President Emeritus Bill Robinson

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Whitworth College 2003 Graduate Commencement Address

May 17, 2003
Bill Robinson

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.

This 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 figure, Jesus the leader has no peer in the history of Western culture.

First, 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 hierarchy. 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 centers, regional offices and satellite operations all transported products and services closer to the customer. In physical terms, the monoliths had 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 organizational 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:

A 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.

I don't 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 century leadership.

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, "it's all 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."

Principle 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.