The grilling and burning of university presidents at a Congressional hearing is the most talked about moment in public communications since, well, probably the last time higher education and politics intersected in the news. It has become quite the combination of lowest common denominators to get conversation going.
Here we are the following week and I’m still getting asked about what happened when the presidents of Penn, Harvard and M.I.T. faced questions from Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Harvard grad who is apparently trying to bolster her standing among voters who want to see her take on “The Elites.” I’ll leave the rest of the political punditry to others and even some of the PR analysis. That’s because my friend Jon Austin, who taught me much of what I think I know about coaching executives on the spot when we worked together 25+ years ago, wrote this outstanding post, about what the university presidents could have and should have said.
Going beyond that, there’s more to explain the presidents’ performances, costing the Penn chief executive her job already, beyond the fact most noticed that they gave answers only their lawyers could love. This appears to be a symptom of something we observe not only in higher ed, but also with business CEOs and elected government officials. They aren’t used to being put on the spot and having to deliver a message, something that used to be part of the basic job description for leadership.
Today’s leaders “grew up” in a culture of statements, social media posts and one-way video messages. Generally speaking, they don’t have as much experience as their predecessors on the spot, answering tough questions. They don’t do interviews anyone in their organization views as “risky.” They don’t do press conferences except under extreme emergencies. They generally don’t do open forums where they might be challenged, even from their own employees. When it comes to degree of difficulty, all of those things, which used to be relatively routine, pale in comparison to Congressional testimony.
Having to do the hardest one first, after prepping, presumably with lawyers, is like having to face a Major League pitcher throwing 100mph after just learning how to swing a bat or, maybe, not having played since Little League. What makes this even tougher is the context of a war that has divided much of the world, with highly-selective U.S. college campuses as a battlefield of sorts.
This could be a wake up call for CEOs of all sorts. Time to build the skill set and take advantage of leaving the comfort zone, even just a little, when opportunities present in case an ambitious member of Congress wants to take you to a very uncomfortable place.