Irvin D. Reid Featured

8:00pm EDT April 9, 2007
Years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn., Irvin D. Reid heard something he still remembers to this day — a good leader is someone who sees a successful parade going by, grabs the baton and jumps in front of it. Reid, president of Wayne State University, agrees with the statement, adding that much of an organization’s success depends on the people who are following the leaders. A good leader needs to have insight into the people who are going to follow him or her, says Reid, who leads more than 5,400 employees as president of Wayne State University. Smart Business spoke with Reid about how to maximize the talents of the people following you and how to get employees to buy in to your message.


Give a sense of a vision. That vision could be built around the strengths of the organization or it could be in terms of your insight. But, it clearly has to be built on consultation and the interest in listening to what they have to say.

It’s the demonstration of commitment to the very thing you would give in speeches. A lot of people give beautiful speeches, and there is never any follow-up. You have to do that every day. You have to demonstrate these are the core values of the organization and these are truly the objectives that you are trying to achieve.

Look for outside input. Arriving on the campus, people are looking to you on what your new ideas are and how you will bring them to the campus. It doesn’t hurt as a leader to lay back, wait and listen to people even if you think you know what you are going to do.

I showed up on campus and an-nounced that I wanted initiatives in five areas. One of them was, I wanted their views on global education. I announced I would be interested in talking about possibilities of global education as an initiative to the university.

Without saying anything about what programs I had in mind, I asked them what was happening on the campus. I learned there were things going on, but there was no unity. So, my job was not going to be to create global education at the university but to organize, unify and give it a sense of purpose and commitment.

One of the things as a leader is, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. You want to find out what the strengths are and build on what those strengths are.

Reach out to employees who don’t buy in to your message. Sometimes it’s just as important to identify the people who are interested as well as the people who aren’t interested.

If you find in your organization that there are people who have not shown any initiative toward an idea you have been moving or building your dream or vision on, then you may have to reach out to them.


For example, say, ‘I noticed that we didn’t have anyone from nursing when we did the outreach the other day. But I was just reading an article about how nurses are leading the global health care ... ’ and go on from there. Then you are saying, ‘You weren’t there, but you are very important to what I want to do.’

Once a leader makes that kind of outreach to a person, they aren’t really going to turn them down, are they? You will have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to not only those who came as first responders but the second ones that you had gone out and brought in. You build coalitions that way.

Understand what qualities you possess. One of those qualities for good leadership is knowing that you have to build a community where everyone feels as those he or she is making a contribution.

The worst kind of an approach for a leader is the use of the word ‘I.’ It has to be ‘we’ or ‘you’ working with your colleagues. When the favorite word becomes ‘I,’ then you are losing it already. You aren’t talking about leadership but you are talking about domination.

You need to demonstrate that you are willing to share the dream in both its creating and implementation, and particularly, that you are going to share the credit. You are going to speak about the achievements of those people. They have to be empowered to do things but also be recognized that they have done things.

One of the great criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld in his role at the Pentagon was [that] he came in knowing everything. Not because he was there before but because he wasn’t interested in listening. It creates an environment of hostility and of emasculation of people.

Recognize good work in unique ways. Handwritten notes are nice. A big part of my business is raising money and I am a terrible artist.

To donors, I do stick figure drawings and put it on, in addition to signing my signature on the typed letter, and write a note. Sometimes the stick figure will have in one hand a big ‘W’ for Wayne State University, and in the other hand, the person has a big ‘Thank You’ or ‘Yes’ or ‘Yippee.’

Very childish and playful, and people really love it. In all of us, there is this motivation toward play and having fun. This is not what I write on a letter of sympathy but it certainly goes on a thank you or a birthday.

I do it for people if they gave me a million or a thousand dollars. I do it for employees, too. I get more comments about that than anything. They are shameless in how bad the drawings are.

Here’s an opportunity to do something that people really like to see in their leaders and that is, they like to see imperfection. Here I am, president of the university and drawing something that is so absolutely horrid. That humanizes the leader.

The more positive emotion you can bring out of the followers, the more effective you can be as a leader.

HOW TO REACH: Wayne State University, (313) 577-2230 or