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Showing the Human Face of Higher Ed Leadership

Showing the Human Face of Higher Ed Leadership

A Conversation With Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) always looks forward to the Weekly Wisdom Podcast when our guest is Dr. Michael Sorrell, longtime president of Paul Quinn College. We love his warmth, candor, and willingness to put a human face on the challenges of higher education leadership. On this podcast episode, President Sorrell talked about good and bad examples of leadership, showing vulnerability, finding work-life balance, the best way to deliver bad news, and DIY executive professional development.

Learning Higher Ed Leadership by Example
Every sector offers examples of good and bad leadership, and President Sorrell shared both kinds of lessons that he still practices as a higher ed leader:

"In politics, I was exposed to some amazing leaders who actually cared about the people they worked with, who were funny, who were relatable, who cared about the issues they were advocating for. Ron Kirk was running for mayor of Dallas, and wound up being the trade ambassador under President Obama. I learned a lot just watching the way he engaged people, the way he spoke up and spoke truth to power. In my own career, I was exposed to two extraordinary leaders, Tom Luz and Del Williams, who taught me how power thinks, how decisions are really made, the power in sincerity and maintaining relationships, and how to deliver news that people won't like."

He mentioned the negative examples only when we insisted:

"I have learned a ton from bad leaders, really wonderful examples of what not to do. The trick is to learn the lesson they can provide and use that as you move forward. Selfishness by far was the singular connecting trait for bad leadership. I often tell people, 'One of my leadership lessons is you cannot lead people you do not love, and you should never lead people you do not know.' Because the sacrifices required to truly lead require selfless behavior. You have to put others' needs before your own.

"Sometimes you can learn good and bad lessons from the same people. It depends upon the season in which you're exposed to them. Great leaders coming out of traumatic situations who haven't processed their own trauma can traumatize others. Prior to that, they may have been spectacular, but it really does depend on how are you managing what you're going through."

Leaders Are Human, Too
President Sorrell believes that a leader's willingness to show vulnerability can become a strength. He explained:

"I try to be honest with my staff about where I am emotionally. And I've got to have the ability to rejuvenate myself while still doing my job. That may not be possible for a lot of people who have built up these personas where they're always right or can never be questioned."

He described breaking down in tears during a staff meeting after a close friend died of cancer, adding:

"My staff was so amazing. People came up, they put their arms on me, they hugged me, they prayed over me. They gave me a gift. What they said to me in that moment is, 'We authentically love you, and we care for you.' One piece of advice I would give to leaders is that your staff, your students, they actually want to know you. Not the version of you that is impenetrable, the version of you that might not have it all together, because none of us have it all together. It's really important that we just be human."

Quote by Michael Sorrell re: the importance of higher ed leaders showing their true self to staff and students.

Finding Leadership-Life Balance
While acknowledging everyone's humanity is important, leadership means managing people to do their jobs efficiently. President Sorrell said that it begins with how leaders manage themselves:

"Can you be a great manager while also being a great husband and father? It takes time to manage people, you need to be present, you need to be engaged. To be a great father, it takes time. To be a great husband takes time. Now there are three separate units that need your time: your job, your children, your wife. How do you resolve that tension?

"In my presidency, I was here all the time. The students knew they could come to my office, sometimes 8:00, 9:00 at night. I'd be here. Same thing with staff. I got married. Well, you can't stay at work all night long and hope that the marriage works well. We got pregnant. Now we've got a baby. I remember being angry because I've got a baby at home that I can't go be with. So as we grew as an institution and my management responsibility started to grow, I realized the only shot that I had at being able to be the father, husband, and college president that I wanted to be was to reduce the number of people that I was managing.

"So part of being an effective manager is understanding your management love language, understanding the kinds of people that you manage best. I don't need to manage 85 separate people. I need to be an effective manager of my core group and empower them to manage effectively, giving me the best chance of being a great manager and college president and still having the ability to be a great father and husband. It took me a minute to figure that out."

How Good Leaders Deliver Bad News
One challenge for leaders is delivering hard news in a soft way. President Sorrell has led Paul Quinn College through some difficult times and made his share of unwelcome announcements:

"Tell people the truth as soon as you can. You do no one any favors dragging out the truth. Also understand the temporal nature of delivering bad news. There is a moment where you have to deliver tough news, and then you move on. You don't have to wallow in that place. I've learned to sit people down and say, 'This is what it is. You don't have to like it, but this is the reality of this moment. I'm happy to answer questions, I'll help you in any way I can, but that does not negate the fact that a change needs to be made.'"

He tries to remind people that the current situation doesn't define them:

"'This is a chapter, this is a page. Whether or not it becomes the rest of your life is entirely dependent upon you. How do you process this? How do you accept this? How do you move forward?' And this part doesn't get talked about enough: don't be afraid of the silence. When you deliver difficult news, and then there's that silence, people get nervous and want to fill it. And typically, what they fill it with doesn't help them in the long run. Say it. Let people sit with it. Don't feel pressure to fill the silence. Then move on."

Self-Styled Professional Development for Higher Ed Leaders
When we asked President Sorrell how leaders can develop professionally, he described his own informal path:

"I've never really had an executive coach. I understand the argument for why you use institutional resources to do it. I can always justify resources being used on behalf of other people than myself. So that requires me to be far more self-critical, more reflective, and have the humility to ask for feedback. I try really hard to create opportunities for people to give me critical feedback of my performance. I've got a handful of close friends in higher education that I can just be human with. They provide professional development."

He offered this advice:

"Find your version of an executive coach, your own personal cabinet, or people who will talk to you. All of us need people who will speak truth to us, and it's really hard for the people who speak true to be people that on your staff. I don't think that works."

President Sorrell learns from students, too, and he shared this candid exchange with his intern:

"She said, 'You are incredibly gifted. The problem is you can't be every place. And because you can't be, the places you aren't focused on suffer, and the people in those places suffer, because you haven't figured out how to manage through those scenarios. We're not going to be who we can be as a college until you figure that out.' And I was like, 'Thank you. Now I'm going to take all your financial aid away.' And we laughed because she knew I was joking, but it was absolutely fantastic coaching advice.

"As a president, you better figure out how to listen to your students and not have their real opinions be filtered. The students have to be comfortable enough to tell you what they think and feel. In any business, you better figure out how to create an avenue for real dialogue, and then sit back on your ego and be humble enough to be appreciative of it, and listen in a way that encourages people to keep sharing. I'm not telling you that that's easy, but I'm telling you that that's incredibly necessary."

Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on April 17, 2023 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Links Mentioned in This Episode
University Innovation Alliance
Weekly Wisdom Podcast
Dr. Michael Sorrell
Paul Quinn College
You cannot lead people you do not love ("Being Prepared, Staying Positive, and Leading With Love: A Conversation With Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College" UIA, 11/24/20)
Willingness to show vulnerability ("Owning the Moral Responsibility of Higher Education: A Conversation With Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College" UIA, 4/8/21)

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Michael Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College
Dr. Michael J. Sorrell is the longest-serving President in the 151-year history of Paul Quinn College. During his 16 years of leadership, Paul Quinn has become a national movement for its efforts to remake higher education in order to serve the needs of under-resourced students and communities. In that time, Paul Quinn won HBCU of the Year among other awards, created the New Urban College Model, and achieved full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). As one of the most decorated college presidents in America, President Sorrell was named Higher Education’s President of the Year by Education Dive, one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine, and one of the “31 People Changing the South” by Time Magazine. President Sorrell B.A. in Government from Oberlin College, his J.D. and M.A. in Public Policy from Duke University, and his Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. While in law school, he was a founding member of the Journal of Gender Law & Policy and served as the Vice President of the Duke Bar Association. A Sloan Foundation Graduate Fellowship funded his studies at both Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Duke University. President Sorrell serves as a trustee or director for Duke University’s School of Law, the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, JP Morgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways, Amegy Bank, the Hockaday School, the Dallas Advisory Board of Teach for America, the Dallas Foundation, and EarthX, among others.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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