“Free” Speech Has Consequences

It is always frustrating to see people with great leadership potential stumble. A recent example is Harvard President Larry Summers, a person of extraordinary intellectual ability who seems at risk of having “controversial” permanently attached to his name in the media. The label wouldn’t matter if Summers didn’t seem to be habitually putting his leadership and, thus, his ambitious vision for Harvard on the line.

The latest flap involving Summers followed his January 14 appearance at an academic conference on women and science sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The university president was an invited speaker, and indeed had been urged by an organizer to be provocative. Unfortunately, Summers was that and more. He had the temerity to say there may be innate differences between men and women that might have an impact on the under-representation of women in the hard sciences. In fact, this is a view shared by many scientists today. That doesn’t mean, however, that the statement wasn’t hurtful to many conference attendees, especially women. Although Summers’s understanding was that the meeting was intended solely for academics, his remarks were reported to the media. The furor continued on campus for weeks as he issued apology after apology, and the controversy escalated into a national news story.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Summers case and what it tells us about leadership today. Where did Larry Summers go wrong? Surely, an academic meeting should be a place where a person can say what he or she thinks? His remarks were made harsher in the course of being translated by reporters. “Despite rumors to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science,” Summers wrote in a January 19 letter to the Harvard community. But he acknowledged that his remarks had negative consequences. In the same letter, he confessed: “I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.”

As holder of the highest-profile university presidency in the country, Summers would not have been given a free pass even if this had been his first gaffe. But he already had a public wrangle with Cornel West that caused the African-American scholar to leave Harvard for Princeton, and another flap when he called campus supporters of a boycott of Israel anti-Semitic. Whatever the merits of Summers’s positions—and they have often been considerable—he brought to each controversy a directness and lack of subtlety that served to enrage his opponents. Since no one except Summers and West really knows what was said between them, it is impossible to determine whether more diplomacy on Summers’s part would have kept West on campus. But it seems evident that Summers’s aggressive and plain- spoken demeanor has tended to exacerbate divisions on campus rather than diminish them.

Personally, I like and admire Summers. And having taught at that institution for the first three years of his presidency, I know that he has vigorously promoted policies that provide increasing opportunities for women and minorities. But I wonder if his confrontational style and candor to the point of bluntness might be out of joint with his present position. At best, his tactless remarks have been a distraction for the campus community. For some, they have been demoralizing.

You could argue that those who were offended seem surprisingly thin-skinned. But Summers might not yet appreciate how powerful he is in his role. Like it or not, whenever or wherever he speaks, he speaks ex cathedra as president of Harvard, not as your average academic. He has described his aggressive style as one designed to elicit valuable give-and-take. And as Socrates taught long ago, that approach can be invaluable in a classroom. But Socrates himself might have had trouble leading a modern university faculty. Even brilliant tenured faculty members don’t necessarily want to engage in a public debate with the boss.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of style. Style matters, because the way a leader behaves can invite candor, or it can stifle the voices the leader needs to hear. Other leaders have found ways to overcome the intimidation factor that positional power always presents. One graceful way to get followers to open up was reported in the January 24 issue of Fortune. Austin Ligon, CEO of CarMax, a chain of used-car stores, meets frequently with employees and invites them to tell him: “What are we doing that is stupid, unnecessary, or doesn’t make sense?” Ligon runs a retail operation, not a prestigious university full of independent spirits, most with healthy egos. And yet his way of eliciting the views of his followers is both collegial and nonthreatening. Ligon makes it clear that he wants to hear what his followers think and that they will not be embarrassed or punished for telling him unpleasant truths.

As for Summers’s style, there’s a kind of modesty about his approach, an implicit assumption that he is just another ordinary faculty member who loves nothing more than a good intellectual debate. But a leader must learn to adjust to his context. Like it or not, pluralistic communities, such as universities, mean the existence of multiple sensitivities, and the leader who ignores them does so, not just at his or her peril, but at the institution’s as well. I hate the idea of muzzling our leaders, but I think it’s fair to expect those who lead high-profile institutions to behave with what I like to call grace. That doesn’t require hypocrisy, but it does require tact. And it requires taking the time to think about the consequences of one’s speech and actions before as well as after the fact.

Organizational leaders need to foster an environment of candor, in which everyone feels free to speak, and they cannot create such an atmosphere if they are endlessly confrontational. Being able to win a debate is a much less valuable skill for a leader than being able to listen deeply. And leaders who want to be change agents must remember that vision is only the beginning. They also must have the will and the patience to build coalitions for change. When leaders have to make controversial decisions, they can’t be sure that everyone will agree. But leaders can behave in ways that don’t escalate tensions and make the opposition dig in their heels.

In my view Larry Summers has the potential to be one of Harvard’s great presidents. He has enhanced the importance of the sciences. He has reemphasized undergraduate education at a university that had tended to let it slide. A tireless champion of the highest academic standards, he personally consults on every promotion to full professor. And, in February, Summers took a giant step toward improving the position of women at Harvard by appointing two task forces to find ways to improve the recruiting, support and promotion of women faculty at Harvard.

Yet, however positive the outcome, each new flap has cost Summers and cost Harvard. Each time the media has descended on the Cambridge campus, it has focused on the president’s leadership and not on what is important to Harvard—its mission and its peerless reputation. Summers has a great vision for Harvard, one that would allow it to thrive in a changing world. But change agents can only succeed when they have a reservoir of goodwill, when they are able to recruit willing collaborators. Smart people learn from their mistakes, and I know few as smart as Larry Summers. Friends tell me and news reports confirm he is now engaged in deep self-reflection, an excellent sign. If he can modify his behavior (without losing his integrity) he stands a good chance of succeeding, and Harvard will be the ultimate beneficiary.

Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California and chairman of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. His next column will appear in June.

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.

Latest Articles