"Leadership and Organizational Performance"

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
March 2008

Jim ThomasJim Thomas, Dean, Smeal College of Business, spoke about leadership and organizational performance at the March 5, 2008 meeting of the Quality Advocates. According to Thomas, the qualities of leadership have been the focus of much research, yet it is difficult to pinpoint the exact characteristics of what makes a good leader. However, Thomas cited several factors people should consider about being a leader.

  • Individuals who are in a leadership position or thinking about moving into a leadership position must want to make a difference. This desire to make change is necessary to motivate a leader to face the daily challenges, both emotional and intellectual, that they face in their work.
  • Leaders also frequently face confrontation and can not please everyone all the time. Persons who dislike conflict will find it difficult to be in a leadership position because every day, decisions need to be made for the organization and not everyone is always happy with the outcomes.
  • Rewards for being a leader tend to be internal. The level of prestige and financial rewards are not the driving motivator for many academic leaders.

To lead an organization effectively, an individual must come prepared with a variety of skills and abilities. Individuals must provide a vision for the organization and articulate that vision so that the entire organization understands it. The vision for the Smeal College of Business is to be one of the “top 5 public schools” and people throughout the College know this. In addition, leaders must also identify and lay out the values for the organization and make people aware of the values. As an example, the College values community and integrity and has recently implemented an honor code for faculty, staff, and students. Thomas also stressed the importance of leaders being good listeners. This is an art and it can sometimes be tough for leaders because it requires them to actually take the time to listen, and listen intently, to the speaker and make them feel valued. Thomas gave as an example the time he spends each week in the atrium of the Smeal College of Business in order to initiate conversations. Thomas has found that given the opportunity, students, faculty and staff will participate and provide input.

Respect for other individuals makes for great leadership. Leaders have to be equitable and consistent across all levels of the organization. Along with this, Thomas pointed to the overwhelming need for leaders to be honest. Honesty is the top characteristic that people attribute to a good leader; those who are viewed as dishonest lose all credibility.

The most powerful learning tool is that you fail. You don’t learn if you are successful all the time. That leads to one of the notions of leadership - that you have to accept failure. People failing doesn’t mean they are doing a bad job, but you have to make sure they are learning from their failure.

Jim Thomas

Good leaders also can be viewed as “protectors” of the people within an organization. The protections are based on the factors that the organization honors. In the case of the Smeal College of Business, that is health and family. Thomas made clear that this protection is based on morals and ethics, but that it also makes good business sense. During his career, Thomas has learned that failure is a powerful learning tool and that leaders must accept failure as long as people are learning from it. Rather than placing blame on individuals for mistakes that happen, Thomas suggests effective leaders focus on fixing the problems.

In reaching for the vision of being in the “top 5 public institutions”, the College has set four major goals: Extraordinary Education, Dialogue with Society, Research with Impact, and Community with Distinction. Achieving these goals will lead to the College achieving its vision and make the Smeal College of Business a leader among all schools. These goals help people to see how the College will move forward towards its vision. As the dean, Thomas feels he will be held accountable for achieving these goals and holds regular meetings to provide updates on the plan and obtain input from faculty, staff, and students. In a time of limited resources, Thomas has had to make hard decisions on issues such as enrollment controls and quality in order to achieve these goals. Although not everyone is happy with these decisions, by prioritizing the issues through a kind of triage, Thomas has been able to keep the College focused on critical issues.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.