Of Cat-Herders, Conductors, Tour Guides, and
Nancy B. Rapoport
On Super Bowl Sunday 2000, deans all over the country saw what I consider to
be The World’s Greatest Commercial: EDS’s commercial about herding cats. We’ve
all said (on bad days) that deaning is like herding cats or (on good days) like
conducting an orchestra. Other images of deaning include "parade
leader," "first among equals" and, sometimes, simply
"them." When deans use these images—and when faculty members use
them—the power of the image says something about the dean’s perceived role
as a leader.
When it comes to deaning, a dean’s own image of her role will often set her
agenda. If she sees herself as a manager, or as a leader, or as a change agent,
she will act accordingly. Not only is the choice of image important to sitting
deans, it is also important to dean search committees. Different schools need
different types of deans at different times, and all schools are well advised to
know what image(s) of deaning will fit their needs. To aid in that process, I
will describe some common images of deaning and their uses.
The cat-herding image is easy to explain. Those drawn to the life of a
faculty member are extremely analytical and independent people. Those abilities
make them suited for a life of inquiry and dissemination of information. Those
selfsame abilities also make it difficult for deans to coordinate some
school-wide initiatives. Deans want independent, assertive, and creative
faculty members; at the same time, we know that there’s a risk of having a
school full of independent contractors, each of whom is pursuing his own
interests. When the independent contractors are heading out on their own, trying
to coordinate them is like herding cats.
The dean-as-conductor image is far more pleasing. Conductors are the focal
point of an orchestra, and with the conductor’s leadership, an orchestra can
make beautiful music. The conductor needs the musicians, and vice-versa. Every
instrument contributes a different part of the overall melody, just as different
faculty members use their different strengths to contribute to the various
missions of a school.
I’ve heard a couple of other metaphors as well. Occasionally, I’ve heard
deans referred to as "fearless leaders." I have mixed feelings about
this moniker. On the one hand, I’m old enough to remember Fearless Leader from
the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, and he wasn’t exactly a good guy.
On the other hand, we actually do have moments when we have to be fearless and
we have to lead.
In sharp contrast to the fearless leader is the tour guide. My dad has told
me often that, whatever a dean is, she isn’t a tour guide. She’s not
there just to take the faculty where it wants to go. After all, if the faculty
is going there anyway, what value does the dean add to the enterprise?
Different deans bring different strengths to the job, and my guess is that
each of us warms more to one image than to the others. Some of us enjoy the
challenges of herding cats, and others are more comfortable with the "first
among equals" image of tour guides. The trick is to fit the image of
deaning to its optimal use.
When Cat-Herding Makes Sense
There are a lot of times when the faculty doesn’t need to be pushed in a
particular direction. No one wants to tell a professor what she should be
researching. Much of the fun of being an academic lies in the freedom to pursue
one’s own research interests. A few schools get known for a particular
research bent or a philosophy—for example, the University of Chicago’s
reputation for a law and economics emphasis—but most schools aren’t that
thematic in nature.
Even cats probably need to be herded sometimes, though. If a law school wants
to increase grant funding, then the dean needs to create a reward structure that
encourages grant-getting. If a school wants to encourage a heightened rate of
publication, then the dean must come up with a reward system that encourages
more publication. In cat-herding, the cat still makes the choice of whether it
will consent to be herded; the dean just provides the enticement.
When Conducting Makes Sense
If every school ran by cat-herding, there would be no agreed-upon curriculum.
Each faculty member would teach what he wanted, when he wanted. The faculty
members might enjoy that freedom, but I’ll bet that most of them would worry
about whether the students were getting a solid education. The problem with
cat-herding is that it doesn’t force an institution to pursue some common
goals. In matters like curriculum, promotion and tenure review, and faculty
hiring, the independence of the cat-herding image must give way to a more
balanced image that connotes harmony. Conductors achieve harmony, but they do so
because they can see the entirety of the orchestra at once.
Roger Nierenberg, a conductor who also works with business leaders to develop
their leadership skills, makes an important observation:
A leader defines for the team what kind of moment they’re in. Is
this a moment of transition? Is this a dangerous moment? Your job as
conductor is to get the orchestra to act together—powerfully. So what
do you do? You can’t be calling out to people, "Act now! Act
now!" That creates disorder. Instead, you say, "Here’s where
The reason that conductors can say, "here’s where we’re headed"
(with any sense of confidence) is that they have a different view of the
situation from the musicians’ view. By standing on a podium, conductors can
see all of the action; each musician’s view is from her seat in a section of
the orchestra. The conductor’s score shows what each instrument should be
playing, but the musician’s score shows only her own melody. It’s easy to
see why the conductor and a musician might have different viewpoints of view
from time to time.
When Being a Fearless Leader Makes Sense
Eschewing the Boris Badenov stigma of the "fearless leader" phrase
for the moment, sometimes a dean simply has to make a bold statement that moves
the institution forward. Even a happy and comfortable institution can use a
little gentle shaking up to make sure it’s still on the right track. Rallying
the various constituents of the school—the faculty, the staff, the students,
the alumni, the legal community, the community at large—requires a shared
vision of what the institution is, and what it can be. It’s possible that the
faculty as a whole could come up with a shared vision on its own, but the
day-to-day time constraints that a professor faces makes it unlikely. Unless
someone (i.e., the dean) starts the dialogue, there’s no real reason to spend
time articulating a vision.
Especially for a new dean (or a dean new to an institution), the pressure to
articulate the rallying cry of the school is intense, but the understanding of
the institution's strengths and weaknesses is still undeveloped. The first 60-90
days of a deanship are a whirlwind of meetings, events, and publications, all of
which require the dean to have something coherent to say about the direction
that the institution is going to take.
When I became dean at the University of Houston Law Center, I knew a fair
amount about the component parts of the school. I knew many of the faculty
members, and I was familiar with the school’s best-known programs. Luckily for
me, I was also familiar with the city of Houston and with the State of Texas,
having grown up near Houston. I knew the city’s strengths, and I knew of the
rivalries between Houston and other parts of the state. This familiarity helped
me come up with a shorthand vision of the school as the premier public, urban
law center in the country. That shorthand appeared in several of our
publications. I referred to it in my speeches. And it puzzled the heck out of
the faculty, which had no idea what I meant by the shorthand.
In using that shorthand, I meant (and I still mean) that the Law Center
should continue to take advantage of Houston’s strengths, as it had already
done with our Health Law program and its interaction with the Texas Medical
Center, but that it should also be conscious of the fact that it is a
state-affiliated school, and thus should remember its duty to give back to the
multiple communities of the city and the state. I also focused on the
"center" part of our name, which to me connoted an emphasis on law
reform and other discourse about the law. It was my job, as "fearless
leader," to come up with the shorthand, but it is our collective job as
faculty to flesh out that vision.
When Being a Tour Guide Makes Sense
Although my dad doesn’t think that leaders should ever be tour guides, the
academic in me wants to come up with a way to use the tour guide image. And I
think I’ve come up with one. Sometimes, an institution just needs to take a
breather from stress. If it has gone through a particularly grueling or divisive
experience, it needs some quiet time to recover. A tour guide can boost the
institution’s morale by being gentle—not so much leading the
institution as walking with it. A short dose of touring can be good for an
institution, but leaving the institution in "touring mode" for too
long makes it stagnant.
Crisis Mode: The Airline Pilot
I travel on planes all the time. Often, we’re delayed on the ground for one
reason or another, and the pilot will come on the PA system to give us status
reports. One day, as I was hearing update after update, it occurred to me: the
best model of leadership during a crisis (even as small a crisis as being late
getting off the ground) has got to include the constant reassurances that
airline pilots provide. The pilot may not be able to control the situation, but
he or she can usually calm the passengers down with frequent updates and a sense
of humor. The information and the reassurance are both crucial.
I’ve had a chance to put the airline pilot model to use this summer. As
some of you have heard, in June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison attacked Houston
with a vengeance. The Law Center had over 12 feet of water in the lower level of
the O’Quinn Law Library, and we were without power (and without our buildings)
until late July. Other parts of the University of Houston campus were also hit
hard. We have been very lucky: the law and business communities (along with
South Texas College of Law) pitched in and gave us places to hold our summer
school classes and offices for some of our staff; the University gave us our own
project management team to rebuild the Law Center; and our own alumni went
all-out to get us everything we needed: from alternative locations (in case we
couldn’t get back into our buildings by fall) to additional scholarship funds
to more perspective on how to deal with the crisis. I will never be able to
thank sufficiently all of the people—inside and outside the Law Center—who
created the minor miracle of restoring us to full functioning.
During the crisis, our big stroke of luck was that we were able to keep in
e/mail communication. Thanks to some wonderful suggestions from our
administrative team, we formed a Recovery Team distribution list, which included
administrators, other staff members who were key to working through the crisis,
student volunteers, and the Executive Committee of our faculty. Mail flew back
and forth all the time, and the Recovery Team vetted proposals and served as
communication hubs for other groups. We were all "airline pilots."
Of course, you can’t just have an airline pilot as a leader. Providing
information about a situation is necessary but not sufficient: you also have to act,
with reasonable alacrity. There was some serious conducting going on as
well, during the post-storm recovery. One of my favorite sayings is that the
best training for being a dean is having been a Chapter 11 bankruptcy lawyer:
there are a multitude of constituencies, each with legitimate needs, and with
not enough resources to go around. This analogy is especially apt during a
crisis. The careful weighing of all of the possibilities has to give way to a
sort of triage, in which every constituency is going to lose some of what it
wants. Time will tell whether the triage helped or hurt the Law Center, although
I’m inclined (of course) to think that it helped.
Cat-herders, conductors, fearless leaders, and tour guides all have their own
ways of looking at issues. Cat-herders aren’t that far removed from the herd
itself, so my guess is that their view will be limited to a few specific
objectives. Conductors are musicians themselves, but they choose to blend
various melodies together, rather than to play a solo; the podium sets them
apart, both literally and philosophically. The truly fearless leaders, by
definition, won’t take a lot of time to check out the view from anyone else’s
perspective. And tour guides only see a view that has been laid out and is right
in front of them. Each of these perspectives can contribute to a dean’s
leadership skills at different times, and in different ways. Although I still
believe that any law school needs its faculty, staff, and students much, much
more than it will ever need a dean, I’ll take the view from the conductor’s
podium any day.