Do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Invest in the success of those around you. And never underestimate the persuasive power of reframing controversial questions.
Those were the take-home messages Wednesday from Harvard President Larry Bacow, who, despite having led both Harvard and Tufts and having been MIT’s chancellor, said he still considers himself something of an “accidental president.”
Bacow, who appeared on a webcast of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Voices in Leadership program, responded to questions from Chan School Dean Michelle Williams that spanned everything from his personal experience of leadership to controversies and challenges along the way to tips for students who hope to lead someday.
Bacow said he claims the “accidental” mantle because for the first two decades of his career on MIT’s faculty he studiously avoided the leadership ladder, happily focusing on his research and teaching.
That ended when he was asked to become MIT’s dean of faculty. Bacow felt he couldn’t turn the appointment down because he saw it as helping his faculty colleagues. When he left that post he returned to his faculty duties for only a short time before he was tapped to be MIT’s chancellor, another position he viewed as service to the institution where he’d been — except for graduate work at Harvard — since his undergraduate days.
The chancellorship raised Bacow’s visibility and brought offers for several open positions as university president, most of which he turned down. That process highlighted for him, he said, that some of the best career decisions are jobs you don’t take. There are some simply bad jobs out there, he said, as well as jobs that would be a poor match, or are badly timed, or might not point you where you want to go in life.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be a university president. I liked doing what I was doing,” Bacow said. “When I talk to people who are thinking of taking a job like this, I say, ‘Ask yourself what you want to get done. Take a job because you have an agenda, not because the job is just there.’”
A leader should approach a new organization with the same mindset as a cultural anthropologist, as someone who doesn’t speak the local language and is ignorant of everyday life there, Bacow said. As an example, he joked that both decentralized Harvard and top-down MIT have reputations for excellence, yet “organizationally and culturally, they’re identical — only with a sign change.”
Their differing cultures, Bacow said, illustrate that there isn’t just one path to success, an important thing for leaders to recognize.