All entries for Saturday 13 July 2013

July 13, 2013

Ken Wallis at 75: Lessons in Life and Leadership

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On Thursday evening I was asked to say a few words at a conference held to honour Ken Wallis at the age of 75. Ken is Emeritus Professor of Econometrics at Warwick. There were a lot of distinguished people there from the world of econometrics. I would guess I know less about econometrics than just about anyone else that was present. I was there to thank Ken not for what he taught me about econometrics but for what he taught me about life.

When Ken became chair of the Department of Economics at Warwick (I would guess around 30 years ago), he gave me my first serious admin job. I became exam secretary for the department. Now, this job was a real headache. One reason is that in those days we had no administrators, so the exam secretary did it all. Another reason is the nature of university exams. We have a lot of rules and courses, and students come in all shapes and sizes, and somehow you have to fit every single one of them to the rules. It's like being given a packet of screws of different types and threads and the only instrument you have is a hammer.

Anyway, because the students gave me many problems of that kind, I found myself knocking on Ken's door a lot. For example, in my first year it just happened that a lot of our best students were cricketers and they suffered a lot of injuries in the warm days of May when they should have been indoors revising. So I had a succession of sufferers from broken thumbs and sprained wrists. The first time this happened, I went to Ken and said: "What do we do?" He asked right back: "What do you think?" And I said: "I have absolutely no idea!"

The next thing, Ken gave me a look. This was a look that I got to recognize and know quite well. He would sit back in his chair, tilt his head slightly, and his mouth would twitch as if he might be going to smile, or maybe not, but he was definitely about to say something that I knew I had to listen to carefully.

Then Ken said: "Okay, you go away and spend a bit of time working out what you think we should do. Then come back and tell me, and probably, almost certainly, I'll agree with you." So, that's what I did. But I also realized Ken was telling me something deeper. He was saying: "Don't be part of the problem. Be part of the solution." And this was a very important lesson for me, one that I have always tried to follow.

In passing, I'll add that this lesson was particularly useful later on, when I became chair of the department myself. I soon realized that if you go to the faculty chair or the vice chancellor and you say "I have a problem" they quickly get to hate you because they are already extremely busy and you're just adding to their burdens. But if you go and say "I have a problem but I also have the solution" they love you because they feel reassured that you are in control and you're not going to make their lives any more miserable, and they can focus their hatred on the ones that are just burdening them with problems that have no clear solutions.

Here's another thing I learned from Ken. One year I was going through the exam files and I came up with what I thought was a big problem: a student whom we had misclassified or misadvised or mistreated in some way -- it's a long time ago and I really don't remember the details, but nobody knew about it except me, and I was panicked by the thought of what would happen if other people, and particularly the student, found out about it. I knocked on Ken's door and told him about the problem and said: "What do we do?"

I looked at Ken and once again Ken gave me that look. So I waited and listened, and then Ken said: "This isn't even a problem. If we messed up, we'll just tell the truth. If we need to do something to fix it, we'll do that, If we need to apologize, we'll do that too." This was my second lesson from Ken, and again it was important to me later: I learned that it's wrong to cover your misdeeds.

My third lesson was the hardest one. It's in the nature of exams administration that everything comes at once. Every June I found myself working my socks off to get all the exam scripts distributed to the right people and get all my colleagues to follow the rules about marking (in those days everything was independently double marked) and get their marks in on time and correctly recorded, and I also had to do my own marking at the same time. It was hard going. So in my last year I went to Ken, and I explained the problem and in the way that I had learned from him I also suggested a solution: "Can I give myself a discount on the marking load?"

Again the look. Then, Ken said:"No." (My audience laughed a lot when I said that.) Ken went on: "The officers have to lead from in front. You can't send the troops into battle while you're sitting in the rear." As I said, this was the hardest lesson for me personally, but it too made a deep and lasting impression on me.

Anyway, Ken never succeeded in teaching me any econometrics, but he taught me a lot about life and leadership, and these lessons have stood me in very good stead over the years since then. So Thursday evening was my chance to say "Thank you" to Ken at 75.

PS If you want to know more about Ken's contributions to econometrics you can look him up on RePEc, where he is listed among the top 5 per cent of economists worldwide on a whole string of criteria.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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