07/16/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

Leading by Learning

Again and again, we see new college presidents falling into the same trap: they want desperately to prove they can do the job, so off they go to do it. Unfortunately, they do so without understanding the people or place they are leading. They simply do not know the institution.

Before a president decides where to take an institution, s/he had better understand where it has been. A president's vision of what needs to be done must be based on the mission of the college. So one had better learn everything one can about the institution before trying to make a mark.

Presidents want to get things done -- quickly (at least, they should want to get things done, since the days of the sinecure are long since gone). At times, a president may even arrive on the scene with a board mandate to shake things up. Fine. However, one must first become familiar with the history of the institution. Without that knowledge, a president will -- even with a board's strong support -- be a short-term leader.

There are many examples of presidents who didn't make it through their first year. Some didn't surprise me; having seen them in action in previous positions, I was amazed they got the job in the first place. Every once in a while, though, experienced presidents also find themselves committing mistakes from which they can't recover.

In one case, a president I knew well and who had successfully led another institution, hit the deck running at his new college, and he did so with the strong support of the board. The board wanted dramatic change and the new, experienced president tried to provide it. However, when he moved too quickly, when he acted without basing his decisions on the mission of the college, when he failed to bring his constituents along, he found himself destroyed by the very people he was trying to serve. As for the board, it remained behind the president -- so far behind him the board members couldn't be seen when things started falling apart.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, only one person took that blame -- the president. And, of course, it was he who should have taken the blame, since he was most at fault.

Before a president acts, and a president clearly needs to act decisively, the president had better do his homework. Regardless of who wants what done, regardless of how quickly a president or board wants action taken, a president has to first get to know the institution.

A president, if s/he wants to lead effectively, needs to know the institution better than anyone else. Before a plan of action can be put in place, a president needs to know how what is proposed will fit within the history and mission of the college. Really, it is an easy task. It is, though, one which far too many presidents neglect to undertake.

Not taking an institution's history into account will almost certainly guarantee the president will fail and soon be on the job market again.