“Leadership is About People and For People”

Questions on Leadership with Felician University President James W. Crawford III

For this special installment of Thought Leaders: Opinion & Commentary, we interviewed James W. Crawford III, the President of Felician University, to learn more about his perspective on leadership.

James W. Crawford III was appointed the sixth president of Felician University on June 21, 2021. Crawford is a retired Admiral and the 43rd Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the United States Navy. He served under six Presidents and was Lead Counsel for the principal military advisor to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was a trusted voice for the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council and Secretaries of Defense Robert M. Gates and Leon Panetta.

A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, James W. Crawford III graduated from Belmont Abbey College and earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of North Carolina. He holds a Master of Laws degree in Ocean and Coastal Law from the University of Miami and a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. He was named a 2008 MIT Seminar XXI Fellow. He is married to the former Elizabeth Ann Goncalo and they have 14 year-old twin boys. The formal Inauguration of President Crawford will take place the week of April 25, 2022.

You grew up in Charlotte, NC, served in the military and are now the President of Felician University. What do you think makes a good leader in higher education?

The character of leadership is not determined by the industry. The character of leadership is eternal and unchanging. As one author states, “leadership is about people and for people.” This was constantly emphasized by the amazing women and men who mentored me in large and small ways during my active-duty service.

A leader serves the mission first but is always focused on the people who work and sacrifice to achieve the mission and shared vision. It may seem obvious, but if you think of leadership in terms of mission first, but people always, then it drives home the importance, as a leader, of being honest, consistent and transparent in all your behaviors. It sounds like a no-brainer but history is replete with unfortunate examples of leaders who fail in these critical metrics. Being honest, consistent and transparent engenders a sense of reliability within the team one leads. Reliability engenders strength and resilience, which are necessary elements of individual and organizational success.

A leader must have a passion for what they do, so in terms of a higher education leader, one must have a passion for student-centricity. The answer to every question must start and end with, “How does it benefit the student?”

What was your most memorable leadership experience in the military?

There were far too many incidents and occurrences over the course of 30-plus years of service to identify a single memorable event. What I would offer instead is the importance of compassion in leadership.

There is a common saying that life is often hard. There is an undisputable honesty in this statement.  Operating complex organizations can present a unique level of difficulty. It takes a multiplicity of approaches, skills and thoughtfulness to navigate these difficulties.

Compassion enables one to appreciate perspectives that are not one’s own; it is empowering and facilitates relationships upon which growth and trust can be grounded. Compassion offers a powerful energy that is often underappreciated for the part it plays in cultivating the courage needed to face the challenges we encounter day-to-day.

Do you think leaders are born or made?

One of the greatest NFL coaches of all time [Vince Lombardi] said, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”

Every person is born with their own unique gifts and talents. But it requires an investment of hard work, sacrifice, falling down and getting back up and trying again for these gifts and talents to manifest into leadership.

I love the line, “There is no teacher like experience.” Life events over time can foster determination and fire the passion to grow and succeed in whatever endeavor one undertakes. I believe this is true for leadership as it is for anything else.

What advice do you have for aspiring leaders?

I would simply offer my perspective, rather than purporting to offer advice.

A leader must first and foremost be accountable. They must model accountability, message accountability and have the courage to take accountable actions — but, always with compassion.

I like to think about it like this, if the organization receives accolades, then the leader stands behind the team and allows them to bask in that glow. When there is criticism the leader stands in front of the team not as a shield, but as the person principally responsible for the organization.

This behavior must be authentic, as the travails of leadership will reveal who you really are.  In the heat of the contest, no matter the business or enterprise, the truth of who you are will come out and if the truth in your actions and behaviors at the moment when your leadership is most needed, is inconsistent with what you have been saying, you will be ineffective and you will lose your team at the very moment you can least afford for them to doubt you and why they are there with you.

Being accountable and authentic requires a leader to embrace humility. Humility is a potent shield against perhaps the leader’s deadliest enemy – their ego and the risk of being captured in the echo chamber of their own perceived brilliance. If this happens, and we see it time and time again in leadership, you make yourself the center of things when in reality, the mission and the people working and sacrificing for the mission are the true center.

James W. Crawford III was appointed the sixth president of Felician University on June 21, 2021. Crawford is a retired Admiral and the 43rd Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the United States Navy.


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