Running toward fear

October 20, 2019
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Transformative leadership is not for the faint of heart -- nor is it likely to win any popularity contests.
 
“As leaders, especially during times of change, we’re not often charged with taking the popular path,” said Dr. Mark McCoy, President of DePauw University. “But the lack of popularity doesn’t exonerate us from responsibility. Our responsibility is doing our best work for the institutions we lead.”
 
When change is required, people often make only minor adjustments, afraid of taking risks and falling flat. 
 
“Too often, people just keep doing what they’re doing, take the timid route, because boards and presidents and cabinets and teams put so much onus on failure,” McCoy said. “It’s terrible -- as if all you can do is go hit it out of the park every time or you’re not a good leader.” 
 

During a recent restructuring at DePauw, McCoy had to put the principles of transformative leadership into action.

Transformative leadership in action

Determined, fear-facing leadership is how DePauw’s leaders approached a recent process to “right-size” the institution.
 
“To best prepare for future in 2019, DePauw decided to restructure from a position of strength,” McCoy said. “Looking at our balance sheet, you’d think we were in the catbird seat -- we have a $730 million endowment for 2000 students, but we have been running a structural budget deficit for a very long time. It was a systemic problem, and you can’t address systemic problems with incremental solutions.”
 
With over 800 employees serving those 2000 students, leadership determined it was time to reduce the size of the workforce. 
 
“We did it in a very measured way, literally and figuratively,” McCoy said. “We did a lot of benchmarking analysis, and the data speaks for itself,” he said.
 

But leading change requires more than data; it requires a willingness to advance toward fear and make determined decisions even when they’re unpopular.

Embrace failure

“If you’re not actively embracing failure -- running toward your failure -- then you are doing something far worse, you are leading merely to avoid failure,” McCoy said. Leading from fear will never lead to transformation. 
 
Often, our fear is where the possibilities are, but because we run from it rather than toward it, we miss the opportunity inherent in taking those chances, he explained. Failing early and often is the key to ultimately finding what works. Of course, the goal isn’t to fail all the time; it’s just to be less afraid of it -- to embrace it as part of the process of elimination. 
 

“Thomas Edison discovered 999 ways not to invent a lightbulb -- he didn’t ‘fail’,” McCoy said. “Your ‘failures’ are the investment required for return on success.”

Dive in

McCoy will dive into the data and explore how transformative leadership made the difference on his campus during the Monday Plenary at the 2019 SEM Conference: “Academic Restructuring, Leading Change, and the Obligation of Transformative Leadership.” Learn more about the conference.