President Johnson discusses leadership in challenging times
Fisher Leadership Initiative hosts online conversation
Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson is no stranger to leading in tumultuous times. Johnson competed for a spot in the Olympics, advised the Obama administration during one of the largest marine oil spills in history, and started leading the university in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
The challenges of the pandemic forced Johnson to change one of the most important traditions for a new leader: meeting the people she works with and serves every day.
“One of the first things you want to do is get to know everybody as quickly as possible. You want to get out and visit all of the colleges, all the regional campuses, meet all the leaders, meet the community leaders, meet the alums, students and faculty and obviously spend time with the board,” she said. “Now try to do that during a pandemic when you really cannot be in person with people, you can’t walk up to somebody and shake somebody’s hand. … It has been a challenge.”
Johnson joined Timothy Judge, the Joseph A. Alutto Chair in Leadership Effectiveness and Executive Director of the Fisher Leadership Initiative, for a webinar about leadership in unprecedented times hosted by Fisher College of Business this week. Johnson discussed her philosophy of leadership, how that philosophy has guided her response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how others can use their voice and personality to lead at Ohio State.
As a field hockey player at Stanford, Johnson tried out for the national team in 1978, a team that was to play in the 1980 Olympics until the U.S. led a boycott of the Moscow games. Johnson made it through three rounds of cuts before missing the team in the final cut. A friend asked her what she learned from the experience.
“We talked a little bit, and he goes, ‘Maybe what you learned … is that no matter what job you’re given, no matter what job you have, whether it is carrying the water for the team … or the star player needing the water, you have to perform those jobs equally well,’” she said. “That really stuck. No matter what, the whole only works if everybody sees themselves as a leader and is doing the best job that they can do.”
Johnson said leadership can come from any part of the university – students, faculty or staff. The important part is for those leaders at Ohio State to try their best every day.
Contributions can come in all sizes as well. Johnson told a story about her time as under-secretary of energy for the Obama administration when the Deepwater Horizon accident led to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Drawing on research she had conducted earlier in her career at the University of Colorado at Boulder helped solve the problem of figuring out how much oil was flowing from the broken well.
“What I learned from that was, first of all, you can always do something, you can always contribute in some way, and getting some information like that was really important,” Johnson said.
She said she also learned you won’t have all the answers. Much like in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders need to act with incomplete information.
“If we have learned anything in this last year it is, really, flexibility. With the best information we have today, this is what we will do. But we may change tomorrow, and we often did, because we learned something else,” she said. “It was really real-time education and research into how to deal with the pandemic.”
Johnson said it is more important for a leader to have a toolbox of techniques or approaches rather than a set leadership style: What works in day-to-day operations may not make sense in an emergency.
“When you are in an emergency, and your house is on fire, it’s a very authoritative leadership style because you put safety first,” she said. “You really want to use that sparingly.”
The university’s 16th president said she would rather function as a coach, building a team to work together to solve problems and move Ohio State toward the goal of being a great 21st century land-grant university.
“I am excited about finishing my first academic year. I think one of the things I’ve learned, and what’s so exciting, is that we are an excellent institution, and we can always strive to improve upon that,” she said. “It is easy to say the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts, but the other part of that is the individual parts have to be better for being part of the whole. And that is the other piece that we need to put into place, and that’s something I am excited about because there are so many ways we can work together.”