On Presidential Wages

Hi Karl,

Your May 20 editorial prompted me to think back on the most satisfying and productive positions I have held over a long and varied career at senior levels. In each of those situations, the organizations were led and staffed by individuals who were highly committed to seeing things they believed in get done, despite obstacles and hurdles. As one memorable head boss who assigned me a seemingly impossible challenge put it, “The importance of an undertaking is proportional to the degree of difficulty that must be overcome to succeed. The easy things are all done. Anyone can do them. Now get on with it.” That boss had attracted the highest calibre of available talent, despite comparatively modest pay packages, because of the challenges that he was able to let his executives take on.

The satisfaction derived from being entrusted to figure out how to get the job done, and then delivering the goods, was far more valuable than the level of financial reward. It was being presented with challenges and then allowed the necessary elbow room to perform – and not pay – that attracted top talent. High profile duds (the mediocre performers), regardless of their formal quals or higher previous pay levels, did not thrive or endure in those organizations. Proven performance was the sine qua non criterion.
Much of my work involved assessing organizational performance. My mandate was to look beyond crafted scripts, rhetoric and public images, to take objective stock of what was actually accomplished, and to recommend changes. I worked with elite teams of competent performers, not glory seekers. We got tough jobs done with little concern about publicity.

The argument that it takes big bucks to attract the best talent is, in my view, a myth perpetuated by those whose egos place more weight on how much they earn instead of how much they accomplish and how well. Endorsing and adhering to that precept ensures the executive community will be dominated by like-minded individuals, and not be inconvenienced or caused discomfort by boat rockers who ask tough questions that challenge conventional wisdom. It was a commonly shared belief among proven high performers that 80 to perhaps 90 percent of the top echelon was populated by individuals who talked a good talk and knew the right words, and were quick to recognize one another. Members of that dominant majority also recognized the minority among their colleagues who did not adhere to the dominant “go along to get along” philosophy, and who looked upon hype and BS with disdain. Although the majority may have felt ill at ease working with the more truly committed individuals, they realized their contribution was essential to organizational success.

It is those who dare stray from the beaten, safe and comfortable path who find new ways. However, in the process they often cause discomfort to “good team players” who seek to neutralize or stifle them. There is ample literature on social change, and the tenacious resistance to it. If universities want to make major contributions to society, they will have to venture off the beaten path that the herds follow. It takes courage, and the way forward is bound to be rough. Oft times it takes true crisis to move boldly forth. But as one of my early mentors observed, the turtle must stick out its neck to move forward. I fear that universities have been distracted by the glitter of lucre and have lost sight of their raison d’etre as centres of enquiry.

I enjoy reading your ruminations.

Best, Leo Lehtiniemi

Thanks for the reminder Leo, although I have to wonder how many candidates for the AU President’s role will see it the same way? -Editor