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Becoming Presidential Timber Is No Small Order

Becoming Presidential Timber Is No Small Order

Over 13 years ago, I was a member of the search committee to find a president for my institution. More than 100 candidates vied to become the anointed one. The pool of candidates was first reduced to 20, then to six for interview purposes. A comment that was made by a member of the governing board, who was also a member of the search committee, still rings in my ears. As we were making our first reduction of the pool, the board member stated, rather emphatically, regarding one of the résumés, “This person is not presidential timber.” The candidate being referenced had one of the most impressive résumés in the pool. Yet, according to the board member, this candidate was “not presidential timber.”
Over the years, I have reached the conclusion that the board member had indeed made a very powerful point. He just might have been the most insightful member of the committee. Since that time, I have spent many hours trying to figure out exactly what the board member meant. What had he seen that we hadn’t? What is the real meaning of presidential timber? I now believe that certain characteristics can identify whether one has what it takes to be an effective college president.
• Integrity. For the aspiring president, demonstrating impeccable integrity throughout one’s career is a must. Administrators may be able to overcome many bad decisions but never dishonesty, cheating or lying.
• Temperament. An even temper is virtuous. When the temperament of others is pushed to the limit, it is the calm and collected that usually are victorious in the long run.
• Relationships. Relationships are at the heart of presidential responsibilities and image building. Those who are able to establish and maintain effective relationships on and off campus will win many supporters. Such supporters become valuable benefactors during reference checks.
• Passive aggression. Those academic leaders whose management style is undergirded by passive aggression seem to gain more respect and credibility from the campus community and their colleagues. They also seem to obtain more accomplishments, which is likely to impress search committees.
• Knowledgeable. Intelligence doesn’t hurt, but being knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects is better. A college president has to cover the waterfront, not just one discipline. Search committees expect a candidate to be familiar with his or her own field but are more impressed if the candidate knows something about theirs.
• Fiscal prudence. Expenditures on the president’s home or on items for the president’s personal benefit continue to be a prime reason why presidents find themselves having to seek employment elsewhere. Responsible actions in this area will win strong faculty support.
• Decision-making. When all is said and done, respect for decisions will only come about when it is determined that they were just, fair, equitable and in the best interest of the campus — not for personal or political reasons.
• Sympathy and empathy. Effective leaders seem to have the ability to both sympathize and empathize with the work group.
• Humor. An appropriate sense of humor helps the president. Many are capable of using it to defuse contentious situations.
• Hobby. Having a hobby portrays the president as a real person. It also may provide constituents an avenue to identify with the president.
The image of an aspiring president should personify the image of a successful incumbent — not necessarily the expected image of the position one presently holds. The intent here is to become presidential before actually becoming a president. 

— Dr. Leo N. McGee is the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Tennessee Technological University in Cookesville.

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