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Whitworth University 2008 Graduate-Commencement Address

Bill Robinson
May 17, 2008

On June 28, 2005, Lt. Michael Murphy found himself and three other U.S. Navy SEALS under attack by more than 50 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. He needed to call for help, but he also needed an open space to make the call. So he crawled out into an unprotected clearing and sent the message. It cost him his life. Upon receiving the Medal of Honor for their son's sacrifice, Murphy's parents characterized his actions not as those of a hero, but as those of a leader.

Murphy's parents implied that sacrifice is an act of leadership rather than an act of heroism. How do you graduates feel about that? Do you think of sacrifice as an attribute of leadership? Do you associate sacrifice with today's high-profile leaders? When is leadership sacrificial?

I would define sacrifice as an act of leadership when we deny ourselves in service of a higher cause. I remember sitting in a hotel room on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. As I watched footage of our soldiers, it struck me, quite emotionally, that the first guys to scale the Normandy bluffs weren't fighting: They were sacrificing for the high cause of freedom.

Of course, not all sacrifices are life-threatening. And even small sacrifices can have huge impacts. Graduates, many of you are sitting in front of family members who believed your education was a higher cause than a new car or a better house. So they sacrificed. They sacrificed for you. On Wednesday I got a note from a parent of two students that read as follows:

"It is not easy to write these checks and make the sacrifices that many parents like us make, but we feel our investment is being multiplied right before our eyes as our students mature and grow."

Sacrifices great and small contrast sharply with the shameless self-interest that grips 21st-century America. Marketers capitalize on our self-absorption. Their sales pitches have evolved from "Wouldn't you like this new TV?" to "You really need this TV," to "You deserve this gigantic flat-screen TV ." Deserve? No you don't. What did you do to deserve it? Such language appeals to our self-aggrandizement, and it must work or advertisers wouldn't use it.

But just as we are about to drown in self-centeredness, we encounter a simple sacrifice: "You look like you're in a hurry; please go ahead of me." We see grace in the small sacrifices, just as we see valor in the great acts of self-denial.

Sacrifices inspire us, and they inspire those we lead. Recently, I spoke to a small group of people involved in a ministry. Their leader is, well, not much of leader by any standard measure. But his sacrifices inspire me to follow him. I was not surprised when I found out he took out second mortgage on his home to support this ministry.

Inspiration isn't the only reason or even the highest reason to sacrifice. If it were, then we would always need to make sacrifices visible. Their value would be primarily symbolic, performed to inspire our people and authenticate our leadership. But the most powerful reason to sacrifice is the one that sent Christ to the cross. We sacrifice for the mission, for the people executing the mission and for the people served by the mission. It begs the definition of "sacrifice" if we give something up only to strengthen our position or deepen our influence. We sacrifice when serving our mission, and our people, becomes more important than serving ourselves.

Former Seattle Seahawk quarterback Jeff Kemp, father of Whitworth quarterback Kory Kemp, tells a story of how the legendary coach Bill Walsh taught sacrifice to the San Francisco 49ers.

"My favorite play," Jeff says, "was a play-action pass to Jerry Rice: ‘Brown Right, Fake 22, Z Post.

"The line was to dive left and cut-block as they would on a running play. The halfback was to explode up and over the line, wrapping up an imaginary ball, as he, like the linemen, sacrificed himself to convince the defense of a run play. The wide receivers were to briefly feign run-blocking until Jerry Rice could dash past his coverage cornerback and behind a run-suspecting, flat-footed free safety.

"…[T]he quarterback was to turn from the defense, fake a handoff, and watch the running back like a matador following a bull. Then he swiftly set up to pass a long post route, which would be caught approaching the end zone, just after the quarterback was driven into the ground by the defensive end who had to go unblocked in order to sell the fake run."

"It's a price we pay for a big play," Walsh said

–, Aug. 9, 2007

Although the quarterback gets smeared on this play, many of the players had to sacrifice. Sacrifice is not just the duty of quarterbacks and CEOs; it offers a means by which everyone in every group can lead. Any sacrifice made in service of the mission, no matter who in the organization makes it, provides leadership for the whole group. And those of you who move into positions of authority can create a culture of leadership by your own sacrifices.

One of the best examples of how a leader's sacrifice resulted in a culture of leadership can be found in the story of Aaron Feuerstein. On Dec. 11, 1995, the Malden Mills Textile Factory, in Lowell, Mass., went up in smoke, leaving Feuerstein, the owner, with two lucrative options: He could pocket the $300 million insurance settlement, or he could manufacture his trademark Polartec fleeces offshore for a fraction of his onshore costs. So which did he choose? Neither. Instead, he announced plans to rebuild the plant and pledged that he would keep all employees on the payroll during the reconstruction. He continued paying them for 90 days, at a cost of $1.5 million per week, while the factory was being rebuilt.

Several years after the fire and reconstruction, Feuerstein's benevolence caught up with him. His sacrificial efforts ended in bankruptcy. But this time his employees announced they would make the sacrifices. They passed on overtime, accepted lower wages, and stepped up their productivity. In October 2003, Malden Mills emerged from bankruptcy, and the company continues to thrive today.

Aaron Feuerstein subordinated his self-interest to the mission, to the people who executed the mission, and to the people served by the mission. He deserves all the props and fame he received. But how many of us lie awake nights trying to figure out what to do with $300 million? The question for us little guys is whether our puny sacrifices matter. I think they do. Every leader can make sacrifices in the following areas:

  1. We can sacrifice time.

    When I was a kid, every summer vacation was the same. We drove 600 miles to my grandparents' place, we spent a week chatting, and we went home. That was my childhood vacation life, except for one night – the night my father took me to some kind of a car race near my grandparents' town. At some point he must have given me money to get a treat. That wouldn't have been like him, but it would have been even less like me to go to the bathroom during the races; so it must have been the treat. As I was walking back toward the grandstands, I spotted my dad, sitting alone, motionless and bored. And for reasons I still don't fully understand, I stopped in my tracks. I was utterly overcome. I realized my dad was not sitting there to watch a race. He was sitting there because he loved me. He sacrificed an evening because I was a higher cause.

    For most teachers and business people, time is precious. And that is what makes the sacrifice of time so jolting. People appreciate so deeply the attention, support and accessibility produced by even modest sacrifices of time. When a teacher takes time to call a parent with an encouraging word, or when a supervisor shows up at the soccer match of an employee's child, it represents a small sacrifice that inspires and leads.

  2. We can sacrifice comfort.

    Some of you will get into positions of leadership where you have access to many perqs. You should use the ones that help you serve your people more effectively, but my advice is that you not accept comforts just because they're available, especially those that come at the expense of the people you lead. Who should have the reserved parking place – the executive who seldom leaves the office, or the staff person who often makes runs for the executive? If you feel the answer should be the executive, you don't want to read your Bible. In Luke 9 we hear the words of the religious scribe, "Lord, I will follow you wherever you go!" Jesus replies, "Not so fast, Scribe Man. The foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn't even have a place to lay his head." Jesus continually sacrificed comfort. I'm pretty sure that a 21st-century Jesus would fly economy class, have a reasonably sized office, stay at Holiday Inn Express, shop at Nordstrom only when there was a big sale, walk or take the bus to work, and order the house wine, assuming he didn't just order water and "fix" it.

  3. We can sacrifice credit.

    We must be willing to sacrifice the credit we think we deserve, which most of the time should be shared anyway. Taking credit demoralizes those we lead. Giving credit empowers those we lead. And sacrificing credit empowers us as leaders. It purifies our motives and it liberates us to work not for ourselves, but for the mission, for those who execute the mission, and for those who benefit from the mission. As you know, Whitworth provides a very good education. In part, Michael Le Roy as dean and I as president help make that happen, but because of the jobs we hold, we are often credited for more than we deserve. Neither one of us taught your classes or helped you solve your academic problems. Excellent educations are the result of the excellent faculty members here with us today. If Michael and I allow ourselves or others to think that what happens every day in Whitworth classrooms is of our doing, we deceive ourselves and steal from the faculty. He and I should forego what little credit we deserve in order to make sure that the faculty receives the big credit they deserve. I once told a faculty member I get more credit than I deserve. He replied, "Well, at least you haven't screwed things up." For that we should all be grateful.

    Sacrifices of credit are barely sacrifices at all. They are acknowledgements: acknowledgments that we have been lavished with God's grace, that what we "deserve" compared to what we have been given takes a microscope to find.

  4. We can sacrifice privilege.

    The most reliable leadership principle ever written is this: You get what you give. Feuerstein sacrificed for the group, and the group now sacrifices for him. Correspondingly, when the leader sacrifices for the mission, the group sacrifices for the mission.

Perhaps some of you have read the book The Endurance, an account of Lord Ernest Shackleton's 1914 trip to Antarctica. Shackleton and his crew never should have survived the trip, but he created a culture of sacrifice by his own example. Crewmember Walter Howe wrote:

"Shackleton was consistently self-sacrificing. … When he saw that Hurley [the expedition's photographer] had forgotten his gloves, he took off his own and thrust them at him. Hurley, tough and uncomplaining, refused, but Shackleton insisted and said he'd throw them overboard if Hurley didn't take them.

– Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, Penguin Books, N.Y., N.Y., 2002: 55.

Shackleton reinforced his positional authority by sacrificing many of his privileges. When leaders wait in line, bus their own tables, and use the same rulebook as the people they have been called to lead, they do nothing to erode respect. In fact, studies at the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, provide evidence that self-sacrifice, more than any other variable, legitimizes and empowers a leader.

Let me conclude by asking those of you who are followers of Christ, how can sacrifice not be a part of your leadership? I fear we have made the victorious God the only God we want to lead us. Yet the only God ever to set foot on this planet is the suffering God, the sacrificing God, the incarnate God who went to the cross. I leave with you words of St. Paul:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing. Taking the very nature of a servant, he sacrificed himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

My wish for all of you today is to lead strongly and to lead by sacrificing time, comfort, credit and privilege to your mission, to those who execute your mission and to those who are served by your mission. May God be with you.