Vartan Gregorian on Organizational Leadership

I was recently in a meeting where a very senior person directed a question about the presentation to another very senior person who had nothing to do with the presentation. She could have just asked the presenter, a fabulous, engaging person who knew everything about the subject at hand. Why the conscious snub? Because the presenter was of a lower “salary grade,” and you wouldn’t want to mix with those types, you know?

Contrast that world view with this tidbit from Vartan Gregorian, former President of Brown, describing how he approaches relationships with those “under him”:

I also did something both in the library and at Brown and at Penn. I got to know the staff. By staff, I don’t mean secretaries alone. The building and ground workers, too. I used to go occasionally to the basement of the New York Public Library and have bourbon with the custodians. I learned more from them about the structural problems of the building than from anyone else. At Brown, I tried to set an example of having a lifestyle governed by modesty. For example, I took a Bonanza bus from Providence to the Boston airport for $11.25 to save money, but more important, to set a tone for the rest of the campus. I instituted a policy that nobody could travel first class. Everybody had to travel economy. No limousines, only buses and taxicabs, and no fancy meals. These were important symbolic measures so that if I cut the budget, nobody would say, “Well, the fat cats are still living high on the hog.” There were even funny moments related to these policies.

Once it was raining and I had no umbrella. I was walking along and the university garbage truck stopped. “Hey, Prez,” one of the workers called out. “You need a lift?” He thought that I would not take it. I embarrassed him by climbing on and coming home with a garbage truck, and that story made the rounds.

It would be really interesting to spend a day in the shoes of an organizational snob. What a painful, limiting existence it must be.