Higher Education

My thoughts on leadership

The word leadership has become quite the buzz word hasn’t it? And because of the very nature of “buzz words,” we’re not always sure what they mean in their popularized context (somewhat like the word “synergy” in the 90s and early 00s).  In addition, we look at some of today’s politicians, judges, journalists, CEOs, educators — so called leaders — and we’re seemingly left scratching our heads.

As you read this, you might even be wondering the same thing about me — a Ph.D. in political methodology who has held various faculty and administrative appointments between here at WashU and the University of Michigan.  To that end, you might be asking, “What kind of leader is Andrew D. Martin going to be anyway?”

As I have now officially begun my role as Washington University’s 15th Chancellor, I’d really like the chance to tell you exactly the kind of leader I aspire to be.

Mission-Centered Leadership  

For me, leadership starts with a commitment to something bigger than yourself — and bigger than this exact moment in history.   

I came back to Washington University, not only for the incredible opportunity, but because of my deep appreciation for this place and for what we are trying to achieve.  I am especially drawn to our mission to improve the livelihoods of our students, members of the St. Louis region, the country, and the world.

At WashU, that’s exactly what we do through our personal interactions with students, through teaching, research, and compassionate patient care.  I am both personally and professionally committed to this work, especially here in St. Louis where I have spent most of my adult life and where I consider home.

In my role, as a former faculty member, and as an alumnus, I am also incredibly cognizant of and grateful for the robust legacy and the strong leadership that have helped this university become what it is today.  I see my leadership role as someone who will build upon our past leaders’ successes. Leaders like Mark Wrighton, Bill Danforth, Gloria White, Jim McLeod, Adele Starbird, Robert Brookings, William Greenleaf Eliot, and the countless others in between who have shaped the university into the premier institution it is today.

Social Sensitivity and Mutual Respect

I think it’s worth emphasizing that I don’t see this whole leadership thing as a top-down exercise.  Throughout my tenure, I have learned that the best kinds of leaders are the ones who surround themselves with really smart people — people who are often much smarter than them in the areas and fields in which they were hired.  In order to make really strong decisions about our future, it’s imperative that we create this kind of culture — a culture of mutual respect and social sensitivity — so that we can put our brains together and make collective decisions for the good of the whole.

To that end, I firmly believe it is important that good leaders surround themselves with people who have different perspectives from them. In my case, that includes women, people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, those who have different political and religious beliefs from me, and more.

If you walk into meetings convening groups of colleagues and university leadership, you’ll find a diverse group of people with unique perspectives to share.  I have my predecessor and other colleagues to thank for making that tapestry and vision a reality, but rest assured I plan to continue on this same path as I move ahead in my own leadership.

Transparency/Approachability

Transparency and approachability are also essential qualities I see in good leadership.  I think it is extremely important for leaders to be approachable, willing to listen and learn, and willing to share as much as possible about their vision, their process, and their plans so that others can see and join alongside that vision.

Being transparent and approachable also allows people a window into our humanity.  People sometimes have a tendency to put leaders on a pedestal, and I’d like as much as possible to counteract that tendency.  I’d rather work with colleagues who know who I am as a person, what my values are, and — also — that I might screw up from time to time.  With a transparent approach to leadership, my colleagues are more likely to take those screw-ups at face value and see that I am only human.  Those moments also allow us as a team to recognize the importance of tapping into one another’s strengths and utilizing all of the wisdom and perspective in any given room or department.   

Work-Life Balance and Communication Norms

Good leadership also means both taking and giving time for self-care.  I personally believe that we are at our best during working hours when we’ve had the time to unplug and replenish our energy.  I should note that this is something with which I have personally struggled my entire career — balancing work responsibilities with those at home.  That’s why I’m firmly committed to setting expectations for myself and my team that give our employees the space they need to recharge. This not only makes them more productive — but in my anecdotal experience between my time at Michigan and here in the last several months, I’ve found that it also boosts overall morale and job satisfaction.  

And so, I tried something when I was Dean at Michigan that, at first, some people thought would surely crash and burn.  Thankfully, it did just the opposite.  There, we instituted a set of communication norms where supervisors and university leaders did not send emails between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.  By doing so, we removed that impossible situation we often put our employees in to choose between answering an email at late hours into the evening or ignoring an email from a supervisor until the next day.

Through this, I observed that people were more satisfied at work, and our overall output actually increased.  Supervisors and colleagues had more face-to-face interactions as they honed in and made intentional use of the time they had together during working hours.  

Perhaps you have already seen the norms memo I circulated in January related to these and other expectations.  I have instituted these same norms for our University Council and have encouraged supervisors across our campuses to model similar expectations if they so choose.

Lifelong Learning and Critical Thinking

Finally, I want to touch on one other area of leadership that I think is paramount — and that is to promote a culture of lifelong learning and critical thinking.  This is especially true for an educational institution. I believe we are never done learning, and we must use opportunities and carve space to ask questions, explore our curiosities, and develop and hone ourselves.  By doing so, we not only elucidate our own paths forward, but we strengthen the entire university community through our subsequent actions and decisions.

Final Reflections

These are the most important tenets I see in good leadership.  As we work together over the coming months and years, you’ll undoubtedly get to know more.  I hope you’ll also teach me a thing or two about leadership as I continue to learn and grow — because, once again, this isn’t a top-down exercise.   

As the beginning of my tenure as WashU’s 15th Chancellor has officially begun, I am extremely excited about the opportunity to build upon our past and to work with exceptional leaders and colleagues as we continue to make Washington University a place where an exceptional and vibrant cohort of students, faculty, and staff can come together to do great things.  Let’s do this — together!