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President Schrum on ‘Edge Leadership’

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Southwestern University President Jake B. Schrum gave the following remarks at the 2012 Student Leadership Banquet April 10, 2012

I appreciate being asked to speak tonight, but I must make two confessions before I begin my remarks.  First, I believe that people who lead on the edge do not call themselves “edge leaders” even though others might describe them in that way.  And second my understanding of edge leadership has an unabashedly moral tone or possibly even a moral imperative associated with it.

Let me begin by asking each of you to put yourself in the shoes of the youngest soldier in Joshua’s army.  Yes, Joshua the Old Testament icon who marched on the ancient city of Jericho.  It is the evening before the day when you and the other young soldiers will be the first to climb the ladders and scale the walls to begin the attack.

This will mean certain death for many of you.  But you have faith in Joshua’s leadership. 

You are unwavering in your loyalty and commitment.  And then a very strange thing happens.  Word travels through the army that Joshua has decided to march around the walls of Jericho seven times, below the trumpets, and then he says, “the walls will tumble down on their own.”  Has he lost his mind, you wonder?  Is it possible that you are more frightened now than when you knew you might die, but in a way that seems more conventional, tried and tested?

But it works!!  Seven times around, the trumpets blow, and the walls come tumbling down. 

At that moment I would have wondered if everyone’s idea about power had changed.  Today, I ask myself, was Joshua an edge leader? 

Pilar Lopez and I were colleagues at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth in the first part of the 1990s.  She was a member of the housekeeping staff at Wesleyan, who cleaned all of the executive offices on the first floor of the administration building.  This included my office when I served as president.  We knew each other’s names and spoke occasionally, but I rarely saw her, because her work hours were different from mine.  One day she asked me if she could have an appointment with me the first thing the next morning.  I agreed and wondered about the formality of her request to visit.

The next morning she arrived at my office, which she had cleaned the previous evening, in what I might have assumed was her finest dress.  Obviously, she wanted this conversation or meeting to be more than just a casual encounter.

She began by telling me that she had borrowed a magazine from my office and was now returning it.  The magazine was similar to most college and university magazines and included stories about current efforts underway to make Texas Wesleyan better so that we could enrich the educational experiences of our students.  There was a featured article on the university’s desire to be known as a new urban university - A moniker  I had coined and one which I believed aptly described our mission.  Unfortunately, there were few people who had taken real ownership in this idea, our fundraising campaign was languishing, and I was somewhat depressed.

Pilar told me that she had read the article about the new urban university and that as much as she understood it, she was fully supportive.  She told me she valued my leadership and then she made me cry. 

She handed me a card which she said she had taken from the center of the magazine.  It was a pledge card for the campaign we had undertaken in support of the new urban university concept.  Immediately, I could see that she was pledging, from her somewhat meager paycheck, five dollars per month, every year for five years for a total gift of $300.  This was a princely sum for her, and I was overcome with emotion.

She had helped me believe, once again, in the new urban university, she had lifted my spirits as the leader of the university where she was working, and she had reminded me of the power of true philanthropy.  Her gift would enable students she would never meet.  Was she an edge leader? 

Knowing that the union would be saved, but that there would still be a great divide in America for many years to come, Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest U.S. president in history, spoke these eight extraordinary words in his second inaugural speech:

“With malice toward none and charity for all.” 

Why was this extraordinary?  Powerful in its simplicity, stunning in its foresight, Lincoln was narrowly focused on forgiveness.  The long civil war that had bitterly divided this great country was not even over and yet Lincoln was urging his fellow citizens to “bury the hatchet.”  To let it go, to forgive, and move forward.  Was Lincoln an edge leader?

Edge leadership is oftentimes counterintuitive:

  • It is creative;
  • It’s about doing things for others, for the greater good;
  • Edge leaders see things differently;
  • Many edge leaders have no title that suggest that they are a leader at all;
  • Edge leaders make many people nervous;
  • Their leadership is sometimes confused with weakness;
  • Ultimately, they are always motivated by their core values;
  • They are capable of leading others to the edge;
  • They look out over chaos and see possibilities, while other leaders are noticing the public’s reaction to them and are seeking applause or validation;
  • Edge leaders are motivated by meaning, not by money; and
  • They constantly seek ways to make the world better for their having lived.

As my good friend Gene Tobin has said, they possess a general ecology of possibilities, distinct and divergent visions of the world, and they would rather be approximately right than precisely wrong.  In addition, they believe that no one should designate themselves as an edge leader.

Finally, because of honesty and humility they are sometimes the only ones who really know what’s going on.

Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray in their book The Leading Causes of Life, allude to the idea of edge leadership when they describe the leading causes of life:

1)     Connection – edge leaders develop an intimate web of relationships;

2)     Coherence – they have an unusual ability to sense how life makes sense;

3)     Agency – they have an unusual capacity to “do” in the world – to get things done;

4)     Blessing – they understand that we should be strongly animated by being blessed by those to whom we are most deeply connected, and finally

5)     Hope – edge leaders know that the final cause of life is hope – believing that things will get better.

Now the key to the realm for edge leaders is creativity.  The good news is that we live in the creative era.

Stephen Tepper and George Kuh say that creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time.

These core abilities and skills are:

1)     The ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor;

2)     Conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems);

3)     Keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;

4)     The ability to risk failure by taking the initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;

5)     The ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;

6)     A capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and

7)     The expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (vision, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.

One place to find this kind of rigorous training and deliberate practice in creativity is in arts-degree programs.  Indeed, it is hard to compose and perform new music, stage a drama, design a new community center or video game, mount a solo exhibition, or interpret and perform a dance without tapping into many of the creative abilities suggested by Tepper and Kuh.  Are artists edge leaders?

I believe we all have edge leadership abilities.  As with every possibility within us, the question is “how do we use these abilities – how do we tap into that part of us that yearns to be an edge leader?

As leaders at Southwestern, we should be calling each other to practice edge leadership.  Let’s challenge each other and ourselves to take a closer look at edge leadership. 

My career has been influenced by several edge leaders. One of my new favorite edge leaders is Kerry Robinson.  She started the Catholic Roundtable, which brings the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church into a conversation with corporate leaders who love the Roman Catholic Church and are concerned with the challenges the church faces, especially as they relate to sexual abuses by priests.

Recently she gave the eulogy at a friend’s funeral service.  To honor the legacy of her friend, she made these suggestion to those gathered, and I will end with her words:

“Lend your life to something big, take a leap of faith in favor of something uncertain, bold, generative, that is designed to benefit others.  Be on the lookout for grace in the most unexpected places and relationships.  Do not protect yourself from love and the vulnerability of love.  Cherish the time you have with those who enoble you.  And give of yourself – even everything you have – so that others might have life and have it more abundantly.”