How Values and Vision Saved a College From Extinction

Listening to Leaders, a new book by the George W. Bush Institute, is a collection of interviews to guide current and future leaders in the essentials of moving an organization, a team, a group, even a nation, towards toward a common purpose. The leaders in the book come from the worlds of business, military, politics, technology, and education. Many also are rising leaders, whose skills will become even more apparent as they lead their respective fields in the future. In this series of interviews and essays, the contributors have a simple focus: the elements of great leadership.

Read more: Holly Kuzmich | President George W. Bush | General Stanley A. McChrystal | Michael Sorrell | Jon Meacham

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Michael Sorrell serves as president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, a post he has held since 2007. During his tenure, the Oberlin College graduate has led the historically black college from near extinction to a campus that is seen as one reshaping college education. His leadership prompted Fortune in 2018 to name him as one of the world’s top 50 great leaders.

In this Listening to Leaders conversation, Sorrell explains the importance of vision and values in effective leadership. That includes in his own school’s work, where a premium is placed on servant leadership. 

How do you define great leadership? 

Great leadership is the ability to speak to the needs of the people you lead in a way that demonstrates character, compassion, vision, discipline, toughness, vulnerability, and love. If these qualities seem to contradict each other, it is because they represent the tensions that exist within all leaders at any given time. Quality leaders, those who might be considered “great,” are those who are able to balance these demands. 

How did you create priorities as you went about redirecting Paul Quinn? You once said "We just blew it up and rebuilt it." 

I thought that the first place we should start was improving the finances and economic model of the institution. If our foundation was flawed, meaning the economic model, our transformation would not have been sustainable. Now that we have fixed the economic model, we have turned our attention to improving academics and we are attacking that area with a missionary’s zeal. 

How critical is timing in leadership? You have talked about a sense of urgency when you first got to Paul Quinn. 

Timing is incredibly important but not in a way that one might expect. It's important to understand when to use what. Someone else could have had this job, implemented many of the things that I’ve done, but not experienced the success that we’ve had. Not because they weren’t talented. But simply because they may have emphasized different things at different times.  

Some of it too is good fortune. The darkest day for us was in early fall 2009. We were teetering on the edge of the precipice. We were down to less than 200 students. We were holding on to our accreditation by virtue of an injunction that could have gone away at any moment. No one really believed that we could succeed, in part because no one had ever seen anyone succeed under such dramatically harsh circumstances. 

I looked around and said “Let's push all the cards in the middle of the table and go for it." There was no reason to believe that was the best strategy. You can reach moments when you’re so far down, what do you have left to lose? You might as well get up or go down swinging. And that is what we did. 

Another part of what has made us successful was our ability to understand how and when to tell our story. This included telling that story in a way others had not done before. We understood the importance of doing so to our transformation. We just fundamentally believed that as long as other folks were defining our experience in their words, we would never fully be successful.  

But then what? What two or three things were particularly effective in turning Paul Quinn around? 

We built our transformation on a core set of values. When I arrived, the institution was being, in my opinion, unfaithful to its stated mission of creating servant leaders. There was an abundance of evidence that not enough people were living up to this mission. So I said, “We’re going to embrace a core set of shared values.” 

I’m a big-city kid who was born and raised in Chicago, so I have a healthy dose of cynicism in my DNA. The idea that anyone could just start talking about values and it would work seemed corny to me. But at the time, we really didn’t have anything else to hold onto. So I sat down and started thinking about my life and the values that I had been given by my family, church, and schools.

Our values begin with our “Four L’s of Quinnite Leadership.” My parents taught me that people should leave places better than they found them. So, that naturally became a place for us to start – we will commit to leaving places better than we found them. 

Next, I remembered that I took a  world history class as a freshman in high school at St. Ignatius College Prep where we learned about Renaissance Men - people who accomplished so much in their era that they created legacies that withstood the test of time. At 13, I thought, “It would be really cool to be a Renaissance Man.” Moving quickly past the fact that I clearly was delusional at 13 to start thinking of myself as somebody that history would remember. That class and the idea of being historically memorable, of creating a legacy, became our second core value - to live a life that matters.

I also am horribly impatient. I don’t like to be told I have to wait my turn, I never did. That became, lead from wherever you are. 

The last value ties into the fact that I went to a Jesuit prep school. The Jesuits believe in the common good. They believe in being men and women for others. So the last “L” became “love something greater than yourself.” 

Our institutional ethos comes courtesy of my time in sports. As someone who played competitive sports from the time that I was six-years old through college, I have always understood the power of shared sacrifices in the pursuit of a common goal. After some group think with a trusted staff member, the idea of shared sacrifices in the pursuit of common goals became “WE over Me” - the needs of a community supersede the wants of an individual.

We took our character test of “choosing the harder right over the easier wrong” from the “Emperor’s Handbook” by Marcus Aurelius.

Then we needed to define servant leadership. I thought, “Let’s go with the three-E’s of leadership.”

One, ethical leadership. You must be a person of high moral character. Two, educational leadership. One must be intelligent and a willing learner in order to live up to the ideals of servant leadership. Lastly, economic leadership. In under-resourced communities, no one really talks about entrepreneurship and economic self-determination in an empowering way. We wanted to use servant-leadership to change that. 

Armed with those values, and we turned them into slogans in order to make them accessible, we then went forward.

It also helped that from the outset, we made decisions that were winners – even if we were winning in really unlikely ways. For example, our decision to implement a dress code garnered national and international press coverage. We were covered in the New York Times, NPR, the BBC, etc. That was the first success the school had under my tenure. 

Then with every victory, large and small, we would tell the story. Even when we would experience setbacks, we could articulate the path forward. That’s how we did it.

You said you were an impatient person. But some of the changes you made needed time. How do you balance impatience with patience?

My wife will tell you that I will wait and wait for the moment to strike. In many respects, that is my preferred methodology. It’s a bit of a contradiction, because I want to win now. 

My relationship with patience is a modification of the Stockdale Paradox described in the book Good to Great. Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. The Stockdale Paradox essentially states that you always must be brutally honest about your actual condition, while maintaining faith that you will ultimately prevail. I fundamentally believe that we will always win, even if it means losing a few battles to win the war.

What was hard for some people to understand is this was never solely about turning around Paul Quinn. I knew we’d turn around Paul Quinn. This is about remaking higher education. This is about remaking the inner-cities around an idea of what higher education can do for them. We want to use education, and the relationship with job creation and wealth creation, to end poverty. 

People who live in poverty, they don’t have the luxury of time. Every day you live in poverty is horrific. I never lived in poverty, didn’t grow up in poverty, I don’t want my children to experience it, but I experience it every single day through the eyes and lives of my students.

Poverty robs you of the ability to dream in full color, to just live a life with dignity. Each day that you see that, it should infuriate you. It should cause you to want to act with an aggressiveness and an assertiveness that makes some others uncomfortable. In a country with this much wealth, no one should live in poverty.  Ever.  

Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield from Listening to Leaders: Values, Empathy, Humility, and Relationships, edited by William McKenzie (copyright 2019) 

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