August 9, 2022

Corner Office: Amy Gutmann: Welcoming the Wild Ideas of the Week


Q. What do you consider some of your most important leadership lessons?   

A. The biggest influences on me for leading preceded my ever even thinking of myself as a leader — particularly my father’s experience leaving Nazi Germany.  Because I would not even exist if it weren’t for his combination of courage and farsightedness.  He saw what was coming with Hitler and he took all of his family and left for India.  That took a lot of courage.  That is always something in the back of my mind.  And my mother was a child of the Depression and so she triumphed against all odds.

  To me, those two things are really important about leadership, to have courage and to be farsighted in your vision, not to be just reacting to the next small challenge.  It probably wouldn’t be as important as it now seems to me if that hadn’t been something that gets repeated over and over in my experience. 

Q. Were you in leadership roles as a teenager?

A. As a teenager, I loved math.  I loved solving puzzles and I was the captain of the math team and I did all the leadership things that you would do in a public high school. But my challenge in high school was also fitting in — it was a fairly homogenous community — because my father was an immigrant.  The challenge of leadership is precisely the opposite.  It’s not to fit in.  It’s to have combined passion with purpose, and the most inspiring and successful leaders, I think, don’t fit in. 

Q. So how did you square that over time? 

A. I was the first person in my high school to go to Radcliffe.  But, interestingly, when I got there I realized that fitting in was no longer conforming.  It was having bold ideas and taking risks, smart risks and branching out beyond one’s comfort zone. And when I got to college, all of a sudden I realized that I was much more social than I ever thought, and that I really liked bringing people together to do things.   

Q. Besides your parents, who were big influences for you?

A. Every excellent teacher I’ve ever had has had a really strong influence on me, beginning with my eighth-grade math teacher who made math exciting.  I loved math anyway, but I saw him motivating kids who didn’t love math. And so I learned what Emerson said: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”  Besides enthusiasm, I would add hard, smart work.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style today? 

A. I love challenges and I’m enthusiastic about taking them on with a team, and my team knows that I like good ideas even when I disagree with them, that I’m hard-driving but also reward everybody on the team who combines passion, smarts and hard work.

  I’ve also written a lot about the importance of deliberation, and we practice it. We bring everybody to the table and I like to say, in any given week, “this is my wild idea for the week.” We don’t execute more than half of them, but those ideas that we put into practice, everybody was at the table and I think gets the same kind of excitement and satisfaction that I get out of it. 

 What I’ve learned over time is that while you’re driving all of your priorities forward, it’s really important to get feedback and to be open to the wild and crazy ideas, even if you’re not going to pursue but a fraction of them.  And that probably makes a lot of sense for a university because we are all about ideas. If we’re not open to them, if I’m not open to them, who is going to be? 

Q. So you encourage others to share wild ideas? 

A. I encourage other people to do it and we’re not shy about shooting them down. If it’s intended to be wild and crazy, most of them are going to be shot down.  But the ones that survive, we all rally behind.  And, yes, I definitely expect other people to outdo me. I think people on my team recognize that I am very straightforward.

When I believe that something is absolutely right and we have to do it, I don’t spend a lot of time deliberating about it.  I just say, “We’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to solve it and tell me how to do it.” When I have a wild and crazy idea, I want them to know that I have no idea whether we can run with it, so tell me what you think and be as straightforward as I am about it. 

Q. And do you schedule time for brainstorming? 

A. I have a weekly meeting with the inglorious title, discussion group, which has no agenda other than to bring ideas to the table.

Q. How would you say your leadership style has evolved?

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