Lessons in Leadership by D. Keith Gurley, EdD : Presented at the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony : University of Alabama at Birmingham : Alys Stephens Center : April 30, 2016

President Watts, Provost Lucas, Dean McMahon, honored members of the UAB administration and faculty, families, friends, and, most importantly, UAB doctoral graduates – good morning. It is my honor to address you all this morning on this important and happy celebration.

Graduates, today is YOUR day. Believe me, I know, it has been a long time coming! Please allow me to join all of your mentors, friends, and proud family members in wishing each of you the warmest congratulations on your significant accomplishments. Further, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome each of you into the fellowship of scholars! You’ve earned the right to put on all those silly gowns, and wear those funny looking hats. I hope you will do so with pride today, and for the rest of your lives – though I probably wouldn’t recommend it every day, of course.

I am completing my fourth year as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Studies in the School of Education here at UAB. You know, the longer I am here, the more I realize what a special and unique place UAB is. I am proud to work for this institution, and hope that you share my pride in being a part of this community of learners.

I am also proud to teach in the Educational Leadership Program, and find it deeply rewarding to have a hand in preparing K-12 educators to assume the important work of leadership in our children’s schools. In fact, if you will indulge me for a moment, I’d like to pull rank and personally congratulate our six program graduates who are celebrating today the completion of their doctoral studies. These graduates include: Dr. Amanda Esslinger, Dr. Dexter LeBlanc, Dr. Tonya Anthony, Dr. Chris Trawick, Dr. Etheldia Reynolds, and Dr. Vilveca Bryant. Great job, guys. I know I speak for all of us in the Ed Leadership program and the whole School of Education in saying how proud we are of you and your important work!

Students who graduate from the Educational Leadership Program often assume the work of department chairs, curriculum and instructional specialists, assistant principals, principals, district administrators, and superintendents in schools and districts all over the Birmingham area and beyond. My colleagues and I work to prepare these often unsung heroes who courageously lead our elementary and secondary schools. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that being a school leader is hard work. But, I will tell you that when I started my own career as a school principal, I was 6’2 and had a full head of hair!

So, in considering what I might want to share with you this morning, it seemed appropriate, given my area of study, to focus on leadership in general, and then to share some specific lessons that I have learned over the years. Let me start by saying that the study of leadership has fascinated me for a long time partially because of its applicability to almost all human organizations. Leadership, or sadly, sometimes the lack of it, is a nearly universal phenomenon that is important to almost every social system or organization. Yet, leadership is often unrecognized and overlooked, certainly under-studied. Frankly, we don’t really think much about it…that is, until a poor example emerges or until an obvious absence of leadership exists within an organization. In other words, when leaders are doing their jobs, and doing them well, often that leadership goes unnoticed. Often it is only when a poor leader takes over in an organization, or when no one steps up to fill a leadership void, that the topic of leadership even comes to mind.

Leadership is also fascinating to me because of the fact that almost every individual, at some time or in some circumstance in their lives, plays some kind of leadership role. Clearly, in this room, leaders are everywhere. We have a stage full of educational leaders, people who actively play formal leadership roles. We also have an audience full of mentors. And, seated beside them, we have their doctoral students who, despite the fact that this commencement ceremony marks the beginning of their lives as formal scholars, have likely been playing leadership roles for a long time and will continue to do so throughout the rest of their lives.

But even if you are not among these groups of leaders, and are just here in the audience to celebrate today, it is likely that you are a leader because of your role at work, or as a parent, a sibling, a care-taker. You don’t have to hold a doctoral degree, or any degree or title at all to be a leader.

Therefore, given its importance and nearly universal application to the human experience, the study of leadership is a worthy endeavor. But, now I want to share (briefly, I promise) a few of the more specific and poignant lessons about leadership I have learned thus far in my career that have changed my professional practice and perspective. These lessons have helped me increase my leadership capacity and effectiveness. They are informal, practical lessons that I have learned, sometimes the hard way, through my experience as a classroom teacher, principal, school district leader, and now university professor.

Although I have learned much in my study of leadership, today I have selected three, simple lessons which I hope will be helpful to you, graduates, as you anticipate moving into a multitude of leadership roles in your chosen fields, or in whatever human communities you may find yourselves. But, given the audience here today, it is probably necessary for me to let you know up front that these lessons are experience-based, rather than empirically tested, and are offered as a reflection rather than as empirical data. So, all you scientists and researchers out there, just chillax for a couple of minutes. Sit back and think about what you might call a small set of common sense leadership lessons that I hope you will find interesting, and challenging.

The first leadership lesson I’d like to share can be summed up in three little words, “Do it Now!” A simple, but powerful phrase. Leaders, “Do it Now!”

One of my favorite moral philosophers is the great Mark Twain, who once said: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” When we procrastinate or put things off, what we are really doing is sabotaging our effectiveness and our reputations as leaders. As leaders, we have a responsibility to set an example by completing our tasks in a timely and proficient manner in order to move the organizational mission and vision forward. When we are busy putting off doing the things we want to avoid, or the things that are not very exciting, we might try telling ourselves things like, “I will feel more like doing that tomorrow,” or “I work best when I’m under a deadline.” This is actually not the case at all. We are typically not any more motivated to complete the task tomorrow than we are today. Likewise, we are usually not any more creative tomorrow than we would have been today. The only difference is, if we had started today, we would have given ourselves more time to accomplish our tasks, perhaps in a more excellent manner.

Productivity and task accomplishment may not be the first characteristics that leap to mind when we think about leadership, but ask yourself this: Are you really willing to follow a so-called leader who has brilliant ideas, can speak eloquently, and can persuade anyone to most any position yet never actually gets anything done? Leaders are doers! Leaders are people who take action, rather than merely sitting around thinking about actions or talking about what should happen next. Simple productivity, getting things done in a timely manner, to me, is one of the most powerful leadership lessons I have learned. Leaders, “Do it Now!”

The next leadership lesson can also be condensed into three little words. It is, simply, “Try Another Way.” This lesson is about being flexible when you run into obstacles. It is about being creative in connecting things that might not otherwise have been connected. It is about being willing to think differently about things.

It is so important to surround yourself with people who think differently than you do, and who know more than you do. And, yes, despite your fancy degrees and your years of arduous study, always remember that there are plenty of people out there who think about a lot of things and have an enormous amount of knowledge about things that never ever crossed your mind.

At times, it is perfectly acceptable to abandon your old thinking patterns for new ones. Leave your biases at the door, whether they be cultural, emotional, political, personal, academic, or religious. I promise you, if you do, you’ll be a lot more creative and you’ll get a lot more accomplished as a leader. Try another way of thinking. Try another way of approaching a problem. Try another way of looking at the world. Try another way of feeling when you encounter a challenge. Assume a different position or perspective. Imagine the best possible outcome, then set about inventing new and different ways to get there.

Pretend with me for a moment that you are on a spacecraft and on your way to the moon. The craft fails, and all you have to fix it are a bunch of nuts and bolts and a roll of duct tape. Whom do you want with you on the craft? If you’re like me, you want someone who is adept at trying another way and not necessarily someone who is an expert only at carrying out procedures and established routines.

Similarly, leaders, when you embark on a new task or challenge, ask yourself, “What do I not know?” and, “Who is good at that?” This means, of course, that you have to know your weaknesses, and where you’re vulnerable, so that you can build a team to complement you, not repeat you. This is exactly why we must value people who are different from us. We don’t value diversity because it is the politically correct thing to do. We value diversity because it pushes us to grow, and to be better, and to think bigger. Trying another way helps us to see things from different perspectives. Remember, you can’t see anything in three dimensions unless you look at it from different points of view. That’s why have two eyes, not just one. Leaders remember, “Try Another Way.”

The final lesson is perhaps the most important. And, I suspect it may be one of the most difficult lessons that truly effective leaders need to learn. It can also be summed up in a simple phrase, but this time it takes four-words: “It’s Not About You!”

One of the things I most appreciated while working as a teacher and school principal was when I had the opportunity to work with individuals who understood that what we were doing every moment of every day, in every classroom, and at every event, was all, always about the kids. Working to cause and increase student learning and success was what motivated these individuals. They clearly understood that their work was not about them. They committed themselves and made themselves accountable to a higher purpose – that is, the success of their students and of the entire organization.

But a few years ago, when I moved out of the public schools into higher education and into the university culture, there was one difference I noticed pretty quickly. Maybe you have noticed, too. Have you noticed that the university tends to be a very ego-rich environment? No offense, but I’ve noticed that some folks who are drawn to and who make their careers in the academy seem to have, at some point, concluded that, after so many publications, after so many presentations and speeches, so many books, so many grant awards, so many smashing successes, that the world really must revolve around them, personally. They have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that it’s not about them.

Graduates, I admonish you today, don’t let this happen to you. Stay humble, stay focused on your goals and humbly accept the fact that you don’t know it all. Learn not to take yourself seriously, cherish the perspective of others, and always remember, it’s about the work, It’s Not About You.

Effective leaders approach their work with this realization deeply embedded in their souls. They understand that the best leaders are there to serve others, to serve their profession, and serve the knowledge base and contribute to the common good. They are there to serve the patient, the client, the student, the community, the mission and vision of the organization. They understand that it’s their job, not to seek and gain credit, but to make the world a better place.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” In other words, “It’s Not About You!”

Graduates, thank you for honoring me today, and for allowing me to share in your celebration and to talk to you about some of the leadership lessons I have learned. Now, despite what I just said, this next part of the ceremony actually IS about you, and that’s all good. Now, it’s time for you to walk across the stage and to formally recognize and confirm your accomplishments, or as Beyonce would say, “Put a ring on it.” But as you move forward from this day, into whatever paths lie before you, I hope you will remember that you are a leader, and that leaders “Do it Now,” leaders “Try Another Way,” and leaders understand, “It’s Not About You.”

Congratulations graduates! Go Blazers!