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Tips From The Top: One On One With Daniele Struppa, President of Chapman University

I spoke to Daniele Struppa, President of Chapman University, about his journey and best advice

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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?

Daniele: I am fundamentally shy, and while I enjoy people, my preferred way to spend an evening is at home doing some mathematics, or listening to some music (right now, as I write, I am listening to Bach’s Magnificat…and that’s what I love doing).

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Daniele: The most important reason for my success is my parents. Incredibly supportive, loving, warm, affectionate. Most important, both of them were great role models. I come from a family of lawyers for several generations, but I fell in love with math when I was a little kid, and my parents always encouraged me. I believe the strong connection with my family, and their constant support are the fundamental reasons why I have been successful.

It is interesting you mentioned failures and setbacks, because I always tell my kids (all four of them) that we only learn when we fail. So, when I look back, I learned a bit in every job I had. I have plenty of examples, but I will share one that stands out in my mind. Early in my administrative career, I engaged in a sweeping reorganization of the unit I was leading, without realizing that my restructuring was going to eliminate a program that was directed by a faculty member who was very well liked and respected across campus. I made, in her, an unintentional adversary. My lack of attention to academic politics could have impacted the success of the needed reorganization, plus my career. I have learned, mostly by making mistakes, that only very rarely logic wins the day; most people make decisions on irrational and emotional grounds, and my love for logic and clarity are a poor substitute for the effectiveness of the emotional pull. As a mathematician I have been trained to revere, almost worship, pure logical reasoning, and this reverence has often been a liability. I now know better!

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Daniele: Passion, humility, ability to listen. I want to elaborate on this last point, because to me it is one that everybody mentions, but few really follow. We all learn the basic rules: look at people in their eyes when they talk, listen quietly, do not raise your voice, etc. But in my view these behaviors are only the surface. They indicate that we are polite, but they have no influence over whether we are listening with true respect for our interlocutor. What I believe is very important in an effective leader is the ability to truly become convinced of the worthiness of the person we are talking with, so that we can accept the possibility that they will convince us even though we may not agree to begin with. Listening alone, is not enough, unless it is accompanied by the recognition that we are not the only depositories of truth. In a way, this is beautifully summarized in the Hindu greeting ‘namaste’, which really means the recognition of the divine in the other. While literally namaste only means ‘I bow to you’, we know that this expression really implies a recognition of the common divine origin of both people. I believe we need to remember this every time we enter a discussion, and without such an understanding there cannot be good leadership.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Daniele: My parents were great leaders in their own respect, and I have great respect and admiration for my last boss, President Emeritus Jim Doti, under whom I served for 10 years before becoming President. I learned a lot just by seeing him operate and maybe the most important thing I learned was his ability not to let any offense affect him. I have seen him being completely unperturbed when my response would have been less diplomatic. I always told him how I respected that, and I hopefully learned that behavior.  

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Daniele: I think the best teachers are experience and example. So, I would advise aspiring leaders to seek supervisors whom they admire, and whose standards they can try to emulate. I also would suggest that aspiring leaders take risks and accept failure as the natural consequence of trying something new. If you don’t have the courage of pushing and risking to lose, you probably will never be a true leader.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Daniele: I have strengths and weaknesses in this regard. I think I know how to choose strong members for the team. I believe I know how to identify strengths and weaknesses in each of my colleagues. And I think I have the rare quality of never trying to micromanage. I hire the best and let them do their job. Where I fail is in the ability to harness the conflicts among some of my direct reports to the best possible use. Conflict is not necessarily bad, if one can turn the energy inherent in a conflict towards the common goals. I don’t think I have been able to do that well. And I am not sure how to address this shortcoming.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Daniele: Many years ago, I was a young Assistant Professor in Italy, making very little money. My (former) parents in law reminded me every day of how little money I was making, and I was feeling very frustrated because I thought I was bright and hardworking, and felt it was unfair that I was being paid so little. One night, I was having dinner at the home of a very good friend of mine, whose father was a very successful and fairly wealthy man. He knew me very well because I had visited his home many times and I had been the recipient of his hospitality more times than I could remember. Over dinner, I began my usual litany, and he looked at me with affection, and simply told me: “Daniele, you are a very intelligent young man, and a very hard working one. Stop thinking about how much money you are making, and I promise you that you will naturally succeed beyond your expectations.” I don’t know why, but the way he spoke was so assured that I believed him. As it turns out, he was absolutely right, and I have never forgotten that moment. I am sorry I never had the chance to tell him how important it was what he told me.

Adam: What are your key goals for Chapman in the next three to five years?

Daniele: Chapman operates by establishing five-year plans that outline the goals for the institution. We are currently in year one of the lasts such plan, and our strategic priorities are: the opening and build out of a new engineering school (already named as the Dale and Ann Fowler School of Engineering), the preparation to address the changing demographics in the student population (more first generation students, more underserved students, and therefore less capacity for high tuition), the optimization and growth of our campus (new residence halls are being constructed, and our Rinker Health Sciences Campus will undergo dramatic improvements over the next few years), the continuing strengthening and improvement of our research infrastructure (we have just moved from M1 to R2 in the Carnegie Classification, and we want to continue our incredible upward trajectory as an institution that merges high quality research with outstanding instruction), and finally the preparation for a major comprehensive campaign, one of whose goals is to move our endowment to the half-billion dollars mark by 2023, and to the billion dollars mark by 2029.

Adam:  What is instrumental to your ability to lead your team to reach those goals?

Daniele: I am blessed with an extremely strong and competent senior staff. Our three EVPs are of the highest quality. Our Chief Operating Officer has a great understanding of the most delicate financial instruments to help with the management of our resources, and the growth of our assets, our Provost has a very creative approach to the academic growth of the university, and our EVP for Advancement is a very successful, aggressive, and forward-looking leader. The rest of senior staff is equally excellent, and we all share the goals highlighted in my previous comments. Over the last several years we have also built a true partnership with our faculty and the support we get from faculty and deans is absolutely crucial towards the success of our five-year plan.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Daniele: Make sure you never lose compassion for your fellow human beings, and make sure you do what you can to ease the burden of life in those you come in contact with. It could be helping a student whose parents are going through a difficult divorce, or a faculty whose spouse have abandoned them, or even somebody we don’t know personally, and who needs help. One of my proudest moments was a few months ago when my daughters recognized a homeless man in a shopping center near our home, and called him by name. They recognized Gary for who he was, an individual, who deserves to be respected and loved. I was so proud of my two girls, and I felt the satisfaction of knowing that maybe they don’t listen to what I tell them, but they do watch.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Daniele: I love reading, mostly the classics. I read and re-read the books that shaped me, and I find great joy now in watching my daughter learning the Odyssey, the Greek Tragedies, the Aeneid, and being able to sit with her and read with her those incredible works. I am also a great lover of classical music, from the Renaissance era to contemporary classical music, and I play (very poorly) the piano. I love operas, and always try to catch one whenever I am in New York for business. I also like to play chess (though I am not as good as I wish I were), and of course mathematics. Even though mathematics is, in a sense, my job, I always looked at it as a hobby. When one really gets deep into mathematics, one is rewarded with a continuous unfolding of beauty upon beauty. It is like entering a magical castle, with hidden doors. One tries to figure out where the doors are, and when you find them…they open to unexpected gardens, fruit groves, or treasure caves. I can think of nothing as beautiful as that.

All these hobbies have taught me the great subtlety of the human mind, and its complexity. Mathematics, literature, and music make me proud to be human.

Because of the fact that all of my hobbies belong to the ‘intellectual’ sphere, I am not very good with my hands, and until my late forties I never had any other hobby. Then, by pure chance, I became a mountain climber. I climbed obsessively for 4 years, visiting some of the most beautiful peaks in South America, Europe, and Asia. I found mountain climbing similar, in a very odd way, to mathematics and chess. Just like in mathematics and chess, mountains do not tolerate lies. You either climb it, or you don’t. There is no room for excuses, and just like in mathematics and chess, a real effort is necessary before you can see the beauty. It is only with hard work, focus, and strength of character that you can ever hope to reach the summit.

And I should say that my climbing hobby actually taught me more about human nature and about myself. It has taught me the importance of team work, hard work, and careful planning. It has exposed my weaknesses of character, my fears, my response to obstacles, so that now I know myself much better than I did before becoming a climber. Most important it has reinforced in me a sense of human brotherhood, which becomes so apparent and vital when you are stranded on a high mountain.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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