President John D. Simon

Speeches and Writings

LVAIC Leadership Institute: Remarks by President John Simon

August 16, 2017

Welcome to the campus of Lehigh University.

LVAIC is a community of the six private institutions in the Lehigh Valley. It was founded on the principle of making strong schools stronger through collaboration. LVAIC has been building both academic and administrative collaborations since 1969. We have 24 participants in this inaugural Leadership Institute. 

I think I will offer a few comments on leadership. I never expected that I would be in the position that I am in today. I began my life in academia as a chemistry professor at the University of California, San Diego. I was really into science, loved research, and enjoyed watching students grow through their college and graduate years. I hated committee work and was determined to avoid department meetings and national service. Over time I became more interested in influencing how universities educate students, building organizations that went beyond the single-investigator laboratory, and influencing professional societies and national agencies. This led me to a path of UCSD – Duke – UVA – and now Lehigh, and leadership roles of department chair, vice provost for academic affairs, provost, and president. None of these have turned out exactly how I expected, and I often reflect on my life in these positions being guided by a book titled “Leadership without a Playbook.” (I might write that book someday.) I think too many people think there is a “script” for how to be an effective leader.

So how do I view leadership?

I am a lifelong learner of leadership. I read a lot about leadership. The core of leadership is engaging with people. I personally feel I have learned a lot about leadership styles from reading novels.

I have learned to work with leaders, be led by leaders, deal with leaders, and lead leaders. And I have learned much from situations that could have been avoided (some that I have lived through, some I created, and I study those that occur at other institutions).

As a leader, you are called on to: influence people, empower people, take responsibility for your and others’ actions, be an example to your peers, be accountable, be a role model, be a motivator, be a visionary, be a decision maker, serve as a mentor, be a strategy planner, and be a team citizen. Good luck! This is why building teams and empowering teams is so important. One person cannot do all of this.

I think leadership is about “discovering the right question to ask.” Good leaders relinquish the process of discovery of the answer(s) to the community they lead (there is no shortage of “vision,” or maybe I should say “visions” in any institution).

What do I see as the characteristics of academic leaders?

  • Integrity – trusted by all constituencies (not agree with but trusted)
  • Data driven – different from metric driven
  • Intellectually curious – desire to learn, seeker of connections
  • Deliberative – principled, consistent in behavior, respectful of shared governance, make decisions
  • Persuasive – active listening, build networks, letting others see and discover the value of moving in a certain direction
  • Frames issues as a seeker, not as a skeptic or a doubter
  • Generosity of spirit; knowing that one does not have all the answers; characterized by an eagerness to engage and learn from others, to be able to respectfully disagree as well as change one’s mind
  • Loves the institution, place the needs of the institution first

I have watched Lehigh’s “Redefining what it means to lead” video on YouTube. The video opens with: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln.”

Or in the words of Lehigh alum Lee Iacocca: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” And I don’t think you really want to do the latter two.

My advice: You need to live leadership. You need to know yourself and what you value, and you need to keep those values front and center as you lead. Stay true to yourself. And most important – it is supposed to be fun, so enjoy the path.