The Perils of Tunnel-Vision Leadership

The leadership fight at the University of Virginia is a powerful example of why so many change efforts fail.

Pop quiz. What do the following have in common?

• The new director of a large state agency initiated a visioning process two months after taking over. She told her staff, “I’ve had very good success using this in my previous management roles and am excited to use it to help this agency move forward.” Six months later, after strong employee pushback, she asked her deputy why there was so little enthusiasm for the visioning initiative. His response: “This is the third visioning exercise we’ve had in two years; the other two didn’t go anywhere, and nobody expects this one to either.”

• A federal agency dealt with a budget shortfall by doing a cost-benefit analysis of its regional offices. Its Alaska office proved to be the least efficient, and the agency announced it would close that office. The agency’s leaders hadn’t bothered to communicate with Ted Stevens, one of Alaska’s senators at the time who happened to be chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, or with Alaska’s House member, Don Young. Twenty-four hours after announcing the decision, the agency was forced to reverse course and maintain the Alaska office.

• After winning election, a new governor named four senior members of his campaign team to lead important state agencies. They worked hard to implement the governor’s agenda for change. Like the governor, they had little confidence that their civil servants were up to the job, and they brought in numerous consultants and new staff to lead change initiatives. After two frustrating years, all four agency leaders had left state government, convinced that they were torpedoed by careerists determined to “wait ’em out.”

If your answer is that each of these involved failed attempts at change, you’re correct. But why did they fail? I believe a lack of “situational awareness” is to blame. This term, often used by the military and homeland-security professionals, refers to a person’s ability to integrate input from a variety of sources in order to form a clear understanding of the environment and plan future actions.

Why does situational awareness matter? In short, leaders who lack situational awareness usually fall far short of their goals. And when one of your goals is to lead a major change effort, poor situational awareness can be fatal. Here’s a classic recent example:

On June 10, 2012, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors announced that UVA President Teresa Sullivan had resigned. The primary reason initially offered: “philosophical differences.”

University faculty and alumni were stunned. Sullivan was well regarded by most faculty and numerous alumni. The university wasn’t in any sort of a crisis. So, why was Sullivan, UVA’s first female president, forced to resign after less than two years on the job? Helen Dragas, rector (chair) of the board, soon offered additional explanations–a need for bold change, for “strategic dynamism,” the importance of getting into online education. None of it was convincing.

Then came some leaked emails and off-the-record comments from university insiders, all of it damning. Sullivan had received only one informal performance review prior to her firing (which included the comment that she was a “good, not great president”). The board had never given her any warning of major discontent. And it turned out that the board had never met as a body to make the firing decision; Dragas had garnered the votes in one-on-one talks with individual board members.

All of this led to a firestorm of protest from faculty, alumni, wealthy donors and elected officials. On June 26, the board reversed itself and reinstated Sullivan.

Some people thought the matter was settled. But, this past December, UVA was put on warning by an accrediting panel that said the board may have violated governance rules in attempting to force Sullivan out. And UVA found itself back in the headlines last month, when a Washington Post article documented continuing tensions between Dragas and Sullivan, including the fact that the rector had given Sullivan a list of 65 goals to accomplish by the end of this school year!

Why do intelligent, accomplished people make colossal mistakes, such as firing a respected leader without a meeting of the board, without first giving the leader a clear message that she was in trouble, without providing stakeholders and the public with a credible rationale? Why would an experienced leader like Helen Dragas attempt to micromanage the president of an institution that continues to be one of the jewels of public higher education?

There are many theories floating around to explain these mysteries, but I believe the UVA fiasco was primarily about a leader who has no understanding of situational awareness. Dragas may well see herself as engaging in a righteous fight to save UVA’s excellence. Let’s assume the best of intentions. The way she and her board supporters have acted on their concerns, however, reflects extraordinary tunnel vision. Like the three examples in our pop quiz, Dragas and some leaders on the board paid no attention to the organization’s culture. They didn’t learn how change works at their institution, nor did they check in with key organizational stakeholders to share their change plans and get reactions. They all lacked situational awareness.

Every leader can develop situational awareness. It’s not a sophisticated skill set. Rather, it requires an openness to a variety of perspectives from internal and external stakeholders, an understanding of the organization’s culture and recent history, and a willingness to change plans based on these insights. Maintaining good situational awareness is critical to effective leadership.

3 comments on “The Perils of Tunnel-Vision Leadership

  1. Terry Newell says:

    Nice post. I especially like the notion that situational awareness requires a good understanding of the history of the institution. As your examples so well demonstrate, that history includes the culture that has emerged around the institution. Your post helps me recall Neustadt and May’s book, Thinking in Time, in which they suggest that understanding the histories of not just the institution but the individuals leading it are important to any effort to change.

  2. Stalzer, Rob says:

    Russ – I really enjoyed this and am sharing with my team. I hope you’re doing well. We still need to catch up.


    Robert A. Stalzer
    Deputy County Executive
    Fairfax County, VA

  3. Lillian Ney says:

    Great article Russ. Thanks very much. L

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s