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Lions of West Virginia Leadership Retreat

Prepared Remarks
January 29, 2016

I am delighted to be here with the Lions of West Virginia.

I know you are here this weekend to learn about leadership, and you have a great lineup of speakers ahead to give you insights. But I think you have already taken a big step toward leadership by joining Lions Clubs International, one of the world’s most effective service organizations.

Especially impressive is the Lions’ century-old commitment to preventing blindness and improving eye care.

By the numbers, the impact is staggering:

  • Preventing serious vision loss for more than 30 million people worldwide.
  • Supporting pediatric eye care centers that have helped more than 120 million children.
  • Training more than 650,000 eye care professionals, who have helped more than 100 million people.

And much more.

I am proud that, since the 1960s, West Virginia University has had a special relationship with West Virginia Lions.

It started when the Lions purchased some exam equipment for a new Eye Clinic in our Medical Center.

And, over the years, it has grown into a major partnership with our WVU Eye Institute—a partnership that enables us to offer more vision screenings, to purchase state-of-the-art equipment, and to conduct groundbreaking research.

Most recently, West Virginia Lions Clubs and the Lions Club International Foundation donated more than $250,000 to our Vision Research Center. These funds will help us tackle three eye diseases that the World Health Organization has identified as priorities—diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.

Improved eye care is a major need in our state.

According to the latest statistics, more than 73,000 people in West Virginia are dealing with visual disabilities. That includes people across the lifespan:

Children and teens who face special educational challenges.

Young adults whose disabilities affect their employment options.

And older citizens whose visual problems threaten their quality of life and ability to live independently.

I am celebrating another birthday myself next week, and I know how diminished my life would be if I could not read a book…or look into the faces of my granddaughters…or appreciate a work of art…or view my own selfies online.

I know that protecting sight is just one aspect of the Lions Clubs’ service mission. But it is an outstanding example of what can happen when people identify a problem and do whatever it takes to solve it.

We use the word “vision” to describe that kind of commitment.

And vision is what leadership is all about.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

Leadership takes big thinking and bold action—the kind Lions Club members showed when they became, in Helen Keller’s words, “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

When we think big, we generate hope—and we change lives.

In his kind introduction, Steve (Glass) mentioned my statewide tours. I have shaken the hands of business people, embraced teachers and nurses, and high-fived young students. I have looked into their eyes and carried their stories back to campus.

I have seen how much people love this state. I know how much all of you love this state. And I understand why—because I love it, too. But I have also seen that West Virginians are crying out for new ideas and effective leadership like never before.

And I can sum up what they need most in one word: Hope.

Against all odds, after enduring so many hardships, the people of West Virginia are optimistic about the future.

West Virginians are among the most resilient people I have ever met, but we must give them a reason to keep hoping.

In the simple language of advertising, it is time to Go Big or Go Home.

We need fearless innovators.

We need strategic risk-takers. We need to take aim at that most fearsome of tyrannies—“the way we do things in West Virginia.”

In short: We need leaders. That is where you come in. You would not be here if you did not care about your community, your state and your nation.

You would not be here if you did not have tremendous leadership potential.

It took me years to become confident in my leadership role. But, since West Virginia’s needs are so acute, I would like to help accelerate your own quest to effective leadership.

With that in mind, here are the most important lessons I have learned about being a leader.

1. Get comfortable with who you are and what you represent.

Good people get things done. But truly extraordinary people bring something more to their work than the will to achieve. They bring their humanity. They bring humor, caring, humility and the courage to be one’s self.

I learned this most important lesson during my first tenure at West Virginia University. This institution gave me my first chance to serve as a president when I was only 36.

I do not know what they were thinking.

Early in my first tenure at West Virginia University, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.” When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.”

So I tried to change and become a little bit more stoic and standoffish, and what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing. So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I have remained a university president for a long time.

2. Be serious, but do not take yourself too seriously.

You cannot allow yourself to believe everything your organization’s press releases say about you.

You possess all the frailties of humankind. On my summer tours of West Virginia, I have had my share of silly moments, from attempting my best Mothman imitation in Point Pleasant to making the acquaintance of piglets in Braxton County.

Often, moments like these help you bond with people in ways that lofty speeches and airbrushed portraits never will.

3. Have thick skin, nerves like sewer pipes, and a good sense of humor.

Criticism is part and parcel of leadership. It can be difficult to remain calm, especially when you are new to your role.

I still remember the first time a student newspaper reporter criticized me. A certain amount of criticism has continued from institution to institution.

Do not let the letters and emails that stream into your office stampede you into unwise decisions. You have more information than the letter writers, and if they had the same information, they would probably make the same decisions you are.

Remember, though, that some criticism can be constructive.

On my summer tours, I have learned that a vast chasm remains between our campus and other parts of the state.

To people in towns like Pineville and Welch, Morgantown is a ‘big city.’

Despite their fondness for gold-and-blue and the Flying WV, they feel a disconnect.

I am determined to change this.

Sometimes, criticism and concerns can show you the way to move forward and make your organization stronger.

But when it comes to non-constructive criticism—ignore it.

4. Have passion for your work.

University of California President Clark Kerr believed that a university president should avoid becoming too involved with his or her university. That might have worked for him, but it would never work for me, and I doubt it work for you and your organizations.

I urge you to have passion for your work and unequivocal faith in the community service that you do.

Because I truly believe that West Virginia University changes lives, I am its biggest cheerleader—and I never put down my pom-poms.

5. Understand that your experience differs from others’ within your organization.

Organizations are like prisms—they reveal unique aspects from every viewing angle. You have a great vantage point as a leader, but there are some things you do not see. For example, university presidents do not have to deal with some bureaucratic encumbrances that students and employees face.

That is why it is important to reach out. Treat everyone you work with as a teacher, regardless of their title or background.

6. Do not believe that people will always treat one another with respect.

Early on, I thought this would happen automatically. Unfortunately, on many occasions, my belief proved to be naïve. I changed my passive expectation to an active one: We will treat others with respect.

Our role as leaders is to make things right before they go wrong, or to eliminate the possibility of wrong occurring, to create and maintain a culture where measures for equality would be too integral to our daily operations to be thought of as controversial.

Life is tough enough without having to be around egotistical, abrasive, or duplicitous people.

7. Do not tolerate non-performers.

Great people will not stay with an organization that tolerates sub-par performers. When mediocrity becomes acceptable, great people will leave, and the non-performers will lower your standards.

Do not let this happen.

8. Recruit and retain outstanding people.

The ultimate litmus test for leaders is ability to recruit and retain people who are stronger than themselves.

9. Respect traditions, but do not let them imprison you.

The Lions Clubs have a rich tradition of service. That is something to take pride in. Universities take pride in their histories, too. But we must always guard against tradition becoming a barrier to progress.

Leaders must look to liberate energies imprisoned by long-held habits, and habits of mind.

“But we’ve always done things this way!” is not an acceptable rationale for anything.

Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership.

Regulations and outdated laws have us handcuffed.

No one ever asks, “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?”

I say it is time to toss out the damn rule book. I love to tell the story of how when I arrived at West Virginia University I was told I had to take a driver’s test. They said everyone who works here has to take it. I asked why? The answer was that the university received an insurance discount – but that discount was so small, it was dwarfed by the loss in hours of staff productivity.

Guess what? No more driver’s test.

We must ask the question, “Why?”

We must cut through the red tape that is holding us prisoner. We must move from nonsense to common sense.

I strongly believe that freedom begets human creativity and goodwill. Making our own choices empowers us to take risks, to innovate, to fail—and to get up and try again.

We must put aside personal agendas, break down silos, and work as ONE West Virginia, for ONE West Virginia.

10. Remember that work is not the highest value in a successful life.

Do not push yourself and your work so hard that you have insufficient time to think, to read, to create, and to share the joy of other human beings.

Do not spend so much time serving others that you neglect yourself and your loves ones. Any achievement without personal growth and the joy of relationships is empty.

I learned these 10 leadership lessons the hard way. I hope you can put them into practice more quickly because—as I said earlier—West Virginia is counting on us.

We all have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to move West Virginia forward.

Partnership generates power. Think of what Lions Clubs and West Virginia University have done for eye care in our state. And think of how much more we can accomplish by working together.

I look forward to talking with you, exchanging ideas with you, and partnering with you to make life better for 1.8 million West Virginians.

And now I would be happy to answer any questions you have