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Lariviere firing is Pernsteiner's failed leadership

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

 

BY TOM COX

For two and a half years, the University of Oregon had an unusually high performing president. Under his leadership. the previously sleepy and mediocre school came alive. Donations began to flow in faster. Decisions got made quickly. Things started to get done. More than anything, this president, Richard Lariviere, gave people hope that improvement was possible. As folks saw change happening — as they gave themselves permission to believe more change could happen — more and more of them came off the sidelines and started taking initiative.

Education improved. Top teachers who were flight risks to better schools were induced to stay. Academics and sports across the board showed an uptick in results. Student, staff, and alumni morale soared.

This virtuous cycle of innovation, initiative and improvement was derailed when Lariviere’s boss abruptly fired him last week.

Both I and leadership expert Jim Grew agree that the firing of Lariviere is a smoking-gun example of failed leadership by Chancellor George Pernsteiner.

The facts are simple — Lariviere achieved extraordinarily good results in his role. He was so good he made others uncomfortable. And his boss, Pernsteiner, reacted the opposite of how he should have. Rather than placating the slow-moving people, Pernsteiner could have challenged them to keep up. He could have pointed to the mission, and shown that Lariviere was doing more, better and faster. Instead, Pernsteiner chose to placate the slow-pokes.

As Peter Drucker put it in his groundbreaking book The Effective Executive, “The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength.”

Pernsteiner failed to do that. A leader’s job is to build a balanced team that can, together, reach its goals, Grew points out. “Lariviere’s weakness was that he wasn’t good at playing inside the system — he upset people — so he was weak at the ‘how’ of the work," he says. "To restore balance, Pernsteiner should have hired a ‘how’ person to support Lariviere, and Pernsteiner should have insisted that the other University presidents catch up with Lariviere.”

There’s a lesson here for everyone in business.

Successful change is always disruptive and uncomfortable. Low-performing firms shy away from the discomfort and give up on change that could help. Top-performing firms embrace the change, and manage the discomfort.

What should happen next?

Gov. Kitzhaber should get Chancellor Pernsteiner training on how to build trust on his executive team, and on how to manage superstar performers. (The answer is not to notice low trust and fire someone — when you notice low trust, build more trust.) If Pernsteiner isn’t trainable, Kitzhaber should replace him. Meanwhile, Kitzhaber should lean on Pernsteiner and the board to ask Lariviere to come back.

Board members who aren’t comfortable with Lariviere’s return should be given training on how to be better board members.

Board members who cannot be trained, should be counseled to find other forms of service so their board seats can be filled by people who understand and can manage change.

“When you see a problem like this, it’s never not leadership,” says Grew.

Top leaders deliver results. Bad leaders deliver excuses. Pernsteiner needs to decide which he is.

Tom Cox is the author of over 200 articles on business leadership. Jim Grew is a turnaround CEO and consultant.

 

Comments   

 
Scott R Schroeder
0 #1 Great ArticleScott R Schroeder 2011-12-01 12:26:05
I do not have a knowledgeable opinion of the U of O issue, but I sure agree with the described principles of leadership. “Top leaders deliver results. Bad leaders deliver excuses” is right on the mark. Many leaders use the blame game to justify their leadership failures. Private Industry does not tolerate (generally) failed leadership very long. Why do we tolerate it longer with the political class?
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Nathan Zebrowski
-1 #2 This is more than optimisticNathan Zebrowski 2011-12-02 05:03:29
It assumes that Kitzhaber is not behind this firing, but there is some evidence that he is. His letter was openly hostile toward Lariviere and the UO and its faculty. The Board itself mentioned that Kitzhaber was upset because he saw Lariviere's activism for the UO as a threat to his legislative plans. This was probably the cause of the Board's directive to Lariviere: stop speaking about legislation. Stop speaking to legislators. That all comes from Kitzhaber. Lariviere was being asked not to do his job as President of UO. If he could not speak about the impact of legislation on the UO, he would be deprived of a critical tool. He was essentially being asked to halt the rise of the UO for the sake of Kitzhaber's plans. If he had done this, he would have been betraying the University he was asked to lead. He decided, honorably, to choose a nobler kind of leadership. This led to an irreparable break with Pernsteiner, who is a manager and not a leader, and with the Board, a group of political appointees carrying out the will of the Governor. The idea that Kitzhaber could be part of the solution seems more than optimistic. Perhaps, though, who knows? Stranger things have happened.
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Corrie
0 #3 Excellence in Back StabbingCorrie 2011-12-03 00:06:22
Who knows what the Chancellor was telling the Governor. Dirty politics driving by who knows who's delicate ego. Oh, and the obviously biased SBHE with no members from UO but multiple members from other Oregon schools and their donors.
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RedDog
0 #4 Voter's FailureRedDog 2011-12-06 16:02:55
This all stems from people in the NW part of Oregon electing Kitzhaber AGAIN after he failed miserabley the first 8 years as Gov. All you people who voted for him are now griping about him and the firing of Lariviere. Blame yourselves for electing Kitzhaber AGAIN!

Rember this from the above article. "Top leaders deliver results. Bad leaders deliver excuses. Pernsteiner needs to decide which he is." But, this should include Kitzhaber. They both are failed leaders. That is if you can even consider either of them leaders.
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