Nowadays, everyone seems to stress the importance of being a leader, but what exactly does “leader” mean? The University of Florida’s 12th president, Dr. Kent Fuchs, explained what this term means to him and why every individual, regardless of XY and Z, should strive to be one.
Dr. Kent Fuchs joined the University of Florida in January of 2015 and has since managed to gain and maintain the adoration of his students. Prior to UF, the revered president studied electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois and held various titles at academic institutions across the nation, including provost of Cornell University for six years. He admits that he never had a direct career path in mind, as he even spent three years studying to become a pastor of a church, nor did he imagine himself with the leadership role that comes with being a university president.
“I’ve been sort of an accidental in terms of the career positions – it’s been more opportunistic, and it has been more based on the availability of opportunities than a specific plan,” Fuchs said. “For me, that has worked.”
Leadership, to President Fuchs, extends beyond the practicing leader. It is something more important than the individual, and he takes this seriously in his own work as president.
“A leader is very simply the following: an individual who conducts themselves and lives their life for a greater purpose and secondly, an individual is a leader if they also work to help other people be successful in achieving their aspirations and their goals,” Fuchs said. “I am a leader when I’m working on behalf of the university, which is this higher goal. I’m not working on behalf of myself just to add to my resume or get a paycheck or bring prestige. I’m working on behalf of this amazing place that educates students and conducts research and works to make the world a better place.”
So, who is eligible for this role? According to President Fuchs, everyone is.
“I think anyone in any position at any point in terms of their careers [and] at any point in their lives can and should be leaders,” Fuchs said. “I really don’t believe it has to do with title or how many people report to you or the budget that you oversee. Anybody can be one.”
To help UF academic and professional leaders further explore and develop their leadership skills, the university offers the Advanced Leadership for Academics and Professionals (ALAP) program. The university also has its own 20-part leadership model as a reference guide for leaders and managers within a complex institutional environment.
Although President Fuchs never underwent a program like ALAP, he credits his former bosses, managers and department chairs for helping him learn the art of leadership.
“I just observed them, watched them make mistakes, watched them have success, saw how they lived their daily lives and how they interacted with people,” Fuchs said. “That’s how I’ve learned the most.”
The president mentioned that Dr. David Skorton, the president of Cornell University while he was provost, was one particular mentor who shaped his leadership practices.
“One of the things that he did as an example of leadership that I loved was that he was very intentional in engaging with students,” Fuchs said. “So some of the things that I do here, I copied from him.”
Moving into the resident halls on the first week of school with his wife and writing monthly columns in the student newspaper are two of these things. These efforts help establish an identity behind the name and title, which enables students to form more personal connections with the man behind the desk in 226 Tigert Hall.
“About half of the responsibilities of a university president are in the broad area of communications, and it’s not just about communicating information about the institution, but it is also about communicating a tone and love for the institution.”
When he first came to UF, President Fuchs met with central staff members to discuss plans for how to most effectively communicate with students and quickly realized the importance of utilizing social media. Through this platform, the president can easily engage with students and parents and share messages of all kinds, including his approachability. His meme video, in which he re-enacted some of the most popular internet images to reconnect with students after summer break, received over 8,000 views on YouTube alone.
“That was very intentional,” Fuchs said. “By having a practice of communicating and having people feel like they know me to some degree, they are going to be more likely to pay attention when there’s something serious or a message that might not be pleasant.”
His case in point: White nationalist Richard Spencer’s UF visit in October.
“We communicated many messages around the Richard Spencer event in the fall through emails, social media – all kinds of ways,” Fuchs said. “I wasn’t just a talking head to people, if it was a video, because they had seen that same talking head do fun things, so they could relate to it. I think it helps there too. It’s not perfect, but it helps.”
So, what is the president’s greatest advice for aspiring leaders of tomorrow? Excel at one’s tasks today.
“I’m asked a lot by different groups and students, ‘How do you become a university president?’” And my response is, number 1: The job isn’t open now, but someday it’ll be open, and number 2: Just excel at what you’re doing now,” Fuchs said. “Be a leader in what you’re doing now, and those opportunities will come naturally. They may not be a university president. They may be even something more wonderful.”
By Haley Nicole Clement