OUR OPINION: Shirvani's management style matters -- a lot

Today on this page, the dean of the UND School of Law makes a point of saying, "Thank you." And as all of us have learned at our mother's knee, "thank you" is a phrase that goes a long way.

Our Opinion

Today on this page, the dean of the UND School of Law makes a point of saying, "Thank you." And as all of us have learned at our mother's knee, "thank you" is a phrase that goes a long way.

Here's an idea for Chancellor Hamid Shirvani as he approaches a performance review by the North Dakota University System's board: There's another phrase in human relations that also goes a long way. It is, "I'm sorry."

Shirvani should consider saying that to the board, apologizing to them for complicating their lives through an unsuccessful management style.

It's not a sure thing that apologizing -- along with resolving to manage in more effective way -- will save Shirvani's job. But it's a lot more likely to win support than is Shirvani's current approach, which seems to involve blaming others, blaming North Dakota's culture and refusing to take responsibility for his management results.

Let's let North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple sum up those results. Choosing his words with care, the governor had this to say last week about Shirvani: The chancellor "has not won the confidence of the people whose confidence he needs."


There's wisdom in that phrase if Shirvani will pause to appreciate it.

Here's the deal: Where reforming the North Dakota University System is concerned, the chancellor's job is not simply to craft a plan. In fact, if that was the only requirement, Shirvani easily would have succeeded. The chancellor has highlighted real weaknesses in the system (such as the low four- and six-year graduation rates) and offered a creative and exciting plan for strengthening them.

Shirvani's problem is that he neglected the second and just-as-important job requirement: The chancellor must develop buy-in for his plan.

As Dalrymple would put it, he must win the confidence of the people whose confidence he needs.

In the NDUS, that includes not only the members of the higher-education board but also legislators, the governor, business and community leaders -- and, importantly, the system's presidents.

But how does one manage in a way that wins approval from not only superiors but also subordinates?

It's a challenge, all right -- but not an impossible one. Harry Truman met it, and he's just one among many examples from American life.

Truman was a decisive leader, but among his most striking traits was his ability to inspire loyalty, even among high-level executive-branch pros.


In fact, you can read the reminiscences of George Marshall, Dean Acheson and other members of Truman's Cabinet without finding a single strong criticism of Truman's character or leadership, Truman's biographer David McCullough writes.

A challenge? Sure. But as the saying goes, that's why they pay Shirvani the "big bucks."

When a ship runs aground, the Navy's judgment is absolute: The captain is responsible, even if he or she was asleep at the time. The grounding resulted from failures of training, procedures and command. Period.

Shirvani's tenure has been rocky -- and for that, he should accept the lion's share of the blame. It's part of his job to avoid such conflict, to get along with others and to inspire loyalty up as well as loyalty down.

That's the kind of chancellor who successfully can implement and carry out as well as design. That's the kind of leadership North Dakota needs.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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