourage leadership, I realized this was a moment to go to our readers—who are primarily senior HR leaders—and spend a few paragraphs on leadership itself.

First, I have to define why I was so disappointed. Clearly, the outcome was not what I would have wanted so I asked myself what were my expectations and what were theirs as witnesses. I am sure in the hyper-partisan environment in which we live, they could have expected elected officials to posture and ask hectoring questions. I found out after, they not only expected it, but all three executives had been briefed by the same law firm. So, it is unlikely they encountered anything they did not expect. So, what did I expect?

Leadership is about authenticity. I wanted them to admit that the guard rails of democracy are girded by free speech and that they were limited by their ability to prevent or muzzle free expression up to the line of inciting violence.  But I also wanted them to unequivocally denounce the chants calling for “global intifada,” for example, which refers to the destruction of Jewish students and Jewish people everywhere in the world. Intifada doesn’t deal with a territorial dispute but rather a desire to engage in a global blood-soaked revenge spree. Leaders have to speak with moral clarity. They can say that yes, students have the right to protest, but no their institutions categorically and unequivocally decry any suggestion of violence toward any group based on race, ethnicity, or belief. Just look into the camera and say it.

That is not what happened. Instead, there was a gobbledegook mess of legalistic equivocation and condescending irritation. What followed was a conflagration that now has one of those leaders out of their job and another leading an institution that has admitted it has seen a nearly 20% drop in early admission applications. All three schools have lost billions in donor pledges and a tremendous loss of public trust and respect. And they just had to say, “I support free speech, but I don’t have to agree with all of what is said.” They had to stand up for the frightened students and faculty on their campus and say, “don’t worry we won’t let anyone stand outside your dorm and call for your death and if they do, we will form a stalwart line of fellow supporters who will protect your right to exist.” Instead, they hid behind canned talking points prepared by risk averse attorneys. Leadership is not about avoiding controversy; it is about showing courage in the face of it.

None of the issues are easy to discuss, and I am trying hard to not take a side beyond saying we all know what leadership looks like, we all know leadership is clear, strong, and unequivocal. We should all work as HR leaders to encourage our fellow executives to be better than what we just witnessed.

In this holiday season, let us all pray for peace, goodwill, forbearance, and grace among all of the people on Earth and from the staff and leadership of HRO Today, thank you for a great year. Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

Elliot S. Clark

Tags: December 2023

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