09/17/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Follow the Lead of Your Staff

There are clearly different management styles. Whether in the presidency of the United States or a small college, different people use different approaches.

Paradoxically, leaders need to learn when to follow. Regardless of the strength of the head of any organization, s/he should follow the lead of staff whenever possible.

Far too often, I made the mistake of getting involved in matters when members of my staff told me I should not do so. Maybe I was trying to demonstrate my accessibility; maybe I just thought, especially in disciplinary matters, fairness required my involvement. In either case, I was wrong.

My failings in this regard emanated from my legal training. As a strong proponent of due process, I wanted to make sure individual safeguards were in place. I sometimes made the mistake of becoming involved in matters I should have left alone. While I was happy with the decisions I made, I was very unhappy with myself for undermining people around me because those decisions often differed from what had been decided at another level.

Leaders need to listen carefully to their staff. While staff members may have come to a different conclusion than you would have given the facts involved, their advice should be followed unless you feel strongly they are wrong. In other words, do not micromanage. Unless harm -- to a person or the institution -- can result from the advice, follow it.

Sometimes you have to encourage that lead. Taking a position can be distasteful. Given human nature and the desire to fend off the unpleasant, people may well try to avoid taking a position.

In one notable case on my watch, as I was coming back from a fundraising trip and getting ready for another, my chief academic officer told me we had a problem. The problem involved an overwhelming department vote in favor of rehiring a faculty member. My dean had questions; so, too, did students, as evidenced by their reviews of the professor.

I pressed my dean for his recommendation. He, somewhat reluctantly, advised against the reappointment, and I followed his lead. First, though, we met with the department chair and reviewed all the available information. Even after doing our homework and touching the requisite political bases, we knew we would have a firestorm on our hands. We were not wrong, but I felt we had done what was right. For me, despite the repercussions on campus, that was all that mattered.

Follow the lead of your staff -- unless principle and your gut tell you otherwise.