Wednesday, June 5, 2013

From the President's Desk

Leading with Integrity
June 5, 2013
Roger H. Sublett Union Institute University

While it can sometimes be difficult to be objective about ourselves and how we interact with others, an effective leader must be both honest and aware of his or her strengths and limitations. Of course, as leaders, we are honest with ourselves all the time. Of course, we make every decision with the best interest of the people who may be impacted by our decisions. Of course, we are sensitive to the needs of others at all times. Of course, we are not afraid to make the tough decisions, and, of course, we are never wrong in our decision-making. If we believe we are right all the time, we cannot lead with integrity. We will lead; however, it probably will not be with integrity.

Leadership is relational. It is about how we relate to others and how we are able to motivate followers to do their very best each day to fulfill the goals of the organization. It is about how we carry out the vision and mission of the organization in everything we do. It is about approaching each task with a determination to do the very best that we possibly can in serving others. Even organizations that produce widgets need people to determine the quality of the widgets, and it is the leader who determines the quality of life for the people who produce those widgets. If you focus on widgets, your goal might be to produce a lot of money and decent widgets, but if you focus on people, you are more likely to be regarded as a wise and visionary leader and a person of great integrity. 

Several years ago when I had the privilege of working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we began an exploration of what a major funding project in the Mississippi Delta might look like. The “Delta” at that time covered 57 counties across three states and was widely regarded as one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the United States. Eight of us spent a week traveling around the Delta in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. We met people from all sectors—from major corporations and foundations to colleges and universities, from non-profit organizations to just simple folks who wanted to make a difference in their communities. As we approached the end of our trip, we convened a meeting in Helena, a small community located in southeastern Arkansas. We met in a church that served as the gathering place for the community. I remember an elderly African-American gentleman looking at us quietly. He then spoke up, saying, “Thank you for coming to visit with us. We are most appreciative that you are present today, and we need your assistance. But, if you are coming to the Delta to tell us what we need to do, please don’t bother. We have other foundations that do that every day. However, if you want to come to the Delta and listen to our voices, then we extend our warmest greetings to you.” His comments were not intended to be unappreciative of the work of other foundations in the region; instead, it was a plea for us to really hear the concerns of the people. He may have been familiar with the words that Mr. Kellogg used to create the mission of the foundation in 1930: “to help people help themselves through the application of knowledge.” To actually help people help themselves, you have to assume that people generally know the problems they are facing and if they know their problems, they may have some solutions to those problems. Mr. Kellogg had great faith in the spirit of each person; he truly believed that to change organizations, institutions, and communities, you had to invest in people and their ability to dream the future they envisioned. I am not sure that I have ever witnessed the coming together of two like minds from such different worlds than what happened in that conversation in a small church in the Delta. Two men from two very different worlds—one with wealth and the power that wealth provides who wanted to use both in responsible ways; the other steeped in poverty but also empowered through his intellect, experiences, actions, and beliefs in the infinite capacity of the human spirit. What brought this humble gentleman and Mr. Kellogg’s minds together was their common belief in the innate power of the human spirit in the service of others. Both men led with integrity and focused their energy on the betterment of society and the improvement of individual lives. This experience was—and remains—a powerful moment in my own leadership journey.

Those of us from the Kellogg Foundation that day could have walked away from that conversation because the group told us was what the Delta needed was “economic development” and the Foundation did not fund economic development programs. But, when we reported back to the leaders at WKKF about the conversation, a new initiative was created: “listening teams” that would travel to the Delta to personally hear what the people had to say. These listening teams empowered the voices of poverty, and in the process, all of us were inspired by the creativity, vision, and passion of people dedicated to a way of life and a region most of us did not understand and most would avoid. The Delta received several million dollars of economic development funding that would never have been approved had it not been for the voice of integrity on the part of one individual—an individual with the courage to stop us in our tracks, to cause us to listen, and to have us hear the true needs of the region and its people. I relate this story to demonstrate how a leader can, with integrity, change a society, a region, a state, a nation, and indeed, the world.

At Union Institute & University, we try each day to provide leadership with integrity. Of course, we achieve this goal better on some days than others. But, along the way, I am confident that we are learning to:
  • Be honest with ourselves and be honest at all times, regardless of the issues or challenges
  • Understand our strengths and limitations
  • Listen to diverse voices within the organization
  • Work with the entrepreneurs among us who serve as change agents
  • Establish feedback loops that include all parties in the process of growth, change, and improvement
  • Clearly articulate and enact the vision, mission, and purpose of Union each day
  • Make the tough decisions in a timely manner and explain those decisions as many times as it takes to make sure that there is understanding throughout the organization
  • Be respectful of others at all times and celebrate small and major victories
  • Create a culture of success based on the creativity of the human mind and spirit
  • Build a unifying culture that stretches across all our centers and brings together all of our services in support of our students and employees
  • Be transparent in our financial, academic, and intellectual interactions
  • Celebrate and honor all of those who have the privilege of calling Union their home away from home
  • Be present each day in service to others
  • Take time to be silent and reflective of our actions
The list could be extended, and I encourage each of you to add to this list and apply your own approaches to your job and your life each day. Only you will determine how you can best lead with integrity. It is not something that others can define for you. When we get up each morning, we dress ourselves for the day; however, if you have the confidence in your own abilities, it is not necessary for you to put on a cloak of integrity; integrity can become  a part of who you are, and it will be apparent to all with whom you interact each day.

Lead with integrity each day!

Roger H. Sublett
Union Institute & University

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