Emory Report
February 6, 2006
Volume 58, Number 18


Emory Report homepage  

February 6, 2006
Leaders talk leadership at Spring Town Hall

BY Michael terrazas

For a panel comprising five of Emory’s top leaders, it was only appropriate that the Employee Council Spring Town Hall, held Jan. 31 in Tull Auditorium, focused on the qualities of leadership—and why they are central to the University’s aspirations.

Council President Louis Burton handled introductions of the panelists after thanking School of Law interim Dean Frank Alexander for hosting the noontime event, which drew a few hundred people to Tull to enjoy a food buffet and listen to the discussion.

“In my 25 years at Emory,” Alexander said, “I’ve never been so excited about the University as I’ve been under the leadership of the last three years.”

Three springs ago, more than half the panelists on stage were at other institutions: President Jim Wagner, Provost Earl Lewis and Executive Vice President Mike Mandl. A fourth, University Secretary Rosemary Magee, ascended to her post in 2005 after many years as an associate dean in Emory College. The fifth was Robert Ethridge, vice president and head of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.

After reading inspirational quotations about leadership from the likes of Peter Drucker and John F. Kennedy, Burton began the Town Hall by reading prepared questions individually to the panelists and asking them to comment.

For example, in response to a question about what he has asked himself about leadership and what makes him a leader, Ethridge said, “The short answer is: Why me? But then, the longer answer is: Why not me?”
Lewis, upon being asked whether leadership can be taught, began by saying “there are a thousand books out there saying it can.

“To me, the key quality of leadership is a good sense of humor,” the provost continued. “On any given day, there are at least one or two items that can send you over the deep end [if you don’t have a sense of humor].”
Magee talked of the importance of “collaborative imaginings” in leadership and cited Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin as a highly effective leader and inspirational role model, especially for the prospective women leaders on Emory’s campus.

In talking about ways to incorporate good leadership into one’s day-to-day responsibilities, Mandl suggested people think about how they spend some of the less-busy moments of their day. “Try to spend your time on things that will make a substantive difference and are sustainable,” he said.

The president suggested people internalize Emory’s aspirations and try to apply them to their everyday tasks. “Make decisions informed by the vision statement—which is what we want to be as a University,” Wagner said.

The afternoon contained its share of levity, as Burton also asked a couple panelists to pose questions to each other. Responding to Magee’s question about what mistakes he’d made as a leader and how he corrected them, Ethridge said, “Let me turn the question around.” After the crowd stopped laughing, he added, “That’s called leadership.”

But it also had its serious moments. Responding to a question from an audience member about Emory’s 2002 decision to reduce contributions to retiree health benefits—and how that decision jibed with Emory’s vision to be a destination university—Mandl said first that he was not on campus during that time but that he still agreed in principle with the decision.

“At the end of the day, there are hard decisions,” he said. “In the short term, it can be painful for some people. In the long term, [the decision] was consistent with the lay of land [in health care nationally].”

Wagner said Emory still is fine-tuning its model for leadership, searching for the correct balance between central and decentralized decision-making. He drew a continuum between, on the one hand, the “command and control” model associated with military-style chains of command, and on the other the concept of “emergent” leadership, in which no individual holds authority over another. Somewhere along that continuum lies a good model for Emory, he said.

Events like the Employee Council Town Halls may be one way to find it. As Burton said, closing the event with a quote from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, “Ninety percent of leadership is the ability to communicate something people want.”

To view the event in its entirety, visit www.employeecouncil.emory.edu.