[Updated] This afternoon we learned that the U.S. flag which had been ordered removed by Hampshire College president Jonathon Lash, has now been reinstated. Lash called it a “learning experience” and that “this is what free speech looks like.” He is right and it is also what leadership failure looks like.
[December 2, 2016] A few days ago, Hampshire College generated a “controversy” by flying the U.S. flag at half-mast and then removing it entirely after negative reaction on campus to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. The college president Jonathon Lash wrote on Facebook that “our intention was to create the space for meaningful and respectful dialogue …” unfortunately it was also a leadership failure.
The Facebook post and the full statement can be accessed as long as it’s up (link here). I say “as long as it’s up” because it will not be long before Lash recants or is administratively punished. The leadership failure is, on the face of it, obvious to anyone and everyone, especially to those of us who study the qualities of good leadership. Lash politically leans left and living in the state of Massachusetts in addition to being on a college campus, puts him likely in a leftist insular environment where dissenting voices are rarely heard.
The primary reason Lash failed in this instance as a leader is because he chose not to educate his students and board of trustees what democracy is about. This is a significant missed opportunity. Rather, he pandered to self-perceived victim groups and their fears as well as attempted to placate them in an attempt to be popular. Such a strong desire to be liked will ultimately fail him.
As we know, this type of behavior will backfire because the truth that contradicts what he wrote cannot be kept away forever. People will be insulted by his disrespect to the flag and although they will be few, expect to hear from them soon. The school will receive unwanted attention to what some consider a cowardly act and this will not sit well with the Board of Trustees.
All of us are students of leadership and this instance of a senior leader’s failures should make us take pause. I recommend we all follow what happens here for it will be instructive; perhaps instructive to see what happens when a leader doubles down on his failing behavior. Over the past few days, there has been little heard from the office of Lash after nation-wide attention to what he has done. No surprise.
College presidents are generally known as experienced and well educated leaders with common sense. Hampshire College president Jonathon Lash is an exception.
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