David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: the Art of Gracefully Accepting Defeat

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst For The Chronicle

By David D. Perlmutter

On the BBC television series Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess of Grantham declares, “I hate Greek drama where everything happens offstage.” A subset of academics seem to agree, and enjoy inciting or perpetuating conflict and overwrought reactions. But for a lot of administrators in higher education, the less spectacle surrounding a situation, the better for everyone involved.

We’ve learned the hard way that fuss and fury waste time, decrease the probability of making the best decisions, and help fewer people in the long run.

Yet it’s not like we can avoid conflict, especially amid the health, safety, financial, and social strains of 2020. That’s why learning how to say no fairly and dispassionately is central to good leadership, as I wrote recently in the Admin 101 series. But equally vital is the topic of this month’s column: learning to accept defeat gracefully as an administrator when you are the one who has to take “no” for an answer.

What kind of advocacy culture suits you? In his 2009 memoir on being president of George Washington University, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg observed that professors want a leader who will act as a “lion” for their cause. That’s true — but not to blood-spilling excess. An academic department, for example, needs a chair who is a shrewd and energetic advocate for its interests. But anyone in campus leadership will testify that an effective promoter of people and causes cannot behave like a ferocious predator all the time. Fighting aggressively for a lost cause can be just as damaging as passively allowing a good opportunity to go unpursued.

Each campus has a unique culture of advocacy — that is, how departments, colleges, or offices lobby for what each of them wants. I have served at universities where intense competition was the norm, so aggression (and even backstabbing) was prized. Within that cutthroat culture, some units prospered while others starved. I personally hated that system because it discouraged collaboration and encouraged duplication of effort and high-stress spectacle. “Trust” and “transparency” were just slogans, and the administrative turnover was continual.

By contrast, the culture at my current university — where I have been a dean going on eight years — is extremely cooperative. A handshake is taken as a legal deal, and people are largely reasonable and accommodating. I know now that departments and colleges can thrive with maximum efficiency and little or no bloodshed because I’ve seen it happen.

So your first priority on this front is to decide within what kind of advocacy culture you will best be able to lead. Ideally, you should only accept leadership positions in the kind of culture that is the best fit for you. Some people love drama and bureaucratic brawling. Others prefer reason, give-and-take, and stable long-term relationships. In the latter environment, you will have to learn how to be gracious in defeat if you want to succeed as a leader.

Be at peace with not getting most of what you want. Campuses are idea factories. Of course not every idea is practical or worth pursuing. Some contradict each other, and some are misguided in the eyes of everyone but their creators. The same is true of your ideas. Proposals you create or champion will be turned down — sometimes by other people objecting and other times by circumstances out of your control.

Your mental health as an academic administrator will be challenged regularly by this pattern of give and take. Get too emotionally invested in your batting average, and your morale will sink fast.

Most of us moved into leadership jobs because we liked solving problems for aggregates as well as individuals. Being turned down for something you care about, and into which you have invested lots of effort and time, can deflate the ego and erode the soul. You won’t last long in leadership, politically or mentally, if you treat every “no” as a personal defeat.

All you can do is develop a Zen acceptance that there will be more roadblocks than green lights. When you lose a battle, move on to the next thing. It’s a difficult ethic to put into practice but necessary to your professional and psychological well-being.

In defeat, as in victory, tone and manner matter. The last thing you want is a reputation for going nuclear when you don’t get your way. Anytime you act in your capacity as a leader, people — including the ones your contract says you “serve at the pleasure” of — are judging not just the content of your communications but also your temperament. When you are told “no,” how do you react, visually and verbally? Are you gruff? Petulant? Sullen?

It’s best to resist revealing those thoughts and emotions. You needn’t mask all your feelings with Vulcan-like imperturbability, but a dose of Stoicism is healthy. The people you lead value a strong advocate but will expect you to radiate maturity, steadiness, responsibility.

Rejection of your pet project, however personally painful, is an opportunity to show your character.

Assess each defeat: Is it really over? There are different degrees of “no” in academic administration. Sometimes a “no” is final and sometimes it means “maybe next time.” Or a “no” may not be the complete end of the issue but merely a statement that:

  • There was not enough information to evaluate your request.
  • Your facts were copious and complete, but your justification was not persuasive.
  • The idea was sound, but the required resources (financial, human, material) were not available (for now).
  • Your request made sense and the support is there, but the leader to whom you report has other priorities.

If any of those conditions are present, you may be able to revise and resubmit. Analyze the reasons why your prototype fell short. How can you improve the pitch in terms of facts, details, and argument? Sometimes the deciding authority will help you out by simply saying, “This is a great proposal, but I need to see more of X,Y, and Z.” And sometimes the “no” is mysterious, which means you’ll have to do a little bit of digging. Other sources and dashboards might yield some ammunition for your next iteration of a request. Maybe an eventual “yes” is over the horizon, and some sweat, ingenuity, and patience will get you there.

And sometimes “no” means “drop it.” What if there is no offer to revise and resubmit, no “try again next year”? Then you have some calculations to make: Are you willing to fight the no? Should you fight it? How much political capital, energy, effort, and even stress are you willing to expend to try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? In short: “Is this the hill you are willing to die on?”

Few issues fall under that last category. Only twice in my almost 20 years in campus administration have I fought vociferously — to the point of considering whether to resign — after being told no. Both cases, which were at other universities, involved academic-freedom conflicts and were existentially significant to me not just as an administrator but as a journalism professor. Each time I ultimately “won” — in that the course of action I supported was eventually followed after the initial denial — but I did not enjoy the experience. In one case, I also hurt myself politically with the final decider who relented only grudgingly. (The “no” didn’t become an enthusiastic “yes” but more of an “OK, if it’s so important to you — but I’ll never agree to it again.”) So fight that no, if you must, but anticipate some blowback.

Most decision making in higher education — Covid-19 aside — does not invoke great principles or constitute life-and-death choices. The final “no” may be unfortunate but not worth a power struggle. Accept the outcome and move on.

By accepting defeat with grace, you will acquire a reputation as someone who is collaborative and a trusted partner, and that will come in handy when future projects get a “yes.” Playing the long game is almost always of benefit for your career, for the constituencies you serve, and for the causes you advocate.

 

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