This is the question I am asked most frequently, by friends, colleagues, students, neighbors, and alumni. Sometimes they ask in a tone of genuine concern; often there is a tone of irony, as if the questioner knew all along that the answer would be “no.” As the calendar turns to 2007, anyone should consider this question, and its answer.

The subtext for the question is that Deanships are viewed to be impossible positions. The average tenure of a Dean is around three years. Many universities have open Deanships and are recruiting more or less continuously to fill them. There are many possible reasons for this. As Dean, you essentially run a volunteer organization: one doesn’t give orders; one inspires, persuades, and exhorts. Big magazines rank your school against others, producing a distracting yo-yo of opinion. Money is in short supply. You must mediate the demands and expectations of many constituencies: faculty, students, alumni, the parent university, the academic fields you serve, and so on. The job is ground zero for conflict. And the need to reach out to many constituencies will take you on the road, away from family and the comforts of home—I spend about 40% of my time out of town. Burnout is an occupational hazard. To take this job, I stepped out of a chaired professorship where I focused on teaching and research—both of which I enjoyed immensely and have little time for today. The people I served were relatively few in number; as Dean, I now serve some 700 MBA students, 300 employees, 8,000 alumni, a range of corporate and academic partners, and a large university. As professor, I had the leisure to choose my opportunities and challenges; as Dean, they come to me as if from a fire hose.

The answer to this question is that “fun” is not why I took this job. The fact is that any job has its less appealing aspects—they call it “work” for a reason. But I took this job out of a sense of fulfillment and a sense of mission. It is absolutely fulfilling to help great people get on to accomplish great things. Darden attracts a very high caliber of student, faculty, and staff. To help facilitate their successes is thrilling. The whole community benefits from these wins, the celebration of which gives me deep satisfaction.

My satisfaction is also sustained by a sense of mission. At a very macro level, great business schools help to discover and disseminate best practices into the business profession—this helps to elevate growth and profitability in the private sector globally, thus creating more jobs, paying more taxes, and inventing better products and services. Our graduates serve business and communities in a variety of ways—their leadership has a visible impact in the world. Ultimately, business schools help to increase human welfare.

At the micro level, my sense of mission seeks to prepare the Darden School for its next 50 years. I believe that Darden is an exceptional institution, an exemplar of excellent teaching and engagement with the world of practice. Helping Darden improve its game will help to lift the field of management education and the wider field of business practice. In short, I think that serving as Dean is about institution-building, a perspective that can help anyone surf over the daily conflicts. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.

Can you say the same for your job?

Posted by Robert Bruner at 12/31/2006 05:57:16 PM