THE BLOG

What Law School Deans Do

03/09/2015 09:06 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

People interested in pursuing a job similar to mine -- Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law -- often ask me for advice. Perhaps the most useful answer I am able to offer to their questions is to ask them whether they really want what they believe they want. Even the most attentive observers only see what they can see.

Every professor should be given the opportunity to run the enterprise, if only to give her insight into what it takes to do so. We imagine how we might perform in an occupation, based on an idealized version of its obligations -- even if we do not suppose we would be better than the incumbent.

Once, I attended a conference of Unitarian Universalists where I enjoyed chatting with a new member of the clergy. A businessperson who had switched careers, moved by spirituality, she confided to me that she had not quite realized when she was in seminary that her future was not to be exclusively contemplative or given over to pastoral care. She most enjoyed the time in her study preparing the Sunday sermon or attending to a member of the congregation who sought counseling. As she explained to me, she was surprised that she also was charged with attendance, the physical plant, the collection plate, and HR matters more vexing than in the private sector due to the commitments of faith and the culture of the congregation.

The same lament is true for other leadership roles.

A law school dean or college president must be passionate about the content of the education, and, at any research-oriented institution, the original scholarship that is being produced. That's why a person who heads a campus, with significant duties, feels compelled to fulfill such responsibilities. She identifies with the purpose of the place and is motivated by it. The shared cause is what sustains people through the inescapable stress.

But an administrator also needs to be interested in the quotidian details of operations, ranging from the motivating of individuals and the organizing of groups to the finances and fundraising. That is why she is hired. She must be devoted not only to what happens on stage but also everything behind the scenes. The students deserve that dedication.

Leadership is about both ideas and implementation. Thinking and doing depend on distinct skill sets. Integrating them is the challenge.