Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Taylor Reveley IV

I spoke to Longwood University President Taylor Reveley, the presidential historian who later became the youngest president of an NCAA Division I university, about his journey and thoughts on leadership

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Taylor: People correctly assume that running a university these days is pretty much all-consuming. It is, but what might surprise people is that I make time to teach a full course over the fall semester each year — a course on the history of the U.S. presidency, for about 25 juniors and seniors. It’s hard work but rejuvenating and energizing for me, and also truly does often have me reflecting on how to address issues I’m facing through the lens of examples from presidential history.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Taylor: This at first will sound like a stroke of incredible good luck, which is definitely was, but it also taught a hard lesson. Relatively early in my career I got the amazing opportunity to be involved as an attorney with the National War Powers Commission, co-chaired by Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher, in the mid to late 2000s. The Commission had spectacular members, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, and they all worked hard across partisan lines and ideology to craft proposed legislation to solve one of the most important unresolved issues in U.S. law: who gets to decide what and when with regards to use of military force. They crafted a compelling and concise statute that would do enormous good. Presidents Bush and Obama gave close personal attention, as did key members of Congress. But now more than a decade after the release of the Commission’s report, the status quo prevails. The hard lesson is that a good idea — even a brilliant, well-honed, and vital idea — doesn’t rise to execution on its merits alone, or even with the dedication of the influential. You just have to keep working hard.
Adam: In your experience and from your career studying U.S. presidents, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and studied, and what did you learn from them?
Taylor: George Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are in a category of their own, scholars and the public would all agree. A trait they share is a simultaneous eagerness for hearing and understanding divergent opinions and the resolve to make decisions and advance, even in the face of powerful and well-articulated disagreement. That might sound easy or like commonsense, but in practice human nature drifts to only advancing when there is unanimity, or alternatively to huffy unilateralism.
Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Taylor: Working with people you admire is hugely important. My great friend and longtime mentor is Gov. Gerry Baliles, former governor of Virginia. My great good luck is that my dad and my granddad were both college presidents too, so I’ve learned a lot just around the dinner table also. And reading history is something I always recommend — it’s like a virtual reality chamber to gain vicarious experience.
Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?
Taylor: Maybe it’s advice that cuts against the example of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. All three fostered a “team of rivals” to one degree or another. But all three had the advantage of their rivalrous teams being united in pursuit of an unambiguous goal — like winning World War II. In my experience, except in a crisis with an unambiguous goal, it is far more important to have harmony of personalities and viewpoints on a diverse leadership team, with complementing rather than rivalrous perspectives.
Adam: Your university hosted the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate. How did you land such a coveted event? Do you have any good anecdotes you can share from that experience and from your interactions with the candidates at the time?
Taylor: The idea to put Longwood’s name in the hat actually came from discussion in my U.S. presidency class one day a couple years before the 2016 election. Knowing somewhat the crushing demands of a national election, what impressed me most about Tim Kaine and Mike Pence that day was how gracious and centered they both were when talking with me and with students. The modern vice presidency attracts strikingly capable public figures.
Adam: What do you make of our current political climate and how do you see things playing out?
Taylor: I think most about the fact that today’s college students — the generation coming of age — has largely just seen discord in politics over their lives. But interestingly, that seems to be giving them strength and inner steel. And history would suggest that there is ample cause for optimism. America has seen far more perilous times, and passed through the trial to greater and greater success.
Adam: Perhaps most importantly, I learned we have a shared love of napping. What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?
Taylor: I do love a good nap! Doing this job while having twins who are six years old has taught me the importance of sleep. I’m a reader and a traveler, and an old athlete — I played football in college. All three of those in a way forge a resiliency. But these days I find that keeping up with the work and interests of those closest to me outside of work is very energizing. Maybe it’s the shift of perspective. My wife Marlo is a tech entrepreneur. The twins’ godfather is an independent film maker. I relish the new ideas, as well as recognizing across contexts familiar patterns of human nature.
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