Effective leadership is about seizing the opportunity to move people or institutions in necessary directions they may be reluctant to take. A leader needs to present a convincing case for change and then have the capacity to endure the inevitable criticism and resistance.
It’s also about trust. People won’t follow the path charted by a leader they don’t trust. They have to believe the leader has at heart the best interest of the people and institution he or she leads.
Robert Khayat met these tests as chancellor of the University of Mississippi from 1995 to 2009, and he became a pivotal, transformational leader in the history of both the university and the state.
Khayat’s memoir, “The Education of a Lifetime,” will be released this week. It’s a good time to recall just how significant his impact was on Ole Miss and Mississippi as a whole.
The university when Khayat took over was still locked in a time warp, its national image frozen in events of more than 30 years earlier when a riot erupted on the Oxford campus in the wake of the admission of the first black student to an all-white Mississippi educational institution of any kind. Much had changed by 1995, but Ole Miss’ aspirations to be a nationally recognized public university were stymied by the old perceptions.
Khayat’s predecessor, Gerald Turner, met resistance when he tried to get university constituencies to directly confront the stereotype of Ole Miss as an Old South party school. When Khayat – a former Rebel football star and longtime law professor – was hired, many assumed the days of such challenges were over, that the tried and true Ole Miss man would usher in an era of status quo maintenance. The Khayat era was anything but.
Because he was who he was, his fervent devotion to Ole Miss and his desire to see the university achieve greater things, Khayat led the most prolific era of academic improvement and fundraising advancement in Ole Miss history. To do it, he had to confront its sentimental attachment to Old South symbolism like the Confederate flag and the less-than-subtle message that conveyed. It changed his life forever, he says, because of the firestorm of criticism it brought, but the effort succeeded because the majority of Ole Miss alumni, faculty and students trusted that Khayat had their university’s best interests at heart.
It’s a lesson in leadership, and there’s little doubt it will be studied for years to come.