February 28, 2019 Presentation to the First Friday Club of Cleveland
Thank you Dr. Peck for your introduction and a special thanks to John Diemer and the First Friday Club for inviting me and my wife Jill to today’s luncheon. My intention here today is to provide insights on a primarily personal basis from an academic career that has spanned over 40 years and the lessons I’ve learned about leadership along the way. I start with one of my favorite examples of leadership, from my own ancestors’ past, taken from the Old English poem set in Scandinavia, Beowulf, about a prince named Beow:
“Beow’s name was known through the north. And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving feely while his father lives so that afterwards in age when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line. Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.”
Arguably set in more violent times, I have always seen this early passage from Beowulf as having less to do with power per se, and more a concise summary of the importance of noble behavior, service to others, and leading through the example of one’s own behavior. Other than a reference or two like this, I do not intend to draw upon literature or theory. Rather I will structure things using two important approaches inspired by St. Ignatius and firmly embedded in Jesuit education. The first is what we at John Carroll refer to as Inspired Leadership. The second approach, which is an integral part of the first, is called an Ignatian Conversation. While there are many different types of leaders and leadership, our values and mission challenge us to lead in a very particular and effective way. Jesuits refer to it as “our way of proceeding.” I call it Inspired Leadership, which was the focus of my inauguration address at John Carroll University this past September. Inspired Leadership is a generative process of leading not by the exercise of power, position, or authority, but rather by supporting those around us, leading by example, encouraging excellence, and inspiring others to do the same. Inspired Leadership is the antithesis of “it’s my way or the highway.” It is what many today would call the development of a “high performance team,” a team committed to a common goal, a tight knit group that collaborates and innovates, just as Saint Ignatius did with the Society of Jesus so many years ago. Building on the work of others, Ed Peck and I developed a concise statement that helps capture what we mean by Inspired Leadership. It reads:
At John Carroll University, we draw inspiration from St. Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises to form leaders who are characterized by self-awareness and reflection, effective decision making, inclusiveness, a commitment to the greater good, and a deep care and respect for others.
An Ignatian Conversation, on the other hand, is a five-step process for engaging in conversation with others that is conceptually simple yet increasingly rare in a culture dominated by dialogues of condemnation. In brief, when confronted with opposing opinions and opportunities to learn, St. Ignatius taught us to:
- Be slow to speak;
- Listen attentively to what others are saying;
- Seek the truth in what others are saying;
- Disagree humbly, thoughtfully, and most of all respectfully;
- Give the conversation the time it needs.
Both of these approaches, Inspired Leadership and Ignatian Conversation, are central to upholding the core Jesuit values of finding God in all things, reflection and discernment, seeking the Magis, cura personalis, contemplation in action, and wisdom. As I reflect on my own journey, these approaches have formed who I am today. They have given me insight into a number of lessons that guide my own life and leadership. My journey begins in the farm town of Bottineau, ND, where my father was a general practitioner in a small Catholic Hospital. We moved to Madison, WI, where my father became a Professor of Surgery and Oncology at the University of Wisconsin and where I and my siblings grew up and went to school. Upon graduating from Wisconsin I moved on to the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business where I earned my MBA and Ph.D. in Behavioral Science and Marketing. While in Chicago I lost both my mother and father, my mother in the first month of my studies and my father in the last month of my studies. I left Chicago to become a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I met my wife Jill and our three sons were born. After 24 years at Michigan I became the Dean of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, NY. Ithaca and Cornell have been very good to our family, as by this spring all three of our sons will be Cornell alums and have successfully launched their professional careers. In preparation for my current position, in 2016 I became the Provost of Babson College in Wellesley, MA, a position I expected to hold for some time until my dream job came along, to be President of John Carroll University. Over the course of Jill and my journey, which has landed us on the tropical southern shores of Lake Erie (seriously, it’s the farthest south we have ever lived), I have been inspired by many individuals along the way from whose behavior I have discerned a number of lessons in leadership. First, leadership is something we generally take for granted, until it is not there! Luckily for me, a lot of people have been there! My mother, Muriel Beth Johnson who was a registered nurse, taught me the importance of service through her volunteerism and the meaning of diversity through our day-to-day conversations. Whenever I asked why someone was different, from their skin color to their language, she would always respond that the world would be a pretty boring place if we were all the same. My father, Robert O. Johnson, dedicated his life to serving others, from farm families in Bottineau to cancer patients in Madison, a job that eventually consumed him. He led a life of service which I found myself following not because he told me it was the right thing to do, but rather he showed me it was the right thing to do. That was his way of proceeding! Jill, my wife and partner in this journey, has always taught me and our sons the importance of family and to love all people! I remember my favorite professors at the University of Wisconsin, especially Lola Lopes who gave me the best advice possible about where to go to graduate school. First she said, “don’t take anyone’s advice”, and second, “if I were you I would go to the University of Chicago!” My academic colleagues, including Rick Bagozzi, Jim Taylor, and Tom Kinner at Michigan, and Jay Russo, Steve Carvell, David Skorton, and Kent Fuchs at Cornell, taught me the importance of always placing our students and the institution first. Watching all of them go about their jobs, it would have been easy to take these individuals for granted as leaders are expected to lead. We rarely focus on all the obstacles and barriers to our own success that they removed for us or kept at bay. Rather, we tend to notice leadership, or really the lack thereof, when obstacles and barriers are front and center. Most importantly, all of the individuals of which I speak have taught me to lead by example, not from the positions they happened to hold. The second lesson is that leaders have a clear mission and vision for their teams! In the business world, for example, everyone employed at the Ritz Carlton hotel chain knows that they are “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” who deliver the highest quality of service to their guests. At the other end of the price spectrum, a company like IKEA delivers affordable designs for everyday living. At John Carroll, as a Jesuit Catholic University, we inspire individuals to excel in learning, leadership and service in the region and the world. For St. Ignatius, the simple vision was to help souls, to dedicate ourselves to caring for the poor and the marginalized. My third lesson is that leadership is part of a greater process of growth and development over one’s lifetime! When I was reflecting on whether to leave a career I loved, being a full professor, to take on a position to lead an organization as a dean, I started viewing my life in stages. Stage one is an investment stage, where our focus is more inward on investing in our education, credentials and skill development. For me, this included my undergraduate and graduate educations, all the way through the granting of tenure. Stage two is the growth stage, where our curiosity drives us to expand our horizons and contexts. For me, this was moving beyond my roots as a consumer psychologist to working in different disciplines, consulting in numerous industries, and teaching in very different cultures around the world. Stage three is the leadership stage, when your life’s purpose turns to focusing more on the success of others than oneself. For me, this was becoming Dean of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, where my goals for a decade were to create opportunities for students, hire the faculty of the future, increase diversity and inclusion, and fund the future. At Cornell my student’s walked under a quote every day from America’s first great hotelier, Ellsworth Milton Statler, which reads: Life is service – the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more – a little better service. The quote makes it clear that there is a fourth stage of growth and development, the giving back stage. This is the stage when you realize that life is first and foremost about relationships and service to others. For me, this is being part of the Jesuit Catholic University that is John Carroll, a place that prepares men and women for and with others. A dean friend of mine, Deepak Jain, added a twist to this developmental process that has stuck with me ever since. The key to life, argued Deepak, is thinking forward, and working backward. This is worth repeating. The key to life is thinking forward, and working backward! What does this actually mean? To put it as simple as possible, it means don’t wait for the next stage of one’s life to grow, to lead, or to give back and serve. Again, these ideas all come together in the processes of Inspired Leadership and Ignatian Conversation. It is not about power and influence. It’s not always about taking a stand, but rather taking the time to understand, discuss, reflect, discern, and lead. A fourth lesson of leadership is about putting the institution and the community as a whole before individual gains. I will never forget the day my Dad came home and proudly told me that he had just replaced himself. He was the founding director of the Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center. After leading the organization for many years, he decided it was time to go out and hire someone who was “better than he was”. His name was Dr. Paul Carbone, from Boston University, who led the Cancer Center for many years after my father passed. I’ve taken that lesson into every institution I have led, that our jobs are to hire people who are better than we are and to leave our institutions better than we found them. It is not a message that has always been well received, if you know what I mean. My fifth lesson is that Inspired Leadership happens at all levels of an organization and society. No matter what your role, seeking the Magis is all about the quality of your response to and care for others. Late last fall Dr. Peck and I accompanied our students on a John Carroll Labre ministry that has delivered food to the homeless in Cleveland for close to 800 consecutive Friday evenings. Our students lead each other, by example, in these efforts and follow the lead of St. Ignatius High School on Cleveland’s West Side where the mission work started. My sixth lesson is borrowed directly from the late William Bowen, who served for decades as the Provost and then President of Princeton University. Leaders should deliberate long and execute quickly. Again drawing on the two approaches I started with, when faced with a major decision that will impact the stakeholders of an entire institution, it is important to give conversations the time they need, make the decisions that need to be made, and lead by example. When decisions are made without consultation with the stakeholders who will be impacted and their voices left unheard, the chances of a successful implementation are weak at best. So, to summarize my musing on leadership here today, I would simply say: Don’t take leadership for granted. It is happening all around you every day. Take time to develop a clear vision for your team. Practice leadership in all we do, big and small, and how we interact with others on a daily basis. Don’t rush to judgements and decisions. Give conversations and decisions the time they need, because discourse and reflection trump simple decisiveness. But once decided, implement those decisions and move on. Inspired Leadership is about leading by example rather than authority, avoiding micromanagement, and putting everyone in your institution first even if it is painful for some. Your success will be measured by the success of others, not a list of individual Accomplishments. Inspired Leadership is a process of thinking forward about how your life will change and preparing yourself accordingly. Your greatest reward will be the people you meet and love along the way. As I often tell my students, no one goes to meet their maker wishing they had put more money in the bank. Rather, we go thinking of all those who led us, who we have walked with, who we have led, and the resulting gift of love that God has given us. Thank you and God Bless!