It’s been said (and quite accurately so) that the greatest thing you bring to leadership is yourself. For me, Bill Robinson epitomizes these words.
A respected leader in Christian higher education, Bill is President Emeritus of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he served for 17 years from 1993-2010. Today, he is board chairperson for Princeton Theological Seminary.
I thought if I could talk to Bill one-to-one, I would see how an open, transparent leader went about personifying trust into a remarkably healthy culture. I wasn’t disappointed, especially as Bill offered up four golden insights that are much too valuable to keep to myself.
Bill came to Whitworth in 1993, after seven years as president at Indiana’s Manchester College. “I came humbly into my new role as president, with the curiosity and privilege of having been put in this new situation. I had been assigned to a position of authority, not leadership. I realized leadership is something I would only earn if people trusted me and relied upon my judgment.”
I earn leadership only if people trust me and rely upon my judgment.
Bill knew the direct, proven correlation between transparency and trust in any organizational a culture. His keen awareness – particularly in a university setting where “academia” inherently rhymes with “hierarchy” – produced four genuine illustrations of how transparency forges a trusting community.
1. Ask for help.
Here was Bill, just months into his presidency at Whitworth, and one of his first executive decisions was inviting all the physical plant services personnel to his and wife Bonnie’s home for the first of what became 17 annual barbecues. “With a yellow pad in hand, I said, ‘I need your help. Do you have any suggestions about how I should run this place?’
“As a result of these gatherings, our facilities staff knew what it meant to participate in the leadership of Whitworth. I heard from a number of parents as they were moving their new students on campus, ‘When we did our campus visit, your physical plant people dropped everything they were doing to help.’ This told me that culture does out-perform strategy, because there’s a higher level of authenticity embedded in your culture than in a well-crafted strategy.”
2. Value feedback.
Whitworth was one of the first Christian universities to survey with BCWI. “Why would we not want to hear from our people on the true climate of our culture? Surveying our people was, in Stephen Covey’s words, a ‘trust deposit,’ a very intentional act that said to all of our people, ‘We want to hear from you. We trust your judgment.’”
3. Open the books.
“I believed that making an administrative commitment to transparency would seep into the culture and, in turn, make it more transparent. We opened up the budget process to representatives of the faculty and staff who could demythologize the process as well as advocate for their colleagues. It was one more way to see how our commitment to transparency elevated trust.
4. Install safeguards.
“Along the way, I didn’t have super high levels of trust in myself, so I tried to build in mechanisms that would keep me honest before our people and protect my integrity. [The word ‘integrity’ doesn’t refer simply to honesty. It comes from the Latin word ‘integer,’ which means ‘wholeness.’] So the question I ask myself is, ‘Am I the same person I am when I’m traveling as I am when I’m on campus?’
“Traveling is difficult. I didn’t want to deteriorate in the way I used my time, so as a safeguard I wrote a letter to our IT people and told them that anytime you want to check my email, you don’t have to ask my permission. Just go ahead. Sitting in my hotel room, when I could have been tempted to waste time or do something worse, I thought of the folks back at Whitworth looking over my shoulder, which I doubt they ever did.”
Through the dedication, ingenuity and integrity of Bill and his cabinet, which included faculty, staff and fellow administrators, Whitworth University recorded the highest trust scores for any Christian higher education institution in the 14-year history of the BCWI Employee Engagement Survey.
As Bill says, “Christianity works. The ways of Christ work. It gets right back to the two things John identified in Jesus. John had a lot to choose from in saying what Jesus was filled with – and he chose grace and truth.
“If you have simply grace without truth, it’s not grace at all. That’s just permissiveness and chaos. If you have only truth and not grace, that’s hard to deal with. That’s harsh. So if we can live in the fullness of grace and truth, culturally, administratively and personally, we’ll have better work environments.”