A University Negotiates Accusations of Autocratic Leadership

The pitfalls of a powerful leadership style

By on / Leadership Skills

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While not always popular with employees, there are countless situations where running an organization with an autocratic leadership style can be valuable at the right moment. When the Suffolk University Board of Trustees announced in January 2016 that they would sever University President Margaret McKenna’s contract after only eight months, however, Board Chairman Andrew Meyer, Jr. found himself in a challenging negotiation that shows the pitfalls of autocratic leadership.


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Margaret McKenna appeared to have all the qualities that the Boston-based university was looking for when she was hired in 2015. She had served in the Clinton Administration and later as both president and vice president of numerous educational institutions. From 2007-2011 she served as President of the Walmart Foundation, overseeing a philanthropic endowment in excess of $150 million. With a strong background she was tapped to help the university overcome a shrinking endowment and growing expenses.

Despite their high hopes, tensions between the board and McKenna rose quickly after her arrival. Among the reasons for her firing, the board questioned her financial decision-making and her decisions to close certain programs. A seasoned leader, McKenna fired back, challenging the autocratic leadership style of the board, which had no term limits and allowed a minority of members to exert significant control over decisions. Instead of accepting her fate—which had befallen four of her predecessors since 2010—she forced a negotiation that led to an unexpected outcome.

When Good Interests Become Bad Positions

While Meyer likely believed that McKenna’s removal was necessary in order to effect change, one of the pitfalls of exercising autocratic leadership is the temptation to repeat past decisions too quickly. The board was eager to see change at Suffolk, but according to The Boston Globe, it was McKenna’s early focus on the operations and governance of the board itself that sparked her firing.

Their quick use of a tried and true response may have felt like a reliable and effective reflection of their interests, but having done it four times in a short period, firing the president ultimately looked like an entrenched position. It also risked becoming ineffective.

Because of their position, the board lost sight of the underlying interests at stake, and were unprepared for McKenna’s response. Instead of packing her bags, she did something her predecessors had not. She refused to go.

Worsening the Options for the Other Side

Knowing which choices will worsen an opponents’ ability to walk out on a negotiation is a powerful skill. Instead of backing down, McKenna and her supporters took to the press, weakening the board’s ability to force her out of her position. The swift escalation of the conflict, which included front page articles in the city newspapers, put the board in a challenging position.

While the board asserted their responsibility to ensure the success of the institution, McKenna’s background as an institutional leader, with vast experience dealing with corporate boards, made her a strong opponent. In the weeks following her firing, she was the subject of praiseworthy articles and support from university organizations and civic leaders. All the while, the increased publicity forced long-time allies distance themselves from the board while preventing the board from ignoring her refusal to step down.

Value Claims Must Be Consistent and Credible

Accomplished leaders in their own right, Meyer and his allies quickly recovered from the crush of publicity, countering McKenna’s claims with a statement highlighting their own achievements over the previous five years. Reminding stakeholders of the measures of success can be important in asserting the importance of one’s role and value in a negotiation. Here again, however, the danger of autocratic leadership is the temptation to make value claims that exceed the scope of one’s position and influence. While important, value claims must be credible or they can draw suspicion that undermines the negotiation.

In the case of the board, their statement had the opposite of the intended effect. Questions were raised about the fact that the board had over-reached into daily operations, while taking years to address problems that fell squarely within their mandate. The increased scrutiny only enhanced McKenna’s credibility and leverage in the negotiation.

The More Parties, the Less it Pays to be Autocratic

As support declined for the board within the various groups whose interests they hoped to represent, fractures began to appear within the board itself. Dissenting members commented that they had faith in McKenna and felt that she deserved to have a full academic year in her position before having a performance review. With his coalition dwindling amidst calls to bring in an outside mediator, Meyer recognized that negotiation was now the only way to put the matter to rest.

Fairness and Trust Matter

In early February 2016, McKenna and the board reached an agreement. McKenna would step down no later than the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, while Meyer would step down by May of 2016. Neither Meyer nor McKenna fully prevailed over the other, but the most significant casualty of the negotiation was the autocratic leadership style that had become a hallmark of the board’s governance for years.

By recognizing and respecting the strengths and weaknesses of unilateral leadership, McKenna strategically turned a non-negotiable situation into an argument about fairness. Along with Meyer’s willingness to accept an outcome which ends his tenure, the agreement shows the limits of autocratic leadership and the benefits of reaching a negotiated settlement. In a February interview with The Boston Globe, McKenna reflected that outcome had an immediate, positive effect on the university’s bottom line, garnering two donations totaling $350,000 in just one week.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


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