Home > President Emeritus Robinson >
Whitworth College 2003 Graduate Commencement Address
May 17, 2003
At this graduation three years ago I was pretty distracted. First, our
oldest daughter was graduating from Whitworth's undergraduate program.
It was the first of two times I would have the joy of handing one of
our children a diploma -- well an empty diploma case, but you know
what I mean. So I can empathize with all you family members out there
today. This is a very cool moment, perhaps even more satisfying than
your own graduations; that would certainly be true for me since somehow
I managed to miss my bachelor's, masters' and PhD graduation
ceremonies. I think God must have a little truant officer in him because
he put me in a line of work that has dropped me in 23 consecutive commencement
exercises after the last time I played hooky.
The second reason I was
distracted is because one week after that commencement I was headed
for our cabin to spend six or seven weeks doing research
and writing. I was pretty excited about that.
Now, three years later,
we have another child receiving a bachelor's
degree from Whitworth, and I'm ready to report on my findings from
that summer. Actually, I wrote a book on my ideas. It is, of course,
available in our bookstore and, I might add, becoming very popular -- number
457,000 on the Amazon.com bestseller list, but number 1 in your hearts.
morning, I would like to suggest some linkages that I did not include
in the book. Although you can't read the book without knowing that
its author is a Christian, it is not a religious work, but one I intended
for a very wide audience. So I am using this occasion today as an opportunity
to connect some of my findings to the leadership style of Jesus. I do
so because no matter what you think about Jesus the religious
Jesus the leader has no peer in the history of Western culture.
let me share with you what my research suggested is the most fundamental
way organizations changed over the course of the 20th century. This
change was gradual but profound. One hundred years ago the typical American
business, particularly big business, was a tall, tight, centralized
Organizational charts had a military look, with all the layers neatly
ordered. Over the past 100 years, American organizations flattened,
becoming less centralized and more spread out. Branches, outlets, profit
regional offices and satellite operations all transported products
and services closer to the customer. In physical terms, the monoliths
decentralized. But in functional and cultural terms, the rule and role
of the corporate center had changed little.
Toward the end of the 20th
century a very subtle but significant shift was taking place in organizations
such as IBM, General Electric, Johnson
and Johnson and others. Organizational theorist, Charles Handy observes
that mere decentralization was being replaced by federalism. There
is a ton that could be said about overlaying a political model on an
structure, but my one-sentence simplification of how decentralization
differs from federalism is as follows: In a decentralized organization,
the outlying units serve the center, where in a federated organization,
the center serves the outlying units. Endowed with authority and resources,
those closest to the customers can make the deals.
It is easy to tell
the difference between a federated organization and one that has merely
decentralized. I'll give you an example:
couple of months ago I was headed off to a video store to pick up a movie.
As I was leaving, my wife Bonnie told me that there was an incorrect
$8.00 charge on our bill. So, when I was informed by the sales clerk
as I was paying for my movie that we had an $8.00 charge, I explained
the error and asked for the charge to be removed. When the gentleman
said he was not allowed to do that, I asked to see the manager. And then
when the gentleman explained that he was the manager, I asked how many
movies we had rented over the seven years we had used the store -- "308," he
replied. After recovering from the shock that we'd rented so many
movies, I explained to him that #309 would be the last one ever if they
didn't erase the charge. He politely said that he couldn't,
and I politely understood, but they lost a pretty good customer because
they didn't trust their manager with an $8.00 decision.
have to tell you what that scene would have looked like if this highly
decentralized company were truly federated. The manager
would have had the authority, training and confidence to make a good
decision based on his judgment, rather than just following a rule, and
he would have saved a customer.
Now, what can the leaders of today's
federated environments learn from Jesus?
In an astonishing way, Jesus revolutionized what it meant
to be a king and what it meant to be a leader. His simple statement, "the
son of man came not to be served, but to serve." (Mark 10:45) preceded
the various "servant leadership" models and "federation" ideas
by some 2000 years. But today, it is absolutely the kind of leadership
our world needs and you graduates must provide.
The gospel writer, John
gives a 40,000 foot view of how Jesus led in what was, at the time, a
counter-cultural way. John reports, "The
Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory
as of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth." In
this verse are what I believe to be four critical principles of 21st
Principle 1 -- "he dwelt among us" I
am convinced that the most powerful location from which to lead is not
in front of your
people, above your people, behind your people, under your people or on
a cell phone with your people. It is in among your people, in their midst.
The claim that respect comes from being perched on the pedestal is a
myth perpetuated by people in high places talking to other people in
high places. I hear this kind of stuff at presidents conferences, but
I'm still waiting to meet the first employee who says to me, "Bill,
you need to be a little more aloof, a little more above us, you know,
detached." In a federated organizational culture, whether a large
multinational or a very small organization, whoever is the main keeper
of the vision must be where he or she can listen, question, and inform.
When rules, policies and orders are scaled back in favor of trust, support
and vision, the leader's engagement becomes more important than
ever. If leaders are the principal bearers of organizational mission
and vision, they better be visible.
Principle 2 -- "And we
beheld" Jesus was a transparent
leader. Evidently, you could behold him. He told his disciples, "I
call you my friends because I am open with you about what my father tells
me." (John 15:15) Today's leaders are so much less open than
they could be. A few years ago I asked myself, "Why is our budgeting
process confidential?" Every answer I could think of was a bad
one. One answer was "the people won't really understand or
be able to handle it." That's an insulting view of our people -- plus,
when Jack Nicholson said, "You can't handle the truth" in A Few Good Men, they sent him to jail. Another answer might be that there
are some hidden areas in our budget that I don't really want them
to know about. Well, if our budget can't stand the light, then
it probably has expenditures we shouldn't be making. Light purifies.
A third answer might be, "it's none of their business." How
arrogant! If we ask people to own their jobs and love Whitworth College,
then we better understand that it's all their business. So, we
opened up the budget process and have received great ideas and input
from the folks that have joined us. Jesus stood openly in the midst of
his people. I submit to you that if today's leaders will "dwell
among where people can behold," rather than hide above where nobody
can see them, we will rid ourselves of the kind of thieves who ran Enron,
Tyco, Worldcom or Global Crossings.
Principle 3 -- "the glory
as of the only begotten of the father."
"If any leader has ever had the
right to say, "it's all about me," it was Jesus. But what he said was,
about him who sent me." Jesus was a reflector of his mission and
the one who sent him. Leaders today need to reflect humbly the mission
of their enterprises. But self-aggrandizement has become the order of
the day. I have a friend in Virginia who writes a weekly column and recently
wrote about "Talking smack". Viewers
routinely watch 3rd string players make routine plays and then stand
over opponents, beating their
chests and pointing to the heavens as if they had freed the world of
cancer. These chumps seem oblivious to the fact that their team is behind
by 230 points, and they will most likely be tending bar by the middle
of the season. It's very easy for leaders to get caught up in their
own importance. The greatest threat to leaders today is not the competition,
a lack of resources or a dismal economy. It is ego. I pray that you will
follow the example of the one who knelt and washed the feet of his followers."
4 -- "full of grace and truth" Jesus was a
master of this paradox. Will it be said of your leadership that you were
filled with grace and spoke the truth? In a towering example of grace
and truth we see the quiet exchange between Jesus and the woman caught
in adultery. "What are you going to do, Jesus?" pestered
the Scribes and Pharisees. "We caught this woman in the act. Moses
and the law say she should be stoned." Jesus looked up from the
ground where he was writing something in the sand. "Whoever among
you is without sin, cast the first stone." Sheepishly, the accusers
left. "Where did your accusers go?" Jesus asked the woman. "Did
they condemn you?" "No," she replied. And Jesus said, "Neither
do I" -- grace. "Don't do it again." -- truth.
Will you be compassionate and honest. Grace without truth is sentimentalism.
Truth without grace is cold-blooded and harsh. I hope you graduates will
lead with both grace and truth.
Graduates, thank you for choosing Whitworth.
For those of you who find your deepest spiritual meaning outside of the
Christian faith, I offer
you Jesus the leader - leading openly, graciously and truthfully from
the middle of those he led. And for those of us who place our faith in
Christ, we see Jesus not only leading from the middle, we see him dying
from the middle. He died in the middle of two thieves. That was his mission.
That's why he came. But on the third day, he conquered death. And
on that day, Jesus our leader became Jesus our savior. And now he leads
us with saving grace. Thanks be to God.
Blessings to you, the newest
graduates of Whitworth College. Lead with openness and humility, lead
with grace and truth. And lead us well. Amen.