07/15/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Advice From One Non-Traditional President to Another

It was recently announced that Janet Napolitano would soon become the president of the University of California System. In Ms. Napolitano's own words, she recognizes she is "not a traditional candidate." Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Former Governor, Former State Attorney General, no Ph.D. -- yes, she is not a traditional choice for her position.

Let me begin with some truth in advertising. I am not your "traditional" college president either. I have no chalk dust on my sleeve and do not possess a Ph.D. I spent 35 years as a military officer, ending up as the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Upon retirement from the service, I became the chairman and CEO of an international bank; upon retirement from the bank, I became involved in professional sports. Two years ago, after flunking retirement for the third time, I became the president of Birmingham-Southern College, a wonderful, small, residential, liberal arts college with a remarkable faculty, staff, and student body. I made this career move because of my passion for young men and women and because I loved the community I saw and experienced at Birmingham-Southern.

My advice to Secretary Napolitano is simple: Keep on keeping on! Your success has been built on intellect, tenaciousness, sound leadership, an open mind, concern about all people, a willingness to listen and a strength of character that even your detractors admire. You will find that the faculty will embrace you if you understand and embrace the concept of shared governance and spend time listening to them and sharing your vision for the institution with them. The same holds true for your staff and students.

You will find many competing demands for your time, but that's no different from your current job. Fight it! Get out from behind your desk and visit the campuses, grab lunch with students, and attend sporting events and other activities. In short, enjoy interacting with the real reason you are at your university: the young men and women who will be the leaders of our nation for the greater part of the rest of this century.

The challenges you will encounter as president of the University of California will be a bit different than those you faced at the DHS but the path to viable solutions will be the same as you followed in the department. Simply get as much background information as you can, listen to the people around you, seek differing opinions, and when the solution is a toss-up, go with your gut.

Finally, and really as an aside, don't give a moment's thought to the lack of a terminal degree. Your résumé and the service you have devoted to your nation and your state is the equivalent of a doctorate in life, and will hold you in good stead. You bring to this job a wealth of experience and years of making tough calls at the highest levels of our government. The University of California System, the faculty and staff, the students and the alumni are fortunate to have you as their new leader.

Good luck and thank you for your selfless service to our country.