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. Robinson was the fourth interview in The Spokesman-Review’s “Wise Words in Troubled Times” series. Here’s the complete transcript of that interview.
I was pretty certain that things had overheated and a cool down was needed. The initial pullbacks were healthy. But when it didn’t stop pulling back, I thought “Wow, this could be big.”
Some very fundamental behaviors and values were twisted into very utilitarian get-rich-quick activities. The American dream, if we can use a hackneyed phrase, had to do with buying a house and settling in. But if you just look at the house purchase, at the core that was supposed to be an end, the hope for a stable and good life. But when buying a house became a means to getting rich quickly, that seemed to be a pink flag. We started seeing people flipping houses and flipping properties with no intention of ever occupying what they purchased, but only dressing it up and moving on. That has happened forever as an entrepreneurial business activity that is not unhealthy, but the speed and the magnitude of all that flipping had you thinking, “Wow, this is like a little bit of a Ponzi scheme and whoever is the last in is going to get smoked.” As it turned out, that’s what happened. But the difference between getting smoked and getting incinerated, I didn’t see it coming.
We are reaping what we’ve sown. If you take higher education, can you imagine a university that tried to sell itself on the mantra that “We will help you become good home dwellers. We will help you prepare you for stable lives. We will help you find a place, embrace it, love it, to such an extent that you never have any desire for upward mobility.” You can’t sell that. We give this impression that we’ll prepare you to be mobile. We’ll give you upward mobility. We’ll prepare you to be able to go anywhere you want and do anything you want to do. Rather than: We’ll prepare you to be faithful to your calling and exercise your calling in a way that you won’t want to go anywhere else, because you’ll be so fulfilled in your sense of place and your commitment to your community that you’ll be content. Content is not something colleges and universities are selling.
This idea of mobility has become such an idol for so many areas of life that it’s no surprise that people were buying houses with no concern for “place” or “dwelling.” Just take that concept of dwelling. It’s not a popular concept. One of the things I hope in this time of real economic challenge is that not only will our economy be purged of weak businesses and unnecessary enterprises, but our values will be purged so that what remains are the things most obviously important to us.
I had an incident take place in October this past year. It was parents weekend and so all the parents were here. We had 800 or 900 registered. So the parents were here with their students. On Sunday morning, there is a worship service and I give the message. I was having a hard time with my computer. It was just playing hard to get with my printout. So I’m a little behind. I’m a little anxious. Now I have to go over to Cowles Auditorium and give this message and I’m thinking, “This is going to be a tough crowd. This is going to be a group of people with concern written all over their faces. These are people who are trying to finance education for their children, and they are feeling the pressure. These are folks who have lost a ton in a month.” That was my mindset of what I was going to discover when I walked into the side door of Cowles Auditorium. I rode my bike over there. I walked in and looked around 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 looked around and thought, “This is amazing.” And then I thought, “Well, of course, they are happy. Of course, they are not feeling sad right now. They are with their children. This is what is most important to them.” So I got up there and 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.” And they just cheered. Their most primal and important values have remained intact and even gotten stronger.
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. And so maybe this recession will purge us of our desperate efforts to accumulate more stuff and replace those efforts with ones that are directed toward a deepening and enjoying our most important relationships. That would be a pretty good deal.
I’ve been doing all-staff coffees since the mid-1990s. We have three each semester – six a year. Everyone gets there a little before 8 for coffee and doughnuts. We have them in the chapel. It’s the right size, a warmer environment. I try to 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 Q-and-A.
The great thing about it is when you encounter a situation like the (economic) one that hit us in the 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.
One of the things I think is important in university life is helping the staff understand and feel the importance of their work. All of us are in the position of supporting the very important work the faculty does in the classroom. They just have to be reminded from time to time that the faculty couldn’t do what they do if we weren’t doing what we are doing. It has everything to do with what kind of shape a student is in when he or she walks into a classroom. The staff deals with the whole lives of our students, and they do a great job. With almost every student, they are responsible for the first impression a student has. The coffees are a great chance to express appreciation.
At the staff coffee in October, I said, “I cannot imagine us losing a job to the economic crisis in the next 12 to 18 months. 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. And No. 2 is to protect the quality of the students’ experience here.”
I said we’ll do what we have to do and sacrifice what we have to sacrifice in order to protect those two values, those two priorities. I made sure they understood we’re going to do everything we can to take care of each other and protect our mission, which is to take care of our students. I said that I hope from Whitworth’s standpoint, our students won’t feel the effects of the economic crisis, because they are going to feel them everywhere else. Our job is to do everything we can to help them receive great educations in an undistracted way. So if they are worrying about all the things that are happening to Whitworth then that will be a distraction that interferes with the quality of their education.
It might mean we’ll do modest increases, if any increases at all, in our wages and salaries. It means we’ll add very few jobs, if we add any jobs at all. It means we’ll hold back on any expenses we can get along without.
Was the relief palpable in the room when I said no layoffs? I don’t think so. I think people felt assured, but I don’t think anyone breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t think there was huge anxiety in the first place. And that gets to the wisdom of doing these kinds of things on a regular basis. This meeting had been scheduled since the beginning of the school year. If we called an unscheduled meeting, there would have been a huge sigh.
We’ve not eliminated any positions because of the economy. We were already doing what some colleges and universities were finding out they had to do to survive this. We were well-positioned. We have a good student-faculty ratio and we have a good full-time to adjunct ratio faculty. It’s realistic. We had debt, but we didn’t have huge debt. We had been conservative in both our capital and operating budgets and so we didn’t find ourselves in a position where we had to strip out of our operating budgets things that some institutions were. For example, our practice had been to use any operating surpluses to do the facilities improvements that we needed. That created some margin. There were positions we had slated, new positions, that we didn’t fill. We have a practice of taking all unrestricted requests and putting them in the endowment. And so we don’t rely on any unrestricted bequests in our operating budget. So if we needed those funds, they would be available. We had enough margin so we were confident we wouldn’t have to do layoffs.
But here’s the difference between a newspaper and a university. In September, we have a pretty good idea of what our annual revenue is going to look like. It’s not going to change. After the 10th day of classes, we know, unless giving and endowment earnings get wiped out, which they didn’t do. We get paid up front. And there are more ways to get the news than there are to get first-class, residential college education. Having your son or daughter go to college feels like more of a necessity than buying a newspaper.
In the fall of 1996, we had a smaller freshman class than we’d predicted. In budgeting for the 1997-1998 year, we didn’t do the salary increases we wanted to do. We didn’t know if this was a dip, a blip or a trend. In the fall of 1997, we were right back to normal. We protected ourselves; we hadn’t done salary increases, so we started talking about it. We said we’re in much better shape than we thought, what are we going to do? We made the decision to give $500 to every full-time employee and just give it and say thank you, our bad, we didn’t have confidence.
So we called a meeting to explain it and they all came into Cowles. I found out later, they were nervous wrecks. I heard all kinds of things. I heard people thought I was going to announce I was leaving. I heard all sorts of things. Nobody predicted they would get these checks.
In those situations, what I’ve learned, 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 of the matter was we lost our nerve. So 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. There were reasons why we thought that would be more helpful to them. But you can’t get up there and act like a hero or you’re so benevolent or magnanimous, because the fact of the matter was you lost your nerve six months ago when you were building the budget and you didn’t give the raises you should have given, but at the same time, it does strengthen the trust, because they realize that if we did 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 do it, to stop listening to the people you’ve been entrusted to lead. Some crises require it. Speed is everything. Just because you can speak ex cathedra, just because you can move unilaterally, doesn’t mean you should. It’s probably the worst time, because crises often require complex solutions. And individuals cannot compete with a diverse group in coming up with solutions to complex problems. Individuals have the limits of their own perspective, but when you engage the group, the people out there closest to the action, and listen to them, you’re going to get that broad perspective. You’ll be in a much better analytical position. And so one thing I would advise is not to get suckered into unilateralism in a crisis, just because your people will invite you to be unilateral.
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. Crises can paralyze you, but there are some crises where fast action that’s 90 percent on target will out perform deliberate action that’s 100 percent on target. You have to do the calculation on how much more information do we need and when do we need to make the decision. You have to listen, you have to engage, but you can’t be afraid to act.
Third, transparency. Nature abhors a vacuum; human nature really abhors a vacuum. If we don’t know what’s going on, we’ll make stuff up. Give as much information as you possibly can in crisis. That’s really important. There will be situations where you can’t disclose everything. You have to protect people. And you have to be willing to look bad by not disclosing something in order to protect an individual. But in general, your default mode should be disclose, inform, be transparent.
Let’s take three different leadership styles – a teller, a joiner or a consulter. A teller goes in and says, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” The people will let you do that in crisis. Or you can go in and say, “Oh, my gosh, what do we do?” That’s the joiner. You are just one of the group. You say, “OK, we’ve got to make a decision here. What do we do?” Or you can be the consulter, where you convene the voices, you listen to them, and then you act. Probably in crises, that consulter style is the most effective. But in some crises, the teller style is the only one available. House is burning down? You don’t convene everybody and get perspectives. It requires immediate action. But very few crises require that instantaneous response.
One of the things I’ve told the cabinet ever since I arrived – and they tease me about it – is to move toward a problem. 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.
There was a group of new presidents who wanted me to talk to them and I couldn’t so I did these flip clips for them and I did a Q-and-A when I was in the Minneapolis Airport. One of them said to me, “You say the best way to lead the people is from among the people. This whole business of incarnate leadership is dwelling among those you lead. Now what happens when you have to make hard decisions on people you’ve been among?” I said, “You just do it. You enter into their pain. You don’t go cold-blooded on them. You know it hurts. Don’t try to protect yourself with distance, because ultimately it will be better for the culture of the organization – and better for the victim (if we can call the person that) – for you to make yourself vulnerable. You’re in the power position. How dare you chicken out when you’ve got way less to be afraid of than the person who will be affected negatively by this hard decision you have to make.”
How (should) we treat people who have been laid off? That’s really complicated. One of the things that is important for all of us to do is create work cultures that resist personalizing work-related activities. If someone loses a job, it’s going to be hard for that person not to personalize it. It’s going to be hard for that person to see this as a work issue, not a performance issue, not a “me” issue, and for me to personalize it isn’t healthy and isn’t accurate.
If we can create that climate, not just for terminations, but for corrections and promotions, then we can come to those people who have left the organization or have left the department or who have seemingly gotten hurt and say “This doesn’t have anything to do with our relationship or your sense of welcome.” It’s not a hard olive branch to put out there. But it is hard if the climate has been one of politics, and it feels personal.
Having said that, it’s really ambitious to think people who have been let go from an organization will find much joy in returning. How it happens is huge. If a person feels “OK, I am being let go. I understand. This is being done humanely. This is being done in a way that supports me.” It’s going to be much easier for you to say, “Hey, we’re having a thing for Jim. Come on back. We’d love to have you come back.”
What’s going to happen to our economy? I think 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 is that there will be victims all over the place. There is always an overreaction to these kinds of things. In my judgment, in spite of my political points of view, the federal government has responded by over-regulating in a number of areas. It’s a predictable response, but what is sad is when we get ourselves in positions when we’re governed by our rules rather than by the wise application of our highest values, then there are victims all over the place. People who are picking up scars – might be financial scars. People who have to declare bankruptcy. People who are going to have to double up on their jobs in ways damaging to their families.
Someone said to me about a month ago, “You’re in the return-on-investment season in your family. You’re having a great time with your kids and they are great people.” Well, yeah, we invested in our family. There are some parents who 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.
There are corporate victims. There are individual victims. There are people who are just bummed because they have to buy a less expensive car. I’m not too worried about those people. I’m worried about the people trying to figure out how to get bus money. And the people facing foreclosure and the people who have lost jobs who were doing good jobs. There were people doing good jobs and companies doing good work and they just got victimized by a system that imploded.
I was talking to a man who started a community bank. He said out of 80-some community banks in Washington state, 50-some have cease and desist orders from the government and he said, “In our case, last year we made $1 million. We’re fine. We only have six bad loans on our books. But because of different regulations that have come down from the federal government, we have to raise $5 ½ million worth of capital in a very short period of time, or we’re done.” Now this is a bank that was fine; it was making money. That was only one example that shows a human tendency to overreact. For some reason, we think rules will stop things from ever happening again rather than education or training. That’s a more long-term protection.
As a Christian, it’s hard for me not to see many of our deepest problems being caused by pride and self-centeredness, and I believe deeply that we cannot withstand the weight of our own worship. We get ourselves on these paths of self-indulgence, self-centeredness, self-exaltation and the culture exploits the fact we’re on those paths. And personally I think that salvation on this Earth comes being delivered from these different forms of self-worship. And the recognition that we are God’s creation, created in God’s image, and the joy, satisfaction and prosperity come when we commit ourselves to serving others and to restraint and modesty.
For me that would be the application of my Christian faith to this situation. And the other application of my Christian faith to this situation is my belief is that Christ’s redemption doesn’t refer just to a person’s soul, but I have great hope that everything that’s turned to crap is redeemable. And it’s never too late to enter it to that redemption, and that’s why we as Christians are called to participate in redemptive work. So let’s figure out ways to redeem this lousy situation. And that’s back to where we started. I think this is a great opportunity to be more value driven and less “stuff-driven.”