America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Donna Shalala, President of the University of Miami
In an office decorated with a crazy quilt made from swatches from the dozens of academic robes she's gotten from universities that have awarded her honorary degrees, University of Miami President Donna Shalala talked about leadership with U.S.News & World Report:
You're president of a major university and a member of three corporate boards, and serve several nonprofits. How do you get everything done?
I start very early. I get up before 6 a.m. and walk the dog before working out with a personal trainer. The dog doesn't know the difference between Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, so I have to walk the dog early those days too. I read six newspapers. I try to deal with my serious reading before work. I am very disciplined about returning phone calls and E-mails. I try to do them in the morning. I have a BlackBerry so I can return E-mails, but calls are usually later. No one in Miami is ready for phone calls at 7:30. The only place I ever lived that I could return phone calls early was Madison, Wis. But I have a driver, so I can return calls while I'm in the car. I get to work at about 7:30 or 8 unless I have a breakfast meeting. I'm pretty disciplined and am almost always on schedule. I try to get in bed by 10 p.m. I get out of dinner meetings fast.
In what area of life do we need the most leadership?
Health. We are living longer, and we need to live better. We need leadership on the fundamentals of eating right, exercising, and not smoking. I am interested in getting people to use the healthcare system at the right time, getting them to see the doctor early enough, before a small health problem turns serious.
Do you think there is less leadership today?
Nonsense. In every community, whether large or small, there are people who lead in their community in easy and difficult times. Sure, it is apparent that presidents are looking at polls, but they are also stepping up on issues. President Clinton stepped up on tobacco. He shaped the polls on the tobacco issue. I think President Bush tried to step up on Social Security even though the polls showed that was unpopular. He has not been successful and backed off, but I admire people who take on big problems.
What has been your biggest disappointment?
My friends would expect me to say losing healthcare legislation was the worst time. But for me, it is when a student has died. I find the death of a young person the most difficult and painful of times. To explain it to other young people, to see a bright future snuffed out, is just awful. I am haunted by those deaths. It always takes all my strength and faith to keep on going. In Wisconsin, I had heavily recruited a brilliant young Native American from Bayfield, Wis. A couple of days before his high school graduation, he was killed in an auto accident. As a part of the recruitment, I promised him he could sit next to me at the first football game. I left the seat next to me empty. Every year, I am reminded of the kids who aren't in the freshman class and aren't graduating. I remember every single one of them. That is the worst of times for me, to see the future snuffed out.
What is your biggest flaw? And how do you address it?
Impatience. By putting people around me who will calm me down and slow me down and make sure I work through an issue. I have always hired very strong people. No one has ever said I surround myself with "yes" people. I have always hired people of different ages. Young people and older people. People in their 70s and in their 20s. People who are fully capable of talking back to me.
What was your biggest mistake?
I have made mistakes with the people I have hiredsenior people. And legislation and tactics. I'm just willing to make decisions. And if you are willing to make decisions, you have to be willing to make mistakes. All of the personnel mistakes I made were because I didn't trust my own instincts. I overanalyzed the situation and listened to advice from people. I am now at the point in my career at which my instincts are better than my head. My gut is far better than my intellect. It is not unusual for me to select someone 90 percent of my advisers think is the wrong candidate. -