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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pathway to leadership

Whitworth’s Bill Robinson says tough times demand compassionate guidance

Bill Robinson, president of Whitworth University, believes the recession is teaching us how to live without so much “stuff.”  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Last September and October, shocking economic news shattered almost every morning’s calm: bank failures, mortgage and insurance company failures, stock-market dives, layoffs and escalating unemployment.

Workplace leaders throughout the country demonstrated egregious behavior. Overwhelmed by the crisis, they hid in their offices or left town, or awarded themselves fat bonuses before laying people off via e-mail.

In Spokane, Bill Robinson, president of Whitworth University, unwittingly demonstrated a different kind of leadership. In the darkest days of last fall, Robinson consistently imparted a message of hope, not panic, for Whitworth faculty, staff and students.

Robinson, 59, has written two books on leadership, speaks throughout the country on the topic and has been at the helm of Whitworth University for 16 years.

Recently in an interview, he looked back on the events of last fall, the present situation and his hopes for the future. Here’s an excerpt.

•It was parents’ weekend (last October). I’m thinking, “This is going to be a group of people with concern written all over their faces. These are people trying to finance education for their children, and they are feeling the pressure. These are folks who have lost a ton of money in a month.”

I walked into Cowles Auditorium, and there wasn’t a trace of anxiety or sadness or anything, except what looked to be the same level of joy we had seen in every other parents’ weekend. I thought, “Well, of course, they are happy. They are with their children. This is what is most important to them.”

So I welcomed them and said, “As I look out on all of you, students with your families and families with your students, it’s very clear to me that anything that we have lost in the last month or so isn’t nearly as important as what we haven’t lost.”

•What you discover is that you can live without so much stuff, but you don’t want to even try to live without your most valued relationships.

•I’ve been doing all-staff coffees since the mid-1990s. We have three each semester. Everyone gets there a little before 8 for coffee and doughnuts. We have them in the chapel.

I begin with something inspirational, maybe a devotional sort of thing, something for our souls. I say a prayer for all the people there and for Whitworth and then I go over announcements, anything we’re working on or reminders, the kinds of things conveyed best in person. The last third is introducing anyone who is new and then a Q-and-A.

•The great thing about staff coffees is when you encounter a situation like the (economic) one that hit us last fall, it doesn’t seem like an emergency when you gather. We didn’t need to send any messages that were more urgent or more desperate than the reality of the situation.

•At the staff coffee in October, I said, “Here are our values. No. 1: Make sure we don’t have to do layoffs. We want to keep the community intact. So our first priority is to preserve the jobs we have. No. 2: Protect the quality of the students’ experience here. We’ll sacrifice what we have to sacrifice in order to protect those two values.”

•Was the relief palpable in the room when I said no layoffs? I think people felt assured, but I don’t think there was huge anxiety in the first place. And that gets to the wisdom of doing these staff coffees on a regular basis.

•In fall 1996, we had a smaller freshman class than we’d predicted. We didn’t know if this was a dip, a blip or a trend. So in budgeting for the 1997-1998 year, we didn’t do the salary increases we wanted to do. In the fall of 1997, we were right back to normal. So we made the decision to give $500 to every full-time employee and say thank you.

•In those situations, it’s pretty important not to act or feel heroic, because you are not. You are just going in there and telling the truth. In the case with the checks, the truth was we didn’t give them what they deserved, and they are still paying for that because we gave them one-time checks rather than bump up their salaries. At the same time, it does strengthen the trust, because they realize that if we do make a mistake, we won’t stash the money and use it some other way.

•The top three pieces of advice on leading in crisis? One would be that in crisis, the leader will get an “authoritarian pass” from the people. That’s what the people will want, but it’s very dangerous to stop listening to the people you’ve been entrusted to lead. Just because you can move unilaterally doesn’t mean you should, because crises often require complex solutions.

A second thing: In a crisis situation, you can’t be afraid to act. That’s the other side of the paradox. One of the worst things you can do in crisis is ready-aim-aim-aim-aim. You have to listen, you have to engage, but you can’t be afraid to act.

Third, give as much information as you possibly can. Human nature really abhors a vacuum. If people don’t know what’s going on, they’ll make stuff up.

•Our reflex is to move away from a problem. Our job as leaders is to move toward a problem. That means physically as well as emotionally. Enter into the pain.

•What’s going to happen to our economy? It’s going to be this way for a long time. I don’t see a fast recovery. The good news is that those who survive will learn to live with less.

•The bad news? There will be victims all over the place. Some parents won’t be able to invest time in their children, because the hard economic realities will force them into spending time trying to feed their children, rather than playing with them. And that will leave scars.

•It’s hard for me not to see many of our deepest problems being caused by pride and self-centeredness. We get ourselves on these paths of self-indulgence, self-centeredness, self-exaltation and the culture exploits the fact we’re on those paths.

•Christians are called to participate in redemptive work. So let’s figure out ways to redeem this lousy situation.