Amanda Goodall


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

Cover Interview of December 29, 2009

A close-up

Why do experts make better leaders?

I interviewed twenty-six presidents and deans in universities in the US and UK, including Amy Gutmann at U Penn, Lawrence Summers and Derek Bok, former Harvard presidents, David Skorton at Cornell, John Hood at Oxford, Patrick Harker at the Wharton School, and others.

Four reasons why top scholars should lead research universities emerged from these interviews.

First, a president who is a distinguished scholar will have a better understanding of the core business of a university, that of research and teaching.  This is central to the idea of “expert leadership,” that in organizations where the core business relies on expert knowledge the leader must first be an outstanding expert in the relevant area of business.  This challenges the ideas of managerialism that would appear to promote management skills above expert knowledge.  Arguably, top scholars, engineers or lawyers must also have management and leadership skills, and in my dataset of 400, almost all the leaders had progressed through managerial hierarchies in their institutions prior to the top job.

A second explanation raised by interviewees, one that again relates to expert knowledge, is that a scholar-leader will likely demand higher academic standards.  Arguably, it is leaders who should set the standards in any organization.  This message is articulated by a dean in one of my interviews: “leaders are the final arbiters of quality.  Therefore it is right to expect the standard bearer to first bear the standard.”

Top scholars send out important signals to a number of audiences.  That was the third explanation from interviewees.  They signal a university’s priorities, act as a beacon when hiring other outstanding academics, and, it was argued, are attractive to students and donors.

Finally, it was suggested that scholars are more credible leaders.  A president who is a researcher will gain greater respect from academic colleagues and appear more legitimate.  Legitimacy extends a leader’s power and influence.

So if the board of a research university wants to improve its performance in what I consider is the “core business” of research and teaching, then they should hire great scholars as leaders.  And, as discussed in chapter 7, this is also relevant to heads in law and accounting firms, in R&D, management consultancies and architecture practices, and the creative industries.