Robert Dolan Gets Personal

Question: What’s the difference between a manager and a leader?

Robert Dolan: That’s a good question and one that I’ve thought about a lot. You know, I think a leader is, a couple of different aspects to it. One is that a leader is somebody who’s developing great talent around him or her, that the organization is just getting better by this person being there. And the leader really takes it as part of their job to be developing the talent of the people in the organization. 

Second thing I really think is an important distinguishing characteristic of leaders is they see new opportunities. They’re always pushing the organization out in new directions. And the third thing, I think, is that they really bring kind of a moral compass to the organization. That they’re the ones whose values that are really going to be expressed for the rest of the people and be adopted by the organization. Whereas the manager can, you know, very effectively kind of manage the status quo and do things in a way that delivers historical profitability. I really think the leaders of the people who are really seeing the new opportunities and establishing the values for the organization.             

Question: What has been your biggest leadership challenge?

Robert Dolan: My biggest leadership challenge would be my first year as, my first year as dean of the Ross School of Business. You know, I had been a faculty member at the University of Chicago and Harvard Business School prior to becoming dean.  But I became dean in late summer 2001. And, you know, of course, we had September 11th occur, probably about a month after I was on the job.  And the job market kind of declined rather rapidly for our students. And the problem was you come in as dean and within a heartbeat, everybody is saying to you, well, what’s your vision? And, you know, the truth of the matter was that I didn’t have it yet. I had just come to the school. 

And so, I think the, looking back at it, probably the hard thing for me for six months was that I was going around, meeting a lot of the alumni, giving presentations, and I was out a little bit ahead of myself because if you said, well, what’s your strategy? 

I couldn’t say much other than, "I’m all for quality and Go Blue," which, you know, it's fine but it doesn’t say anything. And so, I think it was, the leadership challenge for me was to really take my time to do my homework even when the stakeholders were getting impatient. It would’ve been a real mistake for me to kind of have adopted a strategy without any edge to it in response to the kindly pressure but it was still pressure from some people to say, "okay, you’ve been here a hundred days now and if we read one of those airport books, it says the CEO only has a hundred days to really bring change to the organization."

By then, the degrees of freedom are gone. I do not subscribe to that. And so, I think it was to really stick with it and think my way through it and go out and visit enough companies so that I could really get a vision of what I wanted to try to do to the school. 

And it was really a valuable exercise for me because there was one person who really help me greatly, get my vision for the school. Because he said, you know, “Business schools are great,” he said, “But what they do is they say we’re going to give a certain set of knowledge, we’re going to give a certain set of skills, and we’re going to develop student’s leadership capability.” And he drew three circles of the same size, with the little leadership pea sitting up on top of the other two. And he said, “So, what you say you’re going to give us is three grapefruits.” He said, “But in reality, what you give us is two grapefruits and a grape, with the grape being, obviously, the leadership capabilities.” And then, he said, “Now, if you could figure out a way to really distinguish yourself around developing those leadership capabilities, that would help set you apart from all the other business schools out there.” And that really became kind of the strategy. And then, saying, okay, well, action based learning: I don’t know how to make that grape into a grapefruit by keeping the students in the classroom. 

If I can get them out into the world, dealing with messy problems as part of a diverse team that we put together rather than have them being able to go with their buddies, that, I think, is the way to develop that kind of leadership capability. So that was one personal thing for me.  That, it took me sort of longer than a lot of people hoped it would.  It would’ve been nicer if I came up with the idea a little bit more quickly than I did but, I think, for me, to be able to kind of work my way through a process that works for me and then really having a strategy, which has really served us very well in retrospect. So I think that was one personal one for me. 

Question: What’s the best management advice you’ve received?

Robert Dolan: The best management advice I ever got is, you know, I’m a marketing guy so it really is around the importance of focus and differentiation. That if you try to think about being the best in the world for everybody, that’s sort of leads you to really dilute your offerings and not be great for anybody. So I think the idea of really having a focus and saying, gee, this is what we do, we honestly think we’re the best in the world at that, if this is what you’re looking for, that’s, you ought to buy our product, you ought to come here rather than trying to spread yourself out too thin.  So it’s kind of basic stuff about marketing management, about segmenting the market and really picking a spot. But it’s much harder to do than a lot of people think it is because you should be saying enough about your product that some people aren’t going to want it. And if you can get yourself to having enough confidence in what you’re doing so that you say, gee, its okay if there are some people who don’t want this product at all, I think that’s when you know you’ve gotten to a point of really developing a focused offering. So, I think, there are lots of examples of the benefit of focus. And, you know, certainly from my personal experience in what I’ve done as a marketing academic, as a consultant and a dean, I keep being refocused and less on the importance of focus and really developing a particular point of differentiation that you’re the very best at that particular thing and nobody can compete with you on that.         

Question: What’s the best personal advice you’ve received?

Robert Dolan: Best personal advice? I guess, in sort of recent times, I guess, it would be sort of the advice to really think about continuing to develop as an individual. And that may mean doing some new things that you’re really not very comfortable with. And I’ve always been, and it’s, it’s really what lead me to leave Harvard Business School and go to the University of Michigan because I’ve always been a preacher to everybody else about, look, you have to, if a new opportunity comes, even if it’s outside your comfort zone, you have to go, you have to go do it and develop new muscles, otherwise, you don’t grow. And so, this was something where I had, as I said, been a preacher about this to many, many people. I had been at Harvard Business School for 21 years. I had no intention of going anywhere else. I was just about to become the senior associate dean at HBS. But there was nothing about that job that’s scared me, whereas thinking about becoming dean at a school where I didn’t have a stock of good will and would require me to do things I never done before, for example, like fundraising. In the end, the things that initially scared me and made me hesitate about Michigan were the things that made me go there when I saw them as a chance to develop in ways that I haven’t really developed before. And, you know, fortunately for me, they’ve been some of the most satisfying aspects of the job. So this idea of always be thinking about the need to develop yourself, have the capability to reinvent yourself, I think that’s something that’s very important, very important to me.   

Recorded on: April 13, 2009

A focus on his own individual growth has guided the dean throughout his career.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
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