Skip to content. Skip to main navigation.

Fall Student Leadership Retreat

September 10, 2016


John Quincy Adams, a diplomat at a crucial time in the formation of this nation and America’s 6th President, when asked to define a leader said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you as part of this weekend’s activities.  In our busy lives we have to constantly take decisions – for ourselves, our families, and on behalf of the organizations in which we are members or which we lead.  We also have, through our actions, a tremendous influence on others.  As leaders, these actions, these decisions carry special responsibility, and it is important that we take the time to reflect on leadership, what it means to each of us, and to the organizations we represent.

When Tim Quinnan asked me to speak at this year’s leadership retreat I accepted immediately. How could I say no? I’ve done this every year since my arrival at UTA and it’s a highlight of the year for Lisa and me – a chance to be with some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic students at UTA – to talk to you, to get to know you, and to learn from you. But it was only later that I noticed the topic that he had requested – “Learning the Leadership Lifestyle.”  Now that was a totally different matter.

Unlike Troy Stende I am not a motivational speaker, leadership consultant, or expert at developing student leaders. I’m not sure I understand the term “Leadership Lifestyle” so I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and read that it was “the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture.” Well that did not help at all - the pictures that flashed in my mind immediately when I read “typical” were those of CEOs and political figures who have been in the news for abuse of power, lack of integrity, or just theatre due to their outrageous actions and pronouncements. Their lives do not build, in my opinion, a lifestyle that I’d recommend be one you covet or desire.  Just imagine if I came here tonight and told you all to study hard and get a degree so that you could speak without thinking and irrespective of facts, not care about your fellow human beings, act like a dictator, spend exorbitantly on things that really did not matter as though money was going out of style, drive companies and countries into debt and ruin lives, lie, cheat, steal, and go to jail. What would you all think? So no I’m not going to do that – but my task did become harder.

So what is a “Leadership Lifestyle” and how does one “learn” it? Is it a question of “learning” or “living, breathing and believing”? More to the point for me – who is a leader and what characteristics define such an individual?

I’d like to ask you to think about people who you consider to be leaders – people for whom you have a great deal of respect, and try to envision the key characteristics that they embody. Think about them now, tonight, tomorrow night, as you come back to the university on Monday. I’d love to hear from each of you as to who you consider to be leaders and why – send me your thoughts by email or tweet them – I’d be very interested in gaining from your perspective – today and in the future.

A leader has many characteristics – but some stand out more than others. Having vision, passion, drive, character, humility, and being a positive role model are among these. Being able to be proactive and cope with change by being ahead of it, and being able to motivate and inspire are intrinsic qualities of a leader.

As the famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tze said “To lead people, walk beside them. As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. When the best leader's work is done the people say.  We did it ourselves!” 

Thus leaders do not always have to be the person seen in lights, the name at the top of the letterhead, or the person perceived to be at the top of the ladder. Charisma, the ability to speak to crowds and get them engaged, having an outgoing personality, having gravitas – all these are helpful to leaders as they interact with others, but in themselves they do not define leadership.

Leadership isn’t mystical or mysterious and it is not something that is exclusive.  It is also very different from management.  Management is about organizing. It’s about dealing with everyday tasks and being efficient.  It’s about handling complexity, bringing order to chaos, and ensuring that processes and procedures are in place and functioning. Too often management is confused with leadership and we look to those who handle a lot of work, meet deadlines and goals set by others, as leaders.  Nothing could be further than the truth here.  Managers are essential – but they are not leaders, and it’s not because of the relative position in the hierarchy.

We live in a dynamic and interconnected world, one driven by globalization and the consequent integration and mobility not only of goods and services, but also of information, capital and people. Technological advances have made it possible for people, ideas and resources to flow seamlessly and swiftly across yesterday’s barriers of time and space. As the world becomes smaller, diverse peoples are pushed closer together, sometimes making them reluctant neighbors and often fueling resentment, envy, anger and mutual distrust.  Divides – social, cultural, religious and political – have been amplified as the ever present competition for resources is extended to that of control of ideas and modes of communication.

It is in this context that we need to view leadership and the “lifestyle of leadership.” Leadership is about being pro-active, rather than reactive, setting direction by gathering data and looking at trends, patterns and relationships, and developing a vision and strategies.

Yes it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s time consuming, it’s exhausting – because it necessitates a continuous process of gathering data, analyzing it and figuring out what others are doing, how it applies to one’s organization, identifying opportunities, prioritizing them and then making the hard decisions. As a lifestyle it requires being open to, and desirous of, engagement, gathering information, always comparing what others are doing with what you are, and being willing to accept that one’s best idea may not be very good, or that someone has a better idea, has reached a goal faster, looking for the best options and then being committed to following through on the vision and goals.

Remember that John F. Kennedy famously spoke of putting a man on the moon – space travel was not new but the vision of landing on the moon followed by his drive to meet that goal, changed everything. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities – the concept was not new. In fact suffragettes had advocated and fought for this in the late 1800s and others had pushed even earlier– but she set the vision and worked towards it, changing the direction of a nation.

Leadership is thus about setting clear strategy, providing longer-range direction, and then providing the guidance to stay on task, being laser focused on the goal.  It’s about enabling the organization to stand apart and having an agenda that gets others excited and willing to work hard to attain the goals developed by that vision.  Remember how we describe the University of Texas at Arlington – the Model 21st Century Urban Research University, a thought leader, setting standards for others to follow – now that’s a set of goals requiring a lifestyle that all of us can aim for and live.

Leadership is about not being afraid of having people better than oneself on a team.  In fact it’s about attracting the very best and aligning them into an unstoppable force. In today’s complex organizations linkages and relationships are important and it’s crucial that a team not only have the best people but that they move in the same direction. Managers organize – leaders enable, align, and encourage. A leadership lifestyle thus becomes one where a leader is constantly aware of the talent that is available, how they might fit in one’s organization, and being able to sell that “vision” to others. There is no “I” in team, and the leader does not worry about whether recruiting a super star will make his/her job irrelevant or whether the latest hire could replace him or her.

Living the “leadership lifestyle” means having a quiet confidence in ones-self, not being threatened by the excellence of others, and being open to the concept that others could know more than one does and could in fact do something better. David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather one of the largest marketing and communications companies in the world, summarizes it best – “If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants."

Leadership is having the ability to make hard decisions. It’s being able to collect information, study a situation, put aside biases, and reach a conclusion – even a result that causes one to admit that one was wrong. It means moving quickly but not without significant thought. A “leadership lifestyle” is not just taking the decision but having a passion and being energized by challenges and opportunities to serve an organization. And more than anything else it’s having the courage to own decisions – the hard ones and the easy ones, the ones that will be applauded by all and the ones that others will criticize. Above all its having the strength and character to stand by the decision, not make excuses and not blame others or explain a decision by showing that it was due to someone else’s poor performance or judgment.

Yes – people can do things that cause an organization to falter. Team members can disregard direction and even agreed upon actions. People can act in ways that one finds reprehensible. A leader makes decisions, often without being able to publicly explain why something was done, and moves on. Ensuring that the organization’s reputation remains high, doing the honorable thing and not talking ill of others or blaming them even after they leave or are asked to do so – that’s leadership.

On the other hand, if something goes well a leader credits others, celebrating their success and contributions, extolling the achievements of others and often not highlighting one’s own role. The American thinker and writer Arnold Glasow perhaps described it best when he wrote, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit”

Leadership is about communication – with a range of constituencies. In our case it’s about communicating with students, their families, the staff, faculty, the community, building relationships to create friends and supporters.  Legislators, policy makers, community leaders, donors – all these are important and leadership means finding the time to talk to all and believing, truly believing, that each is important and that the ideas, thoughts, input and desires of each person from the potential student to the largest donor are all worthy of one’s time. Communication enables people to know about what is going on and assures that they feel included. It builds trust and results in the formation of relationships. It helps dispel myths and rumors, and ensures that we come together as a community. Being a leader requires openness – not every decision can be made in public and not every decision will make everyone happy. But one can listen, understand, and then decide.

Great leaders connect with people on an emotional level every time they speak. Their words inspire others to achieve what might have been thought of as out of reach, or even impossible. They carefully consider what they say and how they deliver the message. That does not mean that leaders only tell people what they want to hear. Rather – they tell people what’s important for them to know, even if it’s bad news. Leaders are honest and authentic. They provide a rationale for a decision and explain it patiently. They own the message because it’s a decision that was made and are also able to admit that they do not know something, or that they were not able to change a decision because a higher authority deemed otherwise. They are willing to say, please, thank you and I’m sorry.

Leadership is an intangible. It begins with courage and integrity and needs vision, drive, openness, the constant desire to learn, the ability to feel secure in one’s own skin, and to enable excellence in others. It’s a characteristic that can be attained by all, and it’s definitely not only for those who are at the top of an organization. Leaders are rarely born – they make themselves and are always enabled by others. They constantly evolve, and they most often achieve success through the enablement of others.

There is no doubt in my mind that leadership is not a position, it’s not a goal – it’s a lifestyle. Every one of you, because of what you do, how you serve, and what you enable, is a leader. As a group, you are young men and women who have already shown the ability to think beyond boundaries of place, identity and norms, who have empathy, trust and mutual respect for diverse cultures and societies, who seek to contribute to a sustainable and more humane world, and do not live in a vacuum but seize important questions, confront them, and develop solutions. You represent leadership.

I ended last year’s talk with a quote from Robert Kennedy that I find extremely powerful and inspirational and at the risk of repeating myself I’d like remind you of it. “Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills -- against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world’.”

I’m confident that you will not only move the world but that you will change it for the better. In the years to come I look forward to hearing about your experiences and achievements as well as those of the organizations that you will lead. I’d like to think of this retreat as the start of a new way of being – not as students, but as student leaders, and potentially leaders of your communities, corporations, institutions and the nation in years to come. May this be the start of a wonderful and rewarding journey, a lifestyle of leadership as never seen before, committed, strong, focused on good, and as members of a family – the Maverick family.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you and know that Lisa and I are so very proud of each of you.