Reflections on Institutional and Individual Leadership

President Charles M. Vest's address to the Alumni/ae Leadership Conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 16, 1995.

© Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact the MIT News Office at, or (617) 253-2700.
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Let me begin my observations on leadership with a brief rundown of some of the varied expectations of a university president these days.

He or she should be a: scholar, politician, fund-raiser, budget cutter, salary-raiser, father confessor, negotiator, diplomat, parental substitute, guarantor of safety, provider of wholesome and tasty dorm meals, dedicated researcher, conservator of age-old values, politically correct and hip leader, director of big-time athletics, witty spokesperson to the press, expert on all things, humble servant, charismatic leader, eloquent speaker, sophisticated host, example of physical fitness, well-read, scientist, historian, literary devotee, arbiter of musical taste, expert on waste disposal, investment guru, friend of the city council, towering public figure, and "just one of the guys."

Due to the importance of brevity in public speaking, I have limited myself to this partial list, but have prepared a complete computer printout--which I intend to send to Mark Wrighton at Washington University.

But we are not here today to discuss the roles of university presidents, although that list does reflect some of the issues about the nature of leadership in contemporary America.

Today's theme could not be more timely. As we look at the state of the nation and the world, there is no question that strong and wise leadership is needed.

But there are questions that we must ask:

Recently, Bob Galvin (chairman of the Executive Committee at Motorola) reminded me of the old saying that "a leader is one who takes us elsewhere, "that is, a leader is one who produces change in society.

Several months ago, there was an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Lives Well Lived." It opened with the editor noting that when the physicist John Bardeen died in 1991, his obituary stated that "there are very few people who had a greater impact on the whole of the 20th century." Bardeen was a man with two Nobel prizes for two entirely different accomplishments in physics. One of these prizes was for work that made modern computers and solid-state electronics possible. How, the editor asked, could someone have such great accomplishment and have so profoundly affected her world, and not even have a name that she had heard before?

The people profiled in the article were people of strong but highly varied accomplishments. One was Elizabeth Paepcke, who founded the Aspen Institute. Another was the musician Cab Calloway. Among the others were the biologist Linus Pauling, art curator Henry Geldzahler, author Ralph Ellison, feminist leader Kathryn Clarenbach, athlete Wilma Rudolph, and statesman George Ball.

Did these people exemplify leadership? Each certainly was a change agent. Does being a change agent constitute a form of leadership? Or is it something else? Should we only count how many CEOs graduate from MIT when we assess our effectiveness in educating leaders?

Components of Leadership

It seems to me that there are several components of leadership. They are: ideas, vision, motivation, and command. These have been necessary conditions of leadership. I do not know whether they are sufficient today...or tomorrow.

Let me begin with a few words about each of these components, and then explore the conditions which will call for leadership in the future.

Future Settings for Leadership

These features of leadership have operated in varied measure, given the setting and the times. What will be the societal and organizational nature of leadership in the future?

Looking ahead, I see a world of growing contrasts and complexity. We are coming to understand our common stake in the global environment and the global economy. Yet there is a terrifying resurgence of nationalist and ethnic conflict in many countries. We are experiencing both scientific progress and economic advancement at the same time that there is growing stratification of wealth and divisions among peoples--both between nations, and within nations, including our own.

In spite of these centrifugal forces, I believe that the trend will be toward more democratic, less hierarchical institutions--particularly as individuals gain greater access to advanced communications technologies--and the information, organizing abilities, and power that such access provides.

In a world challenged by issues of such growing magnitude and complexity, it will be increasingly important for people to be able to communicate effectively and freely, and to work together to integrate the efforts of many to achieve a common goal. This will be even more important, and more challenging, as our institutions come to terms with the fact that our society, and our future, depend on the full participation of people from the full spectrum of cultural and racial backgrounds. So group work, or team work, will be increasingly important.

You may have seen the article in last Sunday's New York Times that referred to the growing body of research on qualities other than intelligence that appear to be critical to an individual's success. In a recent Bell Labs study, for example, those electrical engineers who excelled in rapport, empathy, cooperation, persuasion, and the ability to build consensus were regarded as the most valued and productive members of the group.

Leadership Qualities in the Future

I believe that these observations have implications for institutions--the settings in which most of us spend our lives--as well as for the qualities of leadership that will be needed in our organizations and society.

My guess, looking ahead, is that:

These admittedly simplistic ideas can serve as a partial framework for discussion of the two issues I opened with: how we lead as an institution, and how we prepare our students for leadership in the future.

How We Lead as an Institution

First, some comments on how MIT--and research universities more broadly--lead as institutions. Universities, indeed, have taken us "elsewhere"--and have been responsible for some of the most far-reaching and profound changes in our society.

Much of what we take for granted today was born out of university-based research: polio vaccines, heart pacemakers, digital computers, space-based weather forecasting, advanced cancer therapies, jet aircraft, and disease-resistant grains and vegetables, to name just a few.

We lead primarily through ideas. We generate knowledge and ideas; we transfer the fruits of that knowledge into the larger society; we help to set the policy framework for action on national and international issues; and most importantly, we teach our students.

I would like to say a few words about how MIT leads in these four areas: research, technology transfer, public policy, and education. First, research. Members of the MIT faculty synthesized penicillin; revolutionized the fields of linguistics and economics; have profoundly affected the course of modern molecular biology and our understanding of cancer; have been pace setters on the information highway; planted the seeds for the biomedical industry; aid the groundwork for the development of high-strength materials; and more.

Today, our faculty are engaged in equally visionary and far-reaching research--building on past discoveries, and seeking the answers to new questions. MIT cherishes discovery for its own sake. But what has distinguished this place in the past, and what will mark our leadership in the future, has another face as well. MIT was founded as a university that would be engaged, passionately and practically, in human affairs.

And so we are leaders in the extent to which we transfer our learning and discoveries to the wider society. Without going into detail, let me say simply that only one or two other universities come close to the number of patents we are issued annually, and the number of patents we license to business and industry. We don't rest there: MIT alumni and faculty have started hundreds of companies and created thousands of jobs--bringing vitality to the economy and infusing society with the practical benefits of their education and research.

MIT alumni and faculty have a long tradition of engaging in the realm of public policy as well. You are all familiar with the long string of presidential science advisors who have come from the ranks of MIT: Vannevar Bush, Jim Killian, Jerry Wiesner, Frank Press. The tradition continues among our faculty and alumni today--John Deutch at the CIA, Shirley Jackson (head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), Sheila Widnall (secretary of the Air Force), Joe Stiglitz (Council on Economic Advisors), and Laura Tyson (chair of the National Economic Council), to name just a few.

Finally, and most importantly, MIT is a leader in education. We have long been recognized as the leader in engineering education. The engineering science revolution sprang from MIT, and took hold in universities throughout the country. Little wonder: MIT is responsible for educating some 10 percent of the engineering faculty in the United States. In science, we are one of the first, and still one of the very few places, that require molecular biology as a graduation requirement for every student. Earlier this year, the Sloan School was ranked by US News and World Report as the best business school in the country. Now faculty in departments throughout the Institute are examining our undergraduate programs, and coming up with plans to make them even more relevant to the world of the 21st century.

MIT is a leader not only in what we teach, but in whom we teach. One of the most important ways we can lead--and produce change in our society--is by educating those students who will contribute most to and gain most from an MIT education. While the number of applications to schools that emphasize engineering and science is declining elsewhere, MIT broke a new record in applications for this year's freshman class: nearly 8,000 applications for 1,000 places. The quality of what these students bring to their education is simply extraordinary. And our record in the education of women and minorities in engineering and science, while far from perfect, is far ahead of any other research university in the country.

Preparing Students for Leadership

This brings me to the question of how we can best prepare these exceptional young people for leadership. As Karen Arenson [deputy business editor of the New York Times] noted in her remarks, there is the common belief that MIT does not educate leaders. Indeed, some time ago, I realized that the emerging leaders in many big corporations were not graduates of "competitive universities" such as MIT. Perhaps this is because the leaders of large corporations are those who not only work hard, but are very good at living by their wits. And maybe because they have a higher IQ than many of our graduates.

One of our colleagues, Bill Pounds [professor in MIT's Sloan School of Management], believes that the big corporations are no longer attracting the bright graduates of universities such as MIT or Stanford. Rather, he suspects that these graduates are moving into--and leading--the smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations. We will have some hard facts on this in a few montha, when we have the results of a joint study we are doing with the Bank of Boston on companies that are founded and/or led by MIT alumni and alumnae. We will be sure to share this information with you.

Some would argue that leadership is something you either have or don't have, but there are many qualities and skills of leadership that can be taught, and I believe that MIT can do much--and can do more--to foster these capabilities in our students.

But first, let's take a look at the traditional strengths of an MIT education that provide students with a solid grounding for leadership.

As all of you know, at MIT students:

These are the kinds of skills that enable MIT graduates to make such significant contributions in their professions, and that ensure their ability to keep on learning in a changing world.

But are these sufficient for leadership? Should we be doing more to foster their vision, their ideas, and their ability to motivate and work with others? I think so, and our students have reinforced this view.

In 1994, we surveyed the senior class to learn what they thought about their MIT education. While over 90 percent thought it had contributed significantly to their analytical and problem-solving skills,

Clearly there is much that we can, and should, be doing to give students the skills and the confidence to become leaders. Fortunately, I can report that over the past few years, we have been paying more attention to these dimensions of education:

These are some of the things we are doing. We can do more. We should do more.

To summarize, I believe that both institutionally and educationally MIT remains a great leader. MIT and its people truly have "taken us elsewhere," but this statement is in the past tense. It probably is true in the present tense. What about the future?

Our excellence comes in large measure from our willingness to be unique and somewhat more focused than most other great universities. But we must not mistake our uniqueness with never having to change. The question that Karen has posed is profound--especially in how we resolve it in terms of selecting students, restructuring the curriculum, and establishing the learning environment.

The future will be determined more by what we do not know now than by what we do know now. I recently asked our department heads what they thought were the most important things that we currently do not know. A very strong theme ran through their independent answers. Most had to do with predictability, knowability and understanding of large, complex systems and phenomena, whether they be physical, biological, natural, or organizational.

MIT is particularly well-poised to seek these new understandings and apply them. Our work in cancer research, global environment and sustainability, manufacturing, the science of mind and memory, systems design and management, global computer network architecture, media arts and sciences, our restructuring of engineering and management curricula, and our increasing emphasis on international interactions, are pointing MIT in the right direction to exert institutional and educational leadership for the new era.

We have a good shot at setting the new paradigms and developing the new ways of knowing and doing, but we must increase the pace of change to secure this leadership.

I am less comfortable in my confidence that we are vectoring in the right direction to educate the leaders of tomorrow. Why am I less confident? Because I am not sure that we really know what will constitute individual leadership in the next century. Will it follow the traditional human and organizational models?

Observing the national and international political scene gives me pause in answering this. Observing the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds gives hints that it may be quite different. We have to take the lead from Karen and explore this question in depth and act according to what we learn. The only constant is change; and it is accelerating.

The Charge to Alumni and Alumnae

In this, as in so many things, we can use your help.

When it comes to preparing our students for leadership, you can give us the benefit of your experience--as students here, and as professionals in the worlds of business, industry, government, medicine, architecture, and law.

Those of you who are Educational Counselors can keep a special eye out for leadership qualities among the students you interview!

We can also use your help in sustaining MIT as a leader in education and research. You can continue your generous financial support, of course. (I had to say that!). But just as important, you can help make the case for MIT, and for higher education in general. This country has the best system of higher education and research in the world. Period. That is leadership. As many of you know, however, both Congress and the Administration are proposing major funding cuts that would stifle the flow of ideas and expertise that are more important than ever to our nation's health and prosperity in the 21st century.

We need your support, and we need your leadership, in a new campaign for the future. Talk to your colleagues, your representatives in Congress, your friends and your neighbors. Write letters to the editor.

We are not asking for the status quo, and we are not asking to be left alone. We will change and we will do our share to reduce costs, but do not let the country blindly disinvest in research, education, and excellence. Do not allow American higher education go the way of our primary and secondary systems. Lead us to sensible investment in the future.

If enough of us pull together, I am confident that this nation will regain the will and the vision to serve society's need for the new knowledge, technologies, and superbly educated young men and women that will keep this country great.

Thank you very much.

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