Management Development Perspectives
Remarks by the Reverend Brian F. Linnane, S.J.
April 1, 2009
If you are in my position, a still-new university president with no prior managerial experience, you look everywhere — and you look constantly — for evidence that the institution is healthy and vibrant. More candidly, you look everywhere — and you look constantly — for evidence that you’re doing OK. You look for signs that you are providing effective leadership. You are (perhaps this is too candid) always on the outlook for validation.
Some people find that validation in the board room. I found it in the bathroom.
Not long ago, at 7:30 a.m. (you remember the details of a moment like this) . . . at 7:30 a.m., on the second floor of Loyola’s humanities building, I was about to begin what promised to be a very long meeting. So I decided a stop in the men’s room was advisable.
And there it was. My validation. To say that the bathroom was clean would be an injustice. This bathroom sparkled. It gleamed. This was a bathroom that had been cleaned by someone who cared. This was a bathroom that had been cleaned with Jesuit attentiveness. This was a bathroom cleaned with pride by someone with enormous self-respect.
This bathroom had been cleaned by a leader.
And in that, I found validation.
I took the sparkle of that bathroom as evidence that we were succeeding in our effort to make sure that every Loyola employee and every Loyola student knows that they are valued, knows they are respected, knows that they matter.
I am still new to this game, but if there is one thing I understand about management, it is this: Institutional health depends — and depends decisively — on the intellectual and spiritual strength of the people who study and work and play there. And people gain that strength by being part of a validating community . . . by being part of a community that says to everyone — from the man who takes out the garbage to the man (or woman) who balances the books — we couldn’t make it without you. A well-managed, well-led institution says to everyone: We need your contribution, and we value your contribution.
The bottom line is this: Individuals perform best when they are respected, valued, and trusted. Valued employees become more valuable employees.
This is the core conviction I bring to my position as president of Loyola. The corollary of this conviction is that it is the responsibility of managers, of leaders, of presidents to create an environment defined and energized by respect, trust, loyalty, and affection. All of this is consistent with the Jesuit charism: Whether as administrators or teachers, our focus must be on the whole person. And we need to be sure the whole environment supports the aspirations and meets the needs of the whole person.
So how do you do that?
I’m not sure. I’m really not. But I think I have some clues. And those clues lead me back to some rudimentary Jesuit principles.
Like, perhaps, some of you, I have been heavily influenced by Chris Lowney’s book, Heroic Leadership.
Now, while Lowney has written an expansive, rich, and complex study, it is nonetheless possible to provide a Reader’s Digest version of his teaching. And if we do that, I believe we find, at the heart of his message, just three assertions:
1) The task of becoming a leader never ends.
2) Leadership begins with self-leadership.
3) Everyone must lead.
I’ll say something about all of these, but I want to start with the first assertion because it is both 1) the hardest to understand, and 2) the most easily contested, the most counter-intuitive.
The task of becoming a leader never ends.
What this means is that a leader is a perpetual beginner. The self-examination necessary for effective leadership is a lifelong undertaking. Jesuits are indebted to a pre-Jesuit and in fact pre-Christian teaching. It’s a Socratic teaching, a Socratic injunction. And it says, very simply, “Know thyself.” We Jesuits are big on that.
By saying that a leader is a perpetual beginner, I am introducing something I want to call the principle of corrigibility. If you’re corrigible, you’re the opposite of incorrigible. Meaning: You can change. You can improve.
The principle of corrigibility simply states that our selves are malleable. In the face of new evidence, in light of new developments, we “adjust” ourselves. We adapt.
If taken a world view, the principle of corrigibility translates into the assertion that all truths are tentative, all conclusions revisable, all principles provisional. In short, all theses are hypotheses.
No Catholic — no Jesuit — can accept this. It is a radically relativistic world view. It denies the existence of immutable truths. It is nihilistic.
I must, in order not to be static, in order to improve myself, see my self as “provisional.” I am a becoming. I am malleable. I am a work in progress.
Let me add, as an aside, that there is no contradiction, none at all, in the statement that I am mutable and that I have an immutable soul. I add this parenthetical remark in order to protect myself against charges of heresy.
Back to my main point. The self is corrigible, malleable, mutable.
Why is it so important to insist on this?
Because only if this is true can we meet the challenge of change. Only if this is true can we say (as Lowney does repeatedly) that “leaders must keep changing . . . keep evolving.”
It is only because leaders have the capacity to change that they can make themselves and others comfortable in a world that is changing — and changing with kaleidoscopic rapidity.
What it all comes down to is this: Employees must be open to change — and therefore open to changing. We cannot bring about necessary institutional change without employees who change.
Lowney makes this point in different ways: While we must be anchored by non-negotiable principles and ideas, we also must “adapt confidently.” Leaders, he says, “eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner.” Elsewhere, Lowney says that we must have the confidence and flexibility to reinvent ourselves.
Let me emphasize again that this is not a relativistic view: As we change, we remain anchored by fundamental beliefs and principles. And within those boundaries, we evolve.
Lowney celebrates our corrigibility. He talks about the “nimble Jesuits” and says that “Jesuits prize personal and corporate agility.”
He talks more than once about Jesuits “living with one foot raised.” And he becomes almost idolatrous talking about Ignatius Loyola’s transformation from a dashing, testosterone-driven rake to the leader of the world’s most successful company — the Jesuit company, a company that by 1580 had unmatched name brand recognition on five continents.
Most tellingly, Lowney quotes with great approval the following statement by Professor Abraham Zaleznik of the Harvard Business School: Leaders “turn inward to reemerge with a created rather than an inherited identity.”
We craft and re-craft our identity. And it is then that we start to make the transition from managers to leaders. It is then that we become agents of change rather than victims of change. It is then that we can help others learn to manage change.
If we are to be effective leaders, we must shake ourselves free from old habits. Just as we, as Jesuits, do not want to be attached to money or fame or lust or envy, we do not want to be attached to what we thought yesterday. We must be open to transformative change precisely because, as educators, we want to offer others a transformative experience.
There is a new world in the making, and that is why we must renew ourselves — again and again and again. For individuals and for organizations, to stand still is to lose ground. For both individuals and organizations, to stand still is to be passed by.
The key point is this: As a leader, I must evolve. Even if my evolving is defined by my revolving around unchanging articles of faith.
With this principle now understood — that the process of becoming a leader never ends — the other two key points Lowney makes become easier to understand.
Let’s go back to the second principle I drew from his book:
Leadership begins with self-leadership.
Leadership begins with the reflective, introspective evaluation of who I am and what I stand for. Leadership springs from within. It begins with who I am, not with what I do.
Lowney is so articulate on this issue that I want to quote him at length:
Leaders thrive by understanding who they are and what they value, by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them, and by cultivating the habit of continuous self-reflection and learning . . . . Jesuit self-awareness techniques remain relevant today because they are designed to allow busy people to “reflect on the run” . . . while all hell is breaking loose around them.
The important point here is that we don’t need to enter a monastery to engage in the reflection — the contemplation — necessary to become better leaders. A retreat now and then is nice. It’s important. But leaders are not monastic. They’re engaged. They’re in the middle of it all. They reflect on the run — and evolve on the run.
Evolving. With that one word, we’re back to the importance of change. Because unlike Trudy, Jesuits do not believe that evolution is stuck.
I guess I better explain that statement, beginning with who Trudy is.
Trudy is a bag lady.
Trudy is the lead character in a wonderful play written about 25 years ago, called The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe. It was a one-woman play, in which Lily Tomlin played seven or eight different characters. Trudy, the bag lady, is the lead character.
Now, by way of background, I have to tell you that Trudy was not always a bag lady. In fact, she was a corporate executive in a prestigious company.
But Trudy got in trouble when she questioned the CEO about the company’s main business, which was marketing between-meal snacks to people in Third World countries. Trudy asked the CEO a very simple question: Did it really make sense to market between-meal snacks to people who didn’t have meals.
So Trudy got a pink slip, and that’s why she’s now a bag lady.
As a bag lady, Trudy either has a very tenuous grip on reality or a very remarkable grip on reality. I tend toward the latter view.
OK. So here are Trudy’s thoughts on evolution:
If evolution was worth it’s salt, by now it should’ve evolved into something better than survival of the fittest. I think a better idea would be survival of the wittiest. At least that way, the creatures that don’t survive would die laughing. You’d think by now, evolution would have evolved us to the point where we could change ourselves.
Trudy concludes her monologue with this thought: “Seems like evolution has just kind of plateaued out and left mankind with a big middle management problem . . . It appears that we’re a species on auto-snooze.”
By the way, at another point, Trudy offers the opinion that human beings developed language “because of our deep inner need to complain.”
OK. Back to my main point. I like Trudy. I like her a lot. But she’s out of step with the Jesuit charism.
Jesuits do not believe that our species is on auto-snooze.
Or, if we are on auto-snooze, we don’t have to be. We can wake up and change our selves (at least within the parameters defined by faith and human nature). And we can help others see that they can change.
Isn’t this, after all, what education is all about? We do not change others. But we provide the environment in which they can change themselves. We provide the environment in which they can begin to become leaders through self-leadership.
It is only because we can lead people to self-leadership that Lowney’s third principle makes sense.
Everyone must lead.
I cannot change you. But I can create the conditions that make your self-change possible. I can lead you to self-leadership, and then we’ll both be leaders . . . and then, maybe together, working collaboratively, we can lead other people to self-leadership, and then they’ll become leaders and on it will go
. . . on and on and on . . . until what we have might best be called . . . a university. A very good university.
Here’s what Lowney has to say on this issue:
The stereotype of top-down, immediate, all-transforming leadership is not the solution; it’s the problem. If only those positioned to direct large teams are leaders, all the rest must be followers. And those labeled followers will inevitably act like followers, sapped of the energy and drive to seize their own leadership chances.
Peter Block, the author of The Empowered Manager has made the same point: “The source of all energy, passion, motivation, and an internally motivated desire to do good work is our own feeling about what we are doing.”
The critical question then becomes: How do we get people to feel good about what they’re doing? I think this is the question for management.
Let’s begin with some data: In the late 1980s, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did a huge study in which employees and their managers were asked to rank what was most important to employees. Remember, both employees and managers were asked what mattered to employees.
There was no ambiguity in the answers by employees. By a wide margin, they said what mattered most to them was appreciation.
Here’s the stunning part: Answering the same question, picking from the same list, managers said that appreciation was the 8th most important thing to employees.
Talk about “Know thyself.’ What about, “Know thy employees.”
This takes us back to where I began. We have come full circle. Nothing is more important than doing what needs to be done to ensure that employees feel appreciated, valued, and respected.
It follows from this that we, as managers, must genuinely value employees. We can’t fake it. We can’t pretend.
So what would get us there? What will lead us to genuinely value employees — and then demonstrate this fact?
Well, this appreciation might follow from the Jesuit charism — from the recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It might flow from the Jesuit commitment to inclusiveness.
But even as I say this, I’m not sure this is enough. So let me try another route.
I’ll speak from personal experience: I believe that Loyola does not have a single problem that someone, somewhere on campus does not have the solution to. Our employees are the real experts.
Our employees offer us a goldmine of knowledge, skill, insight, expertise. The challenge for management is to tap into that goldmine.
It is not a platitude — it is a vitally important truth — that an organization’s success depends on its people. They have the answers. They have the solutions. They have the energy and creativity. As managers, we must make it known — by our actions — that we understand this.
If we do this, if we actively express our respect and affection, if we expect the best and therefore create high expectations, if we craft a supportive environment that validates every employee, then I believe we will create healthy, vibrant institutions driven by the pride of employees.
We hear a lot these days about empowering employees. Let’s get this right by turning it on its head: They empower us.
If we understand this — if we get it — we will then extend to every employee our care, support, respect, trust and affection.
That note might serve as an appropriate closing to my presentation. But I believe I would be remiss if I concluded my remarks without saying at least a word about vision. About providing a vision that inspires people.
My view on this leaves me far afield from the expanding body of literature on management techniques. My view does not emerge from treatises on management. It emerges from a passage in the works of Antoine de St. Exupery.
I’m sure many of you remember St. X from high school. I think almost every student at some point or other had to read The Little Prince.
Here’s what St. X wrote that informed my view of the importance of an institutional vision.
He said — and I’m paraphrasing— that if it is your business to build great boats, do not give the workers blueprints. Do not teach them Boat Building 101. And do not micro-manage them. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
That’s the way to get great boat-builders. And great boats.
We should, in collaboration with our employees, develop a compelling vision. We should do our best to teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
But they will build the boat. The boat will be built by people who are healthy in mind, spirit, and body. It will be built with their intellectual agility, their spiritual stamina, and their physical vitality.
If we sail well, it will be because of them. If the boat can withstand rough seas and high winds, it will be because of them.
As leaders, part of our responsibility will be to assess the sea-worthiness of the boat. We need to inspect it and see if any structural changes are necessary. We need to determine if there’s any way it could be a better boat. We will want to be sure that the sails are strong and that the crew can guide the boat through the most difficult channels.
We need to look at a lot of things and assess a lot of things. But I know where I’ll begin my inspection. I know where my first stop will be. I’m going to look at the bathrooms.
Thank you very much.