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The final blog on leadership transitions addresses two bullet points from Part I of the series: communicating with your predecessor and who you can trust.

Should new leaders communicate with their predecessors? The answer, of course, depends on why and how the leadership transition occurred. In general, my response to such a question is, “Why not?” But, if you do, be very careful! You don’t know how your communication will be interpreted by your followers, your superiors, or your predecessor.

If the transition occurs internally, it’s likely that you know your predecessor and know if your communication will remain private or will become public knowledge. Likewise, you’ll know how to interpret the information you receive. Conversely, if you came from outside the organization then it’s likely you’re unable to assess how to interpret the information you receive or if your communication will be treated confidentially.

Following my appointment to lead the engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation and my appointment to lead the engineering college at Georgia Tech, I had very few interactions with my predecessors. Similarly, I had very few interactions with my successors. For the National Science Foundation position, my predecessor returned to MIT and I returned to Georgia Tech; for the Georgia Tech deanship, I was promoted from within, as was my successor.

For the UA chancellorship, I was an external appointment; my predecessor was on leave, studying abroad, when I arrived. Because I didn’t know him, I limited my communication with him. In retrospect, I should have reached out to him before making several decisions. Why? Because I wasn’t hearing everything I needed to hear. He knew things that would have changed my decisions and saved me considerable embarrassment and heartache.

Because my successor was promoted within and served on my leadership team, our relationship was such that we had several communications during his chancellorship. However, after reading his Confessions of a Chancellor, I suspect we should have had more. He knew I was fully engaged in my professorial responsibilities and didn’t want to bother me. He should have bothered me; I was ready, willing, and able to assist him any way I could.

Now, I turn to trust. As I said in Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, trust, once lost is difficult, if not impossible, to regain. It’s essential for exemplary leadership.

Trust is a two-way street. In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey, does a masterful job in making the case for why trust must exist in an organization. To be effective, leaders must be trusted. Equally, leaders must trust their followers.

Trust isn’t static. It’s dynamic. It requires close attention. During nuclear disarmament negotiations in the mid-1980s between President Ronald Reagan and the USSR’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Regan said, in Russian, to Gobachev, “Trust, but verify.”

In leadership transitions, arguably the greatest challenge leaders face is learning who they can trust. The learning process, as I can testify, can be painful. I’ll share three of the numerous mistakes I made. First, while serving as chancellor, I confided in my counterpart at another university about a personnel change I was considering; in less than a week, word reached the individual on our campus. Second, I discussed, confidentially, a personnel change I was contemplating with a UA alumnus I believed to be a trustworthy friend and it, too, soon reached the person in question. Three, I made an offhand comment regarding a newspaper article to an alumnus and it was passed on to the newspaper’s editor within a few hours of my comment.

Shakespeare’s Othello learned the hard way that he couldn’t trust Iago. I learned the hard way that there are very few people who can be trusted to keep their lips zipped. I should’ve known better. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Samuel Johnson is credited with saying, “To keep your secret is wisdom, but to expect others to keep it is folly.” Because you can trust so few people, leadership can be very lonely.


Next week: Industrial Policy—Pros and Cons