The Historian Who Made History

I’ve learned from history that so much of leadership is helping people deal with change and understand how change happens. History is about the nature of change. -Drew Gilpin Faust, scholar, historian and president of Harvard University.

As the 28th president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust made history in 2007 when she became the first woman to lead this Ivy League university, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. A noted scholar, history professor and author of six books on the American Civil War and the South, Faust had come to Harvard six years earlier to be the first dean of its Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. At the time, ascending to the presidency of Harvard was the furthest thing from her mind.

“No way!” she said. When she arrived, Lawrence Summers was president. Faust assumed he would hold that position for most of her career. When Summers resigned in 2006 (he later became one of President Obama’s economic advisers), Harvard installed an interim leader while searching for a permanent replacement. In February 2007, Faust was chosen.

At the time of the interview, Faust was three years into her presidency and had become known as a catalyst of organizational change: breaking down barriers and silos between academic disciplines and increasing collaboration among the schools at Harvard. These changes have been in response, at least in part, to the effect of the global financial crisis, which delivered a major blow to the Harvard Endowment, reducing it by 27 percent.

In business, government or academics, times of crisis are what ultimately define one’s leadership. Although Faust is a scholar by trade, she clearly learned lessons of leadership from history and rose to the challenges. She pulled together a team of the great minds in business and finance at Harvard, to whom she gives much credit for contributing expertise and support during the recession. Faust also decided to consider the deeper, more fundamental issues regarding how Harvard operates. “The crisis has given us some opportunities to confront the needed changes and ask the big questions that maybe wouldn’t have been on the agenda. Those questions range from how do we do things at Harvard, how are we organized and how do we operate the university to what is the role of higher education in the world at large.”

Faust acknowledged the effect that outside forces and unforeseen events have had on her leadership. Responding to an unprecedented financial crisis was certainly not what anyone envisioned when Faust was selected as president of the university. Yet she drew inspiration and perspective from the words of Abraham Lincoln, who said, “Events have made me.” Although some scholars interpret that quote as a diminishment of Lincoln, that he believed he was a passive recipient of circumstances rather than a great leader, she interpreted his words differently. “Any life is an intersection of events and character and capacity, and of course events make all of us,” she said. “But you also make events. And there is this intersection between who you are and what the world offers you.”

Faust also found lessons from the Civil War, which she described as a compressed period of change that brought about dramatic shifts in several dimensions in American life, such as the role of women and attitudes toward death. Likewise, the financial crisis has been a period of upheaval that sparked fundamental change, prompting organizations and companies alike to consider how to do more with fewer resources.

“When you have a period of urgency, there are inherent in that period pressures for change and opportunities for change. One of the lessons for me about this time of great urgency that we’ve been through is what kind of opportunities for important change do we get delivered by that time? How do we take advantage of those opportunities?” she said.

Faust’s thirst for learning and her background as a historian have contributed to her ability to tackle the most pressing issues at the university. “I think history can give you a tremendous amount of perspective,” she said. “I’ve learned from history that so much of leadership is helping people deal with change and understand how change happens. History is about the nature of change.”

RIDING A WAVE OF CHANGE 

Faust is no stranger to challenging the status quo. As a child in Virginia in the early 1950s, attending an all-white school and belonging to an all-white church congregation, Faust was troubled by segregation. She wrote a letter to a man she thought could make things right: President Dwight Eisenhower. “I am 9 years old and I am white but I have many feelings about segregation,” she told him.

In an essay published in 2003 in Harvard Magazine, Faust reflected on what could have triggered her determination to let the president know how deeply she felt about the injustice of segregation. “What I remember,” she wrote, “is that I heard something on the radio as I was being driven home from school by Raphael Johnson – a black man who worked for my family doing everything from mowing the lawn, shining shoes and washing floors and windows to transporting my brothers and me around the county, entertaining us all the while with quizzes on state and world capitals or the order of the presidents. I was in the car with Raphael when I heard something that made me realize that black children did not go to my school because they were not allowed to, because I was white and they were not.”

What is perhaps most extraordinary about the letter is not just the fact that Faust wrote it without her parents’ knowledge (they probably would not have encouraged her): She fully expected a reply from President Eisenhower himself. The perfunctory acknowledgment from the White House was hardly satisfying for a young girl who wanted change.

“Something hit me as a child that the society I lived in was unjust. I was just 9 years old, but I needed to do something about it,” Faust said. “I had been taught that American history was a parade of unfolding justice, and I thought that was true. I was sent to Sunday school and I am sure I learned values there.”

Some five decades later, Faust learned that her letter was among the documents in the Eisenhower Library in Kansas. Having often relied on letters, journals and other primary sources for research, Faust appreciated being part of history. Outside of its historic context, Faust’s letter also revealed something deeper: her conviction to question the status quo.

The only daughter in a household with three brothers, Faust rejected her mother’s traditional view of the role of women in society. For Faust, who was always called by her middle name of Drew instead of her first name of Catharine, that view was unacceptable. She became compelled to understand the world around her by exploring its historic roots. In the process, she would achieve more than she ever thought possible.

“It would have been unimaginable for me as a child to think I would end up here, especially when [women at the time] would not have been allowed in the undergraduate library at Harvard,” Faust said. “I was supposed to get married, have children and probably not even work.” (She is married to Charles Rosenberg, a leading historian of medicine and science and a professor at Harvard; they have two daughters.)

Faust acknowledged that she benefited from societal change that began to open doors to women of her generation – another example of the events that have made her. “I have been on a crest of a wave of change in American society that has opened up possibilities that I could not have expected or envisioned as a child or a young person. And that has been a source of wonder and satisfaction and fulfillment and amazement to me.”

Faust contrasted her experience as a young woman with the array of possibilities for the Harvard students in 2010, male and female, for whom there is also pressure to perform, excel and succeed. “Students now have so many clear ideas about, ‘I must win this prize. I must get this job. I must get into this school. I must have these things.’ On the one hand, it probably drives them toward achievement, but it also gives them measures for failure that I never had for myself,” she said. “Yes, I have failed in many things, but I never said I failed because I am not the president of the United States or I don’t make X amount of money.”

She shared the story of a freshman who wanted to become president of Harvard one day. He asked if he could speak with her about how to pursue that goal. Faust told the student she would be happy to meet with him but her advice was not to pin himself down so specifically. “Maybe he will become president of Harvard and maybe he won’t. Probably there will be paths that will open for him that will be very fulfilling, and yet he will have it in his mind [that he’s going to be Harvard president]. The great statistical likelihood is he will not reach that goal.”

Given her own experiences of capitalizing on opportunity and creating change, Faust takes seriously being a role model for the students at Harvard, thus extending the reach of her leadership. Whenever possible, she seizes a moment to tell them that, plans and long-term goals aside, to some degree one’s life must unfold. As she observed in her baccalaureate address to the class of 2008, the key to success and happiness is to pursue what one is most passionate about, take some risks and see how life turns out. “The answer is you don’t know until you try,” Faust said her in speech. “But if you don’t try to do what you love – whether it is painting or biology or finance – if you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don’t begin with it.”

Coming from a history professor who never intended to become a college president, let alone to run Harvard, it is excellent advice. Leaders, too, must find a balance between the long-term plan and handling the opportunities and obstacles that arise in the short term.

LISTEN, LEARN AND LEAD

Seated in her office with its imposing fireplace and plank floors, Faust was surrounded by the mystique and tradition that is Harvard, which dates back to the days when Massachusetts was a Puritan colony. Although she has a deep respect for the traditions at Harvard, she has been willing to question everything, particularly how the university operates. The time has come, she said, “to change in order to sustain what matters most.”

Before becoming president, Faust was an insider at Harvard, which she joined in 2001 as the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She had come to Harvard after 25 years at the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught history and directed the women’s studies programs. Because the Radcliffe Institute did not have any faculty of its own, as the dean Faust had to recruit professors from other departments. That enabled her to get to know colleagues outside the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of which she was part as a professor of history. Her ability to seek out others, listen to diverse opinions and build consensus became leadership strengths and tools for dealing with crisis and change.

Faust extended her outreach beyond those who knew her as the dean of Radcliffe to every school and department at the university. “My approach to the situation when I took over was just to try to hear from people what was on their minds and to assure constituencies who didn’t know me in the university that I cared about what they were doing and that I wanted to know more about it,” Faust said.

Faust’s approach was first to listen and learn and then lead. Listening and learning are not only essential to building a leader’s knowledge, but also to forging bonds and creating unity around common goals and purpose. For Faust, this meant getting to know every part of the university. Her outreach efforts attracted a stream of colleagues to her office. Faculty stopped by and sent long letters to discuss what they saw as critical to the future of the university. “People had their eyes on the future and not the past and wanted to discuss how I could help them move to that future in the most effective and collaborative way. That was very helpful,” Faust said.

Deep alliances between Faust and the faculty were created through three dean searches undertaken between February and July 2007 in the schools of medicine, arts and sciences, and design. Unlike other institutions where the president essentially approves the recommendations of a search panel, at Harvard the president runs the dean search, working closely with an advisory committee. For Faust, the searches became “forums of outreach” within the university and to alumni and leaders in the field. “These searches were really key for me in defining relationships within three major schools at Harvard and enabling me to speak with a lot of faculty and hear what was on people’s minds,” she said.

LEADERSHIP AND COMMUNICATION 

How a leader communicates during a crisis directly affects perceptions of the severity of the problem, confidence in the leader’s ability to find the way forward and assessments of how the organization is equipped to respond. For Faust, responding to the financial downturn and the losses of the Harvard Endowment meant getting a handle on its effect on the university portfolio and communicating quickly to the Harvard community. In a departure from past practice, Harvard issued a public statement about its anticipated losses even before the fiscal year had ended. “I needed the community to understand how serious this was,” Faust said. “People had always thought, ‘Oh, our endowment is so well managed, nothing will ever happen to it.’ This was a different moment. We had to get ready and adjust.”

Because Faust did not have financial expertise, she sought out the advice of some of the best Harvard minds in the field. “Harvard is filled with talented people,” she said. As a member of the Harvard Management Company board, she received a crash course in the university’s investments, which helped her speak credibly of the challenges. “I wouldn’t say that you would want to use me as your financial adviser, it hasn’t gotten to that,” she said. “But I did get a pretty good sense of what needed to be done and how to think about the problems we faced.”

Faust went to deans and faculty to explain the severity of the problem. “I thought it was very important that I talk about the finances and not just bring in a financial person. They needed to know that I understood the problem ... that I got it and I was dealing with it,” she said.

Her experience confirmed what Faust had always believed: that leadership is closely tied to communication. “In a time of crisis, what people want from their leaders is to understand what on earth is going on,” she said. “It’s the leader who has to help individuals understand by defining the situation and the path through it. And that’s what I tried to do.”

Her response to the financial crisis revealed her leadership style: collaborative and with a preference for addressing issues early on. “I like to be ahead of things,” she said. “I’m not a procrastinator because that just means I am going to suffer through it longer: first, to worry it to death and then I’m going to have to deal with it anyway. I would much rather try to figure out what’s the right path and take it early on. I would prefer to have some [influence over] a problem rather than be a victim of the problem.”

Harvard’s response to the Great Recession encompassed the immediate steps of reducing expenses and budgets and longer-term strategies such as exploring how different disciplines could collaborate in new ways. Faust recalled a visit to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where she was shown images of cells to which certain compounds had been added to test whether the cells were protected from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Intrigued by the imaging, Faust asked a researcher whether the idea had originated from physics or biology. His reply was telling of the state of cutting-edge research. “He said all the fields are merging,” Faust said excitedly. “Life sciences and physical sciences are breaking down the distinctions.”

She sees the same merging of disciplines between social science and humanities as well as social science and natural sciences. Interdependence allows multiple disciplines to tackle issues such as health care delivery in the United States, which involves Harvard’s schools of business, public health and medicine, as well as the sociology and economics faculty. These developments speak to the essence of Faust’s mission of determining “how we, as an institution that has so many strengths, really take advantage of our knowledge.”

The answer to that question could result in increased collaboration at Harvard to further research and thought leadership at the university. As distinctions between academic fields blur, there could be more opportunities for faculty in one school to teach in another, thus making better use of resources while sharing valuable knowledge.

MAKING OF FUTURE LEADERS

The financial crisis has also allowed Faust to tackle issues that are more philosophic in nature, such as examining the link between higher education and economic growth, and that a better-educated work force can help propel the economy forward. To focus on that point alone, Faust advised, would be to neglect a larger question about the value of humanities as well as what she called the more theoretical aspects of higher education. “Not just to train people but to educate them for a life,” she said. “Not just a vocational capacity but rather an ability to be someone who can ask the big, difficult questions. I think all of these issues have been put on the table by the financial crisis. We, as a leading institution in the field of higher education, need to pose those questions and come up with some answers.”

Faust ponders Harvard’s role in training future leaders who need to understand the intersection of leadership and responsibility. “It means your career is not just about enhancing your own talents or your own resources and building a good life for yourself,” she said. “Leadership means having a sense of responsibility and a sense of ethical commitment to society and to those you are leading.”

When we met, it was still too soon to comment on Faust’s legacy. Nonetheless, she did reflect on the difference she hopes to make. Top of her list is access, making sure that students, staff and faculty feel they are part of the Harvard community regardless of race, gender or economic circumstances. She described her vision of Harvard as a “porous institution that really draws talent and enhances and welcomes that talent – a vibrant intellectual community. That is how we serve both our own goals by getting the best talent, and it’s also how we serve the world best, as we serve the people who can take advantage of what we have to offer.”

Second on her list was the hope that she can look back on these times and say she took advantage of the opportunity that events presented to institute important and lasting change. “I hope I will be able to say that I took this moment when change was possible and I used it to improve Harvard in a variety of dimensions, some of them organizational and administrative, but more important the kinds of intellectual connections that our interdependence [between schools and disciplines] can foster,” she said.

As Faust responds to external catalysts and creates some of her own, there is no doubt that she is leading Harvard into and through a period of questioning and discernment. This prompted Faust to offer one last item on her legacy wish list: “that we really asked hard questions and made ourselves better, and that we decided that just because we’ve done some things one way doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t change it.”

Faust faced a crisis without flinching and then chose to look for the opportunity in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. She shares that attitude with many great leaders who view crisis as opportunity because change is inevitable. As a lifelong learner and a student of history, Faust has demonstrated the importance of drawing parallels between past and present and using the lessons learned to chart a course to a more solid future.

Authors

  • Joel Kurtzman

    Former Editor-in-Chief, Korn Ferry Institute

  • Michael Distefano

    President, Asia Pacific

    Bio >