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Second Annual Expressions in Leadership Conference

April 1, 2017


Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to speak at the second annual Expressions in Leadership Conference. It’s great to see all of you here today ready to travel on “A Journey Into Imagination, Possibilities and Transformational Leadership.”

A quick check on Google for books on leadership shows over 252 million links, and one survey listed over 15,000 books on leadership in print today. Obviously, it’s a topic of great interest and, yes, it is one of significant importance. I cannot claim to be an expert on the topic since I haven’t written papers or books about leadership. I don’t lecture on the topic unlike some of my distinguished faculty colleagues, nor am I directly associated with FLOC, the Goolsby Academy, or other leadership opportunities on campus, so I’m assuming I was asked to speak this morning because the organizers were being polite.

Hence, I’m not going to give you sage advice or teach you about leadership. Rather, I’ll make a few points that I hope will result in your thinking a bit more about the topic – reflecting on the key characteristics of leadership that each of you will be called upon to demonstrate in your careers and lives.

So what is leadership? Is it a characteristic that people are born with, or can it be learned and acquired? Is it descriptive of the person who gives orders and demands that she or he be obeyed or is it the ability to cause others to be inspired and perform at levels far exceeding those previously thought possible? Is it only for a select few or can it apply to each of us? Does one have to be doing something daring and new, leading a group or organization to new levels of achievement to be a leader or can one show leadership by engaging in the mundane to ensure stability? There is no one correct answer here. Context, timing and even the ultimate results of actions are all important in determining whether an action shows the presence of leadership or not.

As a start let’s consider how some individuals have described leadership:

John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States wrote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

The 34th President and brilliant army commander Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Another famous World War II commander, General S. Patton, is reported to have said, “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

Compare that to Nelson Mandela who said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

So what is leadership?

Merely giving orders does not make one a leader. Leaders do provide direction and they do make decisions but, in general, they serve a team guiding and enabling it, helping rather than demanding. Authority is not the same as demanding blind obedience. Authority through leadership is earned by example and gained through trust. True leaders are often described as servant-leaders because they put the needs of others including the organizations they serve ahead of themselves. True leaders rarely use the pronoun “I” preferring to talk about the group and rarely take credit for actions since they recognize that success arises from the efforts of the team with each member playing a crucial role. Aristotle’s remark that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” rings true when applied to leadership, bringing together individuals so that the team or organization is able to achieve far more than would be achieved by individuals working alone.

People with vision are often described as leaders but having a vision by itself is not sufficient. A vision that is not accepted by others or one that does not motivate a team or drive a group to enthusiastically tackle new challenges and reach great goals is just a dream and the person can at best be described as a dreamer rather than a leader. The ability to inspire, to motivate, to provide drive and perseverance, to enthuse others to move towards common goals, climb difficult mountains and reach peaks that looked unconquerable – those are the characteristics of true leaders.

Beyond that, leaders are those who not only empower others to succeed but those who help others develop skills and surpass their potential.  They build individuals and mold teams, encouraging excellence and not worrying about whether the achievements of a team member would somehow cause them to diminish in importance. The goal is the attainment of objectives and the culmination of the shared vision rather than personal achievement. Leaders celebrate others’ success and do not worry about perceived competition.

People who are perceived to be fearless or those who are described to have ice in their veins are often thought of as leaders. In reality it is not the lack of emotion but the ability to struggle through it, to have great passion, and compassion that marks a true leader. A person who does not think of the human element, of the cost of decisions, of the potential unplanned collateral damage cannot be a leader. Emotional intelligence – the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and recognize others concerns, the ability to struggle with the effects of a decision on others, being able to understand concerns and at times even change path to reduce effects of decisions without giving up the end goal, are the marks of a true leader. True leaders do not lack emotion, rather, they often struggle through it realizing the effect of each decision and carefully balancing options. Emotions might stay hidden, a leader may appear stoic but internally there is turmoil because they realize the responsibility of authority and the effect of decisions.

The position of leadership can be a lonely one at times since a leader must necessarily take risks and have the moral fortitude to take blame for failures without passing it on to others while celebrating successes by giving credit to others. Not every decision will be the right one and not every choice will result in success. True leaders are confident enough in themselves and their abilities to take disappointment in stride, making the necessary corrections and moving on towards the goal. Often they have to appear confident when everyone else is afraid, not letting others see their heads down because they need to motivate and lead by example. Are leaders afraid? Yes. Should they show fear? Absolutely.  But they also have to exude confidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that victory can still be gained if one moves forward appropriately.

In today’s globally-interconnected, technologically-driven world where information is shared in the blink of an eye or faster, where decisions can have tremendous consequences, leadership is more important than ever before. Unfortunately, it’s rarer than ever before as well.

Many want to take credit but few are willing to lead, to empower and to take the high ground. This is where you come in. You represent the future and you provide hope to many of us. Your actions, your ability to consider the effect of those actions not only in the local context but globally, and your adeptness in shaping the future not just reacting to it will determine the fate of our communities, our nation, and frankly the world.

I am heartened that there are many among you who do not take the easy path. You stand for what is right and just. You speak out against injustice and you are not willing to be quiet bystanders. You are the women and men who are willing to face the issues that my generation was not, and perhaps is not, willing to address. You are willing to step into the unpredictable and unknown to create a better today and a wonderful tomorrow.

So whether you are the president of Student Congress, or Mr. and Ms. UTA, or the homecoming king and queen, or captain of an athletic team, officer of a fraternity or sorority, leader of a student organization, the RA of your floor, or the person who lends a shoulder for your roommate to cry on, encouraging him or her to cheer up and start a new day with a fresh outlook – you are leaders and I’m so very proud of each of you. I know you can change the world for the better and we are already seeing you do that in steps, small and big. What I now ask of you is that you continue to do that, live your lives such that at the end each of you can say, “I did my best. I made a difference. I left my footprints on the sands of time.”

I started by saying that I wasn’t going to give you advice and I won’t but I will leave you with a set of thoughts penned by an anonymous thinker, to keep in mind as you consider the possibilities in front of you, the opportunities for leadership, and your responsibility as Mavericks -

Watch your thoughts; they become your words.

Watch your words; they become your actions.

Watch your actions; they become your habits.

Watch your habits; they become your character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

And I know that your destiny is to be true leaders. Thank you for what you have already done and for what I’m confident you will continue to do as you progress in your academic and professional careers. Good luck on a productive day – and thank you for being Mavericks.