Powerful Examples of Interim Leadership from Michigan State University: Demonstration of Best Practices for an Evolving Profession
By Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE
In the 21 years we have been teaching and advancing effective interim leadership for all types of organizations, we have never seen the convergence of four exemplary displays of transitional leadership take place as it did in and around Michigan State University beginning Feb. 13, 2023. In a horrific moment of violence and for days following the tragedy, the nation had a front-row seat to see leaders from all corners of a college community rise to an unthinkable challenge following a tragic campus shooting that took the lives of three MSU students and wounded five others.
Most likely, few people noticed the job titles of the various leaders who were interviewed about the situation, and how each handled very tough situations. Across the country, we watched and listened to heartfelt remarks from the President of the University, the MSU Provost, the City Manager of East Lansing, and the President of Sparrow Hospital where the students were taken.
While the situation created many unexpected commonalities between diverse people, there was one commonality that could be applied to all four of these key positions: Each was identified as “interim.”
For most people, the idea of “interim” is associated with keeping some semblance of a job continuing until a permanent successor is hired. For those of us in the profession, however, it’s so much more and these people proved it.
In our opinion, these individuals exemplified the magnitude of unexpected responsibility that can be required of transitional leaders. They also lived the significant complexities associated with their often-ill-defined roles as it relates to internal and external relationships, workplace trauma and participating in a community eco-system of power and decision-making.
Interim leaders have to build trust and respect quickly in order to have ample equity to step in and take charge when duty calls while they are in the position. Michigan State University Interim President Teresa Woodruff is a model of that skill and its necessity.
President Woodruff had to rebuff an assertion that the university had been “tarnished” and rallied people in a call for unity. “I believe we are a strong community and we will not allow a single individual to take our university from us,” she said from many podiums. “Let us continue to find strength and hope in our community of Spartans. Let us keep our resolve in our heads and in our hearts as we reclaim our campus − your campus − for MSU’s mission of transformation.”
Interim leadership is purposeful, and never once did President Woodruff take her foot off the pedal resounding the determination of the mission and values of the organization.
An email from Interim Provost Thomas Jeitschko to MSU colleagues speaks volumes to the internal trauma so many interim leaders walk into while also being tasked with assuring operational excellence. Provost Jeitschko wasted no time calling out the achievements of a team while honoring and giving pride to each person for their value in overcoming challenges.
“I am taking a moment to write to express my deep appreciation to you,” began the Interim Provost’s communication to faculty and staff. “You have navigated the week with compassion and flexibility. While grappling with the recent violence, you adjusted syllabi, you employed empathy and flexibility as you interacted with and advised students, and you supported each other and your staff—serving as a listening ear, compiling resources, advocating, and in a variety of other ways. You have shown up in big ways and small ways and it has not gone unnoticed. I thank you, very much so.”
Interim leadership is profound in its intersectionality of operational excellence with human value and belongingness in good times and bad.
Not unlike other interim executives, Randy Talifarro had joked in a press conference that boredom was part of the reason that he agreed to come out of retirement and become the Interim City Manager for the City of East Lansing. What happened soon after he took the job, however, was no laughing matter.
Talifarro, like so many interim leaders, had to quickly assess where he fit in as a situation unfolded that impacted an entire community. “I had to resist the urge to be on campus,” said the interim City Manager. He remarked that despite the unfolding drama on campus, there were other needs also taking place for people elsewhere in the community that could not be ignored. He emphasized that the city had an obligation to meet the needs of all people during this focused situation as he learned that a response system was being put into place and he awaited direction on next steps from others on the front lines.
Interim leadership is methodical as it recognizes it is not only responsible for making a set of logical contributions to an organization’s evolution during an executive transition, but also stewarding a mission in a community eco-system that does not take a breather between executives.
It was the Interim President of Sparrow Hospital, Dr. Denny Martin, who personified one of the most heartbreaking displays of human emotion associated with the MSU tragedy. Dr. Martin had the difficult task of announcing the conditions of the students and the hospital’s efforts to save them as family members, fellow students and an entire nation looked in on what was happening within the hospital’s walls.
“So many people that just came into the hospital,” he said, trying to remain composed, taking a pause before reporters with quivering lips. “We received a lot of texts that were just ‘I’m on my way.’ People showing up ready to help.” Martin fought to hold back his tears as he highlighted how general, cardiothoracic, and neurological surgeons all chipped in immediately to help the trauma center team.
“The team in our Level One trauma center with our emergency medical physicians and trauma surgeons were waiting for them upon their arrival,” he said. “I will give a lot of thanks to the individuals and first responders on the scene. Our ability to care for these individuals starts in the field.”
Excellent interim leadership is transformational. As a human being, Dr. Martin’s compassion and courage speaks for itself. As an interim president of a hospital, his strength as a leader during organizational trauma, with displays of his own tears, speaks volumes about the work.
The interim executive profession is a new frontier as both a leadership discipline and an organizational capacity strategy. Many people who are in interim positions, and those who are hiring interim leaders, too often underestimate the scope, power, and profound impact on organizations and entire communities by simply casting it as a “temporary assignment” for a “temporary placeholder.”
The unfortunate events at Michigan State University and how they were managed by four remarkable interim leaders gave the entire nation a university-level education about the purposeful, profound, methodical, and transformational outcomes that excellent transitional leadership affords any organization, building a bridge between its pasts and its possibilities.
These four leaders, modeled what excellent interim leadership looks like. They proved that their work and their titles have little to do with a temporary gig. Michigan State University has taught every corporation, nonprofit and government entity that effective interim leadership today is about having the training, stamina, and the significant skillsets to manage a significant crisis, jump into community eco-systems, heal toxic workplace environments, and literally save institutions and their reputation so there can be a next leader.
Third Sector Report is a service of Third Sector Company providing fact and opinion for the benefit of its customers and the nonprofit sector. The content may be reproduced with proper attribution. The name Third Sector Report is a trademark of Third Sector Company. For more information about this Report of any other available blog or column, please contact Third Sector Company at email@example.com. Download this article PDF.