Fight or flight choices are about survival. Knowing when it’s best to make a tactical retreat and when it’s time to fight is baked into our genes. Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun’s strategic investments illustrate the advantage of fighting while others are fleeing – in some cases.

Sometimes the Only Viable Defense is Offense

During the American Civil War, General Joshua Chamberlain was told to hold the end of the Union line on Little Round Top at Gettysburg “at all costs.” If he and his forces did not, the Confederate army would overrun the entire Union army. So they held. They held through multiple attacks and ever-mounting causalities. They held until they had exhausted their ammunition. Then they could hold no longer. So they attacked. Their bayonet charge resulted in 101 prisoners and the retreat of the Confederate forces they faced.


The Northeastern Advance

The economic troubles of the past several years have hit universities hard. With endowments and fundraising in decline and costs rising, many universities have been forced to slash and burn their offerings or even shutter completely.

Aoun faced those same issues, and the same fight or flight dilemma. Aoun chose to fight. “We are not retrenching.” Instead, he chose to leverage Northeastern’s strengths and invest to grow, particularly in its renowned internship program, faculty and facilities.


Northeastern University
Northeastern University (Photo credit: Kaplan International Colleges)
Many have been attracted to Northeastern’s co-op program and the opportunity to spend six months in a real, full-time job as part of their education. Aoun doubled-down on this program, investing to find new partners. As a result, Northeastern now has 2,700 co-op partners in 85 countries on all seven continents (including Antarctica). This is a very far cry from local, ad hoc internships and anything but a retrenchment.

Tenured faculty are expensive. Many universities are delaying the tenure track and letting natural attrition reduce their ranks. Instead, Aoun has found and redirected the resources required to add more than 300 new tenured and tenure track faculty over the past five years. That is not retrenchment.

In addition, Northeastern has expanded beyond its Boston campus by launching a graduate campus in Charlotte, N.C. and in Seattle, Wash. That’s not retrenchment either.

Looking back and looking forward, Aoun told me:

A crisis is also a time of opportunity. At Northeastern, we saw the recession as a chance to move the institution to unprecedented heights. We pursued this strategy even though some thought it was risky.


Your Own Fight or Flight Decision

Survival of the fittest is all about survival of those most able to adapt to changing circumstances. Sometimes you have to flee in order to be able to fight another day. Sometimes circumstances give you no option but to fight. And other times circumstances give you an opportunity to advance while others are retrenching.

Make the choice that best moves you in the direction of your purpose, whether it’s holding the line or educating our youth. Make choices within that choice around where to invest your limited resources. Then commit. And make sure everyone else understands the choices you’ve made so they can commit as well. Your future depends on it.

This is a good example of step 10 of The New Leader’s Playbook: Evolve People, Plans, and Practices to Capitalize on Changing Circumstances

By the end of your first 100-Days, you should have made significant steps toward aligning your people, plans, and practices around a shared purpose. Remember, this is not a one-time event but, instead, something that will require constant, ongoing management and Darwinian improvement.