President Emeritus Bill Robinson

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Home > President Emeritus Robinson >

Whitworth University 2010 Graduate-Commencement Address

May 15, 2010

Synchronizing Your Watch

Once upon a time, there was an ant. It was a hot day and the ant was quite thirsty. So it ventured down to a fast-moving stream, dipped its little head into the water, and swoosh -- the ant was swept into the current. Alas, ants cannot swim. So this ant began stridulating, rubbing its itty-bitty mandibles together. This is how ants scream. I know these things, which is why they are naming a science building after me.

A nearby dove watched this drama unfold and delivered a leaf to the ant. The leaf became a small lifeboat and saved the ant's life. Soon after, the ant was walking along and spotted a hunter pointing his gun at that same, unaware dove. Quickly, the ant found a hole in the hunter's shoe and sank those little mandibles into the hunter's toe. The hunter screamed, the gun fired errantly, and the dove flew away safely. The kindness of the dove was returned by the ant.

In this morning's commencement address, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about the principle behind Aesop's ant-and-dove fable. "What goes around comes around" has been expressed many ways. Those of you graduating in theology will recognize the apostle Paul's harvesting metaphor – what we sow, we reap. Those of you graduating in counseling, education and business probably recognize the axiom "You get what you give."

In all areas related to leadership, whether in business, education, counseling or ministry, I believe you get what you give. For example, suppose you have just received your master's in teaching from Whitworth. It is the third week of September. You are in a new career, but you're not 22 years old; you bring some wisdom of the world into your classroom. A small group of students approaches you after class with a suggestion on how you could manage your classroom more effectively. How will you respond? You have options. You could dismiss these suggestions as ones from self-interested kids. Or you could consider the suggestions as ideas from stakeholders. You have a choice. You can disrespect or respect what your students offer. And you can expect to get back what you give.

My proposition this morning is that ultimately you get what you give. In my world, I have watched students synchronize their behavior to what they receive from their leaders. If you listen to your students, your clients, your employees or your volunteers, they are more likely to listen to you. Respect breeds respect. Disrespect breeds disrespect. When I was a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, I taught a course that included a chapter on nonverbal communication. I must admit, I find word language more reliable than body language, but I did study one area of nonverbal communication that intrigues me. It's called synchrony. Synchrony is defined as the unintentional mimicking of interpersonal behaviors. For example, in a restaurant booth with another person, when you lean forward, it won't be long before your friend is leaning forward. When you recline, your friend reclines. The look of concern on your friend's face will soon be mapped on your face. It's amazing how frequently people synchronize their behaviors, without even knowing it.

Now, in a restaurant booth, the only behavior I really care about is how fast I get my food. But I have seen people synchronize their attitudes and behaviors in many situations. We live in a round world. Things seem to return. The linear life of Aristotelian logic is not the life we live. Behaviors move back and forth, and as they do, a culture is created. If you are a teacher or a counselor or an administrator or a ministry leader or a manager, you are a seed sower, whether you like it or not. And the seeds you sow, such as respect, will grow in the people you lead. That proverb also holds true for parents. How many of us flinched the first time we heard Harry Chapin sing:

"When you comin' home, son?" "I don't know when, but we'll get together then, Dad. You know we'll have a good time then."

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me: He'd grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.

So I would like to leave you with two leadership seeds for your consideration. The first seed is trust. I urge you to trust those you have been called to lead. People are more likely to trust a leader who trusts them than one who doesn't. Let me be quick to say that if you think trust means never being questioned or challenged, you don't understand trust. Real trust welcomes questions, boldness and honesty. It removes fear. I have been challenged by members of the president's cabinet many times. But they know I trust them. I trust their wisdom. I trust their motives. I trust their nobility in putting the good of Whitworth above their own interests. And they trust me to accept their challenges as acts of loyalty to Whitworth rather than disloyalty to me.

Even in micro situations, trust breeds trust. I remember when I was 25 years old and my supervisor asked me for advice. I was stunned. I was inspired. I did not think he was stumped and needed me to tell him what to do. Rather, I thought he trusted me and wanted my perspective on what to do. And I trusted him back, and often asked for his advice.

Trust is noble, but trust is also good business. A trusting organization is a more efficient organization. Dancing around and hinting are side-door maneuvers that take more time than walking through the front door of trust. In Steven Covey's latest book, The Speed of Trust, he cites Warren Buffet, who claims that he does deals much faster with people he trusts.

So I urge you to trust those you lead. Do not wait for them to "earn" your trust. You trust them first. They will synchronize their attitudes with your attitude of trust.

The other seed of leadership I urge you to sow is an emotion that has never been the main subject of any speech I have given in my 24 years as a college president. It's obvious. It's fundamental. It's even sappy. I am embarrassed to bring it up. But I have to. This is my last chance. Here it is: love. You need to sow the seeds of love with the people you lead. No duh. Well, it might not be such a duh after all. Love isn't easy. Think about it. Somebody loves you. You think that's easy? 

Maybe the reason I've never spoken about love is because I went crazy the first time I heard the Beatles sing All You Need is Love. No, you need other things too, like toothpaste. Maybe some of you need toothpaste in order to be loved! That would be a good song. "All you need is love and toiletries."

You need a lot more than love to be a good leader, but I'm not sure you can be a good leader without loving those you serve. I know what you're thinking. The whole synchronization thing doesn't work with love. You don't get what you give. I loved my child, but she didn't love me back. I loved my husband, but he didn't love me back. I loved my students, but they didn't love me back. I did not get what I gave; I did not reap what I sowed.

Yeah, that's the bad thing about the sowing and reaping metaphor. It's a proverb, not a guarantee. Sometimes you don't get love in return. And sometimes you don't get trust in return. I heard an auditor say that trust is a necessary ingredient of both profit and fraud. Sometimes you get burned. So what do you do? Do you really love and trust the people you lead? Will they synchronize their love and trust with yours? I believe they will, but I can't say for sure. But what I can say for sure is that next month I will leave the Whitworth presidency having gotten even more than I gave.

I arrived at Whitworth in 1993. Since day one, I have loved and trusted this community, and I have felt love and trust from this community. At times over these 17 years, there were people who probably didn't deserve love and trust. At times, there was a president who definitely didn't deserve love and trust. That's the underbelly of synchronization, getting bad stuff back for the bad stuff you give. But we kept risking, and eventually a culture was created. High-stakes leadership requires loving and trusting, even when you aren't sure you'll get it back. So that's the choice. You can love only those who deserve it, and trust only those who earn it.

Or you can all do what God did.

You know the goofy guy who sits behind the goalpost with his big ugly John 3:16 sign, the guy creating atheists out of all the people whose views he is wrecking? Well, that's the verse that tells you what God did. God loved us all so much that he gave us his only son. And God continues to love us, even when we don't love him back.

In your leadership, you will have to decide how much to love the unlovely and how much to trust the untrustworthy. I'm asking you to love much and trust much. Give to your people what God has given to you.

Well, it's time to graduate. Congratulations to all of you. You're great. Please, love and trust those you lead. God knows I could have led Whitworth better than I did. But I don't know if I could have loved Whitworth more than I did. What I do know is that the crucified and risen Christ could not have loved any of us more than he did. Now, in our lives and in our leadership, may others reap the love God has sown in us. Amen.