Everything I needed to know about leadership . . . I learned as a university president

Several months ago, two former senior executives with whom I worked at Mount Vernon Nazarene University talked to me about “one liners.” I used these statements with the administrative cabinet of the university. These two leaders, who both now serve at another Christian university within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and I were talking with each other by cell phone. Since the three of us were traveling by car, we had time to discuss our days together at MVNU.

Not long into the discussion, one of my former colleagues told me that he quoted me that week. Of course, I wanted to know what I had said that merited a quote. He laughed, and mentioned a “one liner” regarding a leadership principle, or an important one sentence lesson I wanted my senior administrative team members to remember.

As soon as one administrator had mentioned a “leader liner,” the other laughed and mentioned another one. It was fun and the time passed quickly.

My wife was in the car with me during this discussion with my friends. Anne and I began talking about these short, one sentence, “leadership lessons.” On our long trip back to Kansas City the next day, we began to discuss other short statements that I often used with the team. By the time we returned to our home, the list had grown to over sixty statements. For sure, they are not all original with me.

Soon afterwards, I was on an overseas flight when I began to reflect on these statements. I wanted to narrow the list to my top ten, most often, used “liners.” Finally, I was able to narrow the list to fifteen. Still working on reducing the number to ten.

These “driving forces” were so much a part of me that I was not even aware of there importance to me until friends started to mimic me, and quote me. What about you? What are the values, convictions, principles or disciplines that are at work within you in your present leadership assignment?

As you reflect on my list, what would be your top fifteen? Top ten?

The list is incomplete, perhaps even crude in its development and not in any particular order. But it is a start for me to identify, and affirm, some core thoughts that are so intrinsic to me that I was not even aware of their importance to me until others reminded me of them.

I welcome your thoughts about my list, and yours.

Leader “Liners”

1. “If it’s everyone’s business, it’s no one’s business”
2. “You don’t back up on the freeway”
3. “Little things make big differences”
4. “An exception for one becomes a precedent for another”
5. “Good and godly people often differ and sometimes collide…over vision and values”
6. “It’s OK, let it go”
7. “Understanding, not agreement, is the key to conflict management.”
8. “Plan long term, execute short term”
9. “What goes around, comes around”
10. “Theological vision precedes organizational vision”
11. “Straight ahead!”
12. “Ask the right questions” (Are these the right questions?)
13. “Happy are those who dream big dreams, are willing to pay the price to see them come true.”
14. “Build a great team, and give them the freedom to fail.”
15. “Give persons enough rope and they will do one of two things: pull themselves out of the situation or hang themselves”
16. “Keep your head high”
17. “Watch your words”
18. “If it’s not an issue, don’t make it an issue”
19. “You can do it!”
20. “It’s a matter of courtesy”
21. “Give them space”
22. “Stay with it!”
23. “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”
24. “Lead with a vision to serve”
25. “To be a good leader, you must be a good follower.”
26. “Our (lived-out) values define us”
27. “Strong Boards make great presidents”
28. “We are driven by our mission and vision”
29. “It’s the right thing to do”
30. “Look for the good in…”
31. “None of us is as smart as all of us”
32. “It is the grass that suffers when the elephants fight” African proverb
33. “You know you are a servant when people treat you like one.”
34. “Character counts!”
35. We must be good stewards of our education and experiences”
36. “We live within our means”
37. “Life is too short not to live together kindly, compassionately, and forgivingly”
38. “Do fewer things better”
39. “Awareness is disarming” (keep us posted…we can defend…)
40. “I choose to believe…”
41. “There is a way through…”
42. “Paint the picture big”
43. “Right is right”
44. “Stay close to people”
45. “Keep your heat warm”
46. Stay close by getting away”
47. “Think Daily; plan strategically”
48. “Plan time to Plan”
49. “Schedule First things First”
50. “Do what you said you would do” (the importance of follow through. At stake is your integrity.)
51. “Remember Whose you are (and to whom you belong)”
52. “Leaders stand between a preferred future and the present reality”
53. “We have one change to make a good first impression”
54. “Leaders must train Leaders” (not followers)
55. “Leave a paper trail”
56. “Give them the opportunity to turn us down” (go for the best…)
57. “Meet me at the Path” (Kokosing Gap Trail)
58. “What can I learn; how can I change?”
59. “Take time…”
60. “Make room/Create space” (the leadership ministry of hospitality)
61. “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” The late Henri J.M. Nouwen
62. “I can choose an ‘I-Thou’ or ‘I-It’ response…”
63. “Presence is important” ( similar to ‘management by wondering around’)
64. “Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear”
65. “Choose your battles!”
66. “What about the unintended consequences?”
67. “What is the issue/question?”
68. “Never say ‘no’. Instead, ask ‘what are the options?’
69. “We are talking past each other.”


Kathy St. John April 15, 2010

Someone wise once told me “Keep looking ahead.”
That should be your #70.
And by the way…thank you for that!

Roy Mediate April 8, 2010

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

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