Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dean Frank Wu: Ambition, Headhunters, and Fruit Flies

This essay is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The other day a colleague of mine reported that at a conference she attended, people knew me. They were surprised I was still where I am, because they confided to her that I am ambitious. I have heard it before: I'm rumored to be in the running for this or under consideration for that. I have never been sure whether to take these comments as compliments.

On the one hand, I suppose someone who is thought of as ambitious likewise is thought of as successful and that by definition should be positive. Nobody achieves anything without making an effort. Even what looks like luck is rarely an accident.

On the other hand, since all but the people who have dropped out of the economy — itself a respectable choice, in my book -- possess some ambition, to be noticed for the trait suggests an abnormal quantum of it.

The problem with ambition is more often too much of it. An individual who displays overvaunting ambition generates mixed feelings. It is tedious to be around anyone who points out with any frequency above once that they have other opportunities, which highlights that the listener is more dependent on the speaker than vice versa.

The innuendo of the label "ambitious" is not that you are qualified for anything better; rather that you are eager to move on anyway. Or you are willing to use whatever means to advance your ends: Richard III will kill everyone to possess the crown.

Almost all of us, however good willed we are, wish an upstart will meet her comeuppance. Our resentment persuades us a fall may be deserved.

All the more so if you occupy a position of authority. A leader must demonstrate commitment to a community. She must belong to it.

Anyone who is deemed a flight risk is low on credibility if she claims to share in suffering during a crisis. She could simply leave.

Or perhaps her self-interest isn't quite aligned with other people's interests. Since trust is mutual, that makes it difficult to sustain the relationships that are vital.

Ambition also is perceived differently depending on identity. Some people are reminded of their place. They especially are not to reach beyond their grasp. A woman's ambition is more readily disapproved of, it seems, by other women as well as men.

I never thought it would have been possible for someone who looks like me to have been selected for my job. I used to be considered too young (and was told that explicitly), but such a problem takes care of itself. I was once briefly the youngest law school dean in the nation. It was nothing to brag about.

Yet society conspires against modesty. When I was appointed to my current role but before I knew my way around campus, I started receiving calls from headhunters. I am flattered by inquiries, but I wonder if society benefits from what they are encouraging. From the perspective of every other institution, it is rational to recruit someone already holding a similar position elsewhere: the initial screening is done, and somebody else essentially is vouching that the potential applicant is capable.

Aside from the lack of loyalty that is promoted, however, the implication is that both people and communities are fungible and interchangeable. The one is as good as the other, and there isn't any need to be concerned about compatibility. We reduce ourselves to plug-and-play components in a system. Such a regime renders it rational to be selfish.

While we might lament for the era when a person joined a company with mutual expectations of lasting employment, much has evolved since back in the day. Discrimination was normal and open until recently: not only on the basis of race and gender, but also religion, disability, and sexual orientation.

It is an improvement, if you ask me, that most of us will switch jobs more than our parents. But it is no aspiration of anyone's to mimic the lifecycle of the fruit fly — the model organism, scientist Charles W. Woodworth's drosophila melanogaster, birth to death in a laboratory in one week.

Over time for most of us, personal priorities inexorably shift. I am ambitious for my institution. I am motivated to be a better husband and better person more generally. I've had a lifelong dream to build my own house, and I'm determined to make that happen. These goals are as significant as adding another award on the CV, and I will not be tempted otherwise.

I recently was renewed for another term. I'm ecstatic. The extension is unusual. Law school deans tend to expire prematurely: the median length of service (four years) is less than the typical contract period (five years).

I remain enthusiastic, because there is much work to be done. As I consider the prospects, I see the distinction between being a good candidate for a job and being good in the job. When I was hired, I was evaluated on potential; now, I am judged by performance.

I am fine with that. From my perspective, the corollary is that I must be sure not merely that I wish to hold the job but that I want to do it on a daily basis.

As I reflect on my career, while still in what I hope to be a healthy period, I cannot deny that it took ambition to arrive where I am. But now that I am here, it is imperative that I show dedication. The greater the challenge presented by any calling, the greater the need for staying power.

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