Amanda Goodall


On her book Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars

Cover Interview of December 29, 2009

The wide angle

There are literally thousands of books on leadership on the market.  And one of the common criticisms about them is that they are often anecdotal and lack convincing evidence.

Also, various disciplines have researched leadership.  Historians tend to focus on the “great man” perspective.  What can we learn from the actions of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln?  These accounts make interesting stories but they are not generalisable.  Psychologists have tended to focus on individual characteristics such as traits, and sociologists have stepped back into the wider context; in my view, the former get too close, and the latter too far.  Critical management authors believe that leadership is elitist so they ignore it.  MBA students, on the other hand, often look to the “charismatic leader” for solutions.  The head of a US business school told me that all MBA students want Jack Welch to be dean.

Arguably, the success of a leader will be due to many immeasurable factors.  And unlike in the experimental sciences, we social scientists cannot randomly assign a CEO to an organization.  But despite the cloudy conditions, I believe it is essential that empirical researchers try to establish the effectiveness of heads.  Leaders have the most power in organizations, and substantial resources are invested in their recruitment and pay.

The approach that I adopt to this topic is partially drawn from economics, and I also include interview evidence.  So the book includes lots of data, both quantitative and qualitative, but it has been written to be accessible.

The statistical analyses demonstrate two main findings.  First, that the best universities in the world are overwhelmingly led by outstanding scholars.  Second, that if a top scholar comes to preside over a research institution, the performance of the university will improve some years later.  To get to the issue of causality I use time lags—I look at the leader some years before I look at university performance.  I also have some control variables (in other words I hold some things constant)—for example the size of a university or the discipline of its president and their age.

It may be helpful to mention the influence of my personal background.  I worked in university administration before switching to research.  I worked closely with university leaders as part of the top management team.  One of the presidents I worked with was Anthony Giddens.  Giddens is an outstanding scholar, well known across the social sciences, and I noticed that his behavior and preferences as an administrator were different from those of other presidents I worked with—those who left research early in their careers to become administrators.  So the hypothesis I raise in this book—that better scholars make better leaders of research universities—came out of real life.