Arizona State University President Michael Crow is a pioneer in redirecting higher education toward educating more students, research that addresses contemporary problems, and new ways of developing the talents of young people. In an interview for “Listening to Leaders,” a new George W. Bush Institute book, the innovator explains the importance of leaders asking the “why” question, being empathetic, and listening to others before they can develop a vision. Leaders who make their leadership about themselves, he says, are usually not leaders.

Below is an excerpt of his conversation with the Bush Institute’s Anne Wicks and William McKenzie.


Question: What are the most important leadership elements in moving people toward an objective? Vision? Communication? Empathy?

Crow: Vision is not only seeing what lies ahead, but being able to articulate it. You can see where you need to go, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t communicate it. And if you can communicate well but can’t see around the corner, that doesn’t mean anything either.

Combining vision and communication as a single thing is a complex process. But those two have to come together.

Empathy also is essential. A leader can’t even think about what the vision might be without being empathetic and understanding other people. Leaders who build their leadership around just their own feelings or desires are generally not leaders.

Having your own view is not leadership at all. Leadership is knowing where you want to go based on an empathetic understanding of others.


Q: You have said that leaders must ask the “why” question: Why are we doing something? Could you explain that?

Crow: The “why” question is essential. Why are we here? Why are we trying to do something? What’s the reason? After that follows the “what.” What are we going to do? And after that, “how.” How are we going to do it? But everything is driven by the “why.”

The “why” is the aspirational goal. If you don’t have an aspirational goal, chances are you’re not going to be successful. You are not working toward something.


Q: You were quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Higher education is languishing because we have not generally created the conditions for the emergence of effective leadership.” What does that mean?

Crow: We’ve defaulted leadership to a broadly diverse and self-interested faculty. At many universities, the faculty have become the replacement for decision-making. Rather than allowing the faculty to manage the academic curriculum, programs and design, we have turned the university over to them.

Leadership is badly needed in universities as they continue to underperform as a group. They also have not been able to take leadership positions on important social issues or cultural changes, like the debates over freedom of speech.


Q: Has this changed how you think about the talent that’s executing against your “why” and “how”?

Crow: Initially, yes, it did require a change.

We found leaders who wanted to work toward the objective in our vision, which became our charter. Once we had the charter well understood, we had the vast majority of the faculty wanting to be part of an organization with this as its purpose. We have tried to empower the faculty to work toward this objective and be their own intellectual designers.

Leadership is not about making a series of decisions and then finding people that can implement those decisions. It’s about empowering people throughout the organization so they can operate on a model different than the classic big university model. They’re not just running bureaucratic substructures that replicate other institutions. They are creating the intellectual design that they want to be a part of and then held to task for outcomes, rigor and quality.


Q: What skills do higher education leaders need to be effective over the next 20 years?

Crow: The challenge, and it’s all over the world, is that we are going to have class separation if universities can’t figure out how to be innovative, scale programs that reach a broad audience, and address the breadth of society and its needs.

New higher education leaders have to move out of the railroad business where they’re managing the trains and putting in beautiful cars and maintaining the tracks for their individual institution. They have to move out of the business of running bureaucratic institutions that are just replicating each other and becoming more and more selective.

They have to get into the business of innovating, adjusting, scaling and enhancing connections to the broader society. If not, the benefits that higher education has received, such as tax benefits and the idea of tenure, will become less socially acceptable. Universities will find themselves under increasing attack. It is all about innovation and adaptation.


Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield from “Listening to Leaders: Values, Empathy, Humility, and Relationships,” edited by William McKenzie (copyright 2019).