Tips From The Top: One On One With Michael Fitts, President of Tulane University

I spoke to Michael Fitts, President of Tulane University, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Mike: I have kind of “low-brow” tastes when it comes to food. New Orleans, of course, is a food town, world-famous for its cuisine. I have eaten at most of its best restaurants and they are wonderful, but I find very few things more satisfying, food-wise, than some good Popeye’s chicken. This actually annoys some people – well, not Popeye’s people.

Adam: How did you get here? 

Mike: I was born and lived most of my life in Philadelphia, just blocks from the University of Pennsylvania. But my family’s roots are both in the northeast and in the south. My father grew up in rural Tennessee and during my childhood we often made trips to the South.  I was raised in a family of academic administrators. My father was a professor and later chair of the Department of Surgery at UPenn Medicine and my maternal grandfather was dean of the Wharton School of Business at UPenn. Later, I became dean of the Law School at Penn.  So I grew up thinking about how you move an institution forward and how doing so can be a real force for good.

While I had visited New Orleans many times over the years, I viewed the devastation visited upon the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 from afar and with horror.  I wasn’t sure how New Orleans, one of the great cultural and economic treasures of America – indeed, the world – would carry on. But because of the way the people of New Orleans and of Tulane University responded after the storm, it became the most compelling of destinations, compelling enough, in fact, for me to leave my lifelong home in Philadelphia to join Tulane as president in 2014.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Mike: My first job out of law school was working in government serving in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel as an outside counsel to the president. The first project I worked on became a lightning rod that sparked a huge debate between the executive and legislative branch on the methods used to protect the safety of the president. Even though my conclusions and counsel were correct, I learned from this experience that you have to understand everything you can about a subject and be prepared for opposition because it will inevitably come – even if the particular proposal or project may not seem that significant. This type of rigorous preparation and consideration of every side of an issue has guided me throughout my career, especially in academia where you encounter so many perspectives and have to meet the needs of so many constituents and stakeholders.

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

Mike: Having the ability to build a cohesive, collaborative team from a group of people with diverse, even competing interests—and lead them in a common direction. A leader also needs to be a visionary, possessing the opportunity, the ability and the responsibility of thinking about where the institution should be five to 10 years from now. A leader’s job is to keep focused on the next five to 10 years while inspiring the institution to take the actions now that will get it to where it needs to be in the future. Leadership is thinking about and identifying long-term goals and then bringing people together to meet those goals.  

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

Mike: I clerked for federal judge and civil rights advocate Leon Higginbotham. He became a mentor for me throughout my life. He taught me the value of humor and a soft touch approach to leadership and how to articulate a compelling vision that brings different people together for a common goal.

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

Mike: I think a good example of this is Lyndon Johnson. I always admired the fact that he grew up as a common man, having been born in a small farmhouse and worked as a day laborer for a time. He took the lessons from that life to the next level, to the very top level of leadership. He had an idealism grounded in pragmatism that moved the country forward. I think that is vital to being an effective leader today. You need vision and idealism but you have to be willing to do the hard work of team building, creating buy-in and partnerships and reaching consensus. I also think his motto, “Come now, and let us reason together…” is an essential tenet of effective leadership.

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

Mike: A leader, no matter what the field, needs to understand what is going on in the world and where society is going in order to motivate disparate groups of people toward a common goal. For instance, in higher education, leaders have to realize that younger generations work, think and live differently than previous generations. You can’t lead people if you don’t understand them. This really touches on an essential reward of being a leader – the huge diversity of people you get to meet and work with, with whom you get to explore the possibility of the future. It’s a delightful life to get to know the broad spectrum of humanity and help them achieve their individual and collective potential – that is a real source of joy for me and, I think, for most leaders.

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

Mike: I spent a lot of time with Judge Higginbotham, as I mentioned before. He used to like to discuss statistics and probability but he always cautioned not to be paralyzed by statistics or limited by the past. He used to say, “If I believed in statistics, I would still be living in the inner city of Trenton.”

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

Mike: Mentoring the next generation and taking under wing younger people who may not have had the advantages you have had or maybe are struggling with the same disadvantages you overcame. Everyone talks about the need to change society, but I think that often happens one person at a time. There are certain fields or professions where effective mentorship of the next generation is a measure of your success, a sign of who you are.  We need to make that a measure of one’s value in society, wherever one lives or works.   

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

Mike: I work out every single morning of my life. That is my main hobby. If I didn’t do it habitually every morning, I don’t think I would do it at all. It is a major de-stressor for me and has, literally, reshaped me. If I didn’t do it, I would be 30 pounds heavier. Remember, I live in New Orleans.

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