Strengths | Webster University


Global MBA Commencement
Vienna, Austria
June 2010

In more conventional commencements held at universities in the states—these ceremonies take place at the home campus of the institution where students have undertaken their studies,  and the keynote address is provided by  an invited dignitary (elected official or public figure, accomplished scholar, author)  providing wisdom from long  established experience, illustrated by anecdotes and notable quotations.

BUT—here we are in Vienna, celebrating a traveling cohort of students from a truly international institution housed far away in St. Louis, Missouri, and as your speaker, I have in many ways made the same learning journey you have this past year—

Started July 1—just one year ago

--helped to send you off from St. Louis last summer

--saw you when you were in London at the same time I was visiting Regent’s College

--was in China (although in Shanghai and Beijing) when you were there at Chengdu

And as I recall our conversation in St. Louis so many months ago—I remember speaking with great affection of Vienna and how my memories of Vienna are attached to the people with whom I shared earlier visits—and now I am glad to be here to create another Vienna memory with you.

You have completed this exceptional degree—and I feel fortunate to have completed my first year as president at Webster—the institution that is proud to claim you as our own—and to be able to confer you today with the Global MBA degree on behalf of a remarkable institution’s faculty.


Now if you had completed your degree this spring at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, you would have heard author John Grisham speak about “finding your voice.”

Middlebury College hosted husband and wife team NYT Columnist Nicholas Kristof and author Sheryl WuDunn, who advised graduates to focus on helping people one at a time, while Dartmouth speaker Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the UN, urged the class of 2010 to adopt a sense of global citizenship¸”of caring about the injustice in this world, and doing something, however modest, to bring an end to it.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s message for graduates from the University of South Carolina affirmed “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” 

All good and important messages.

And when broadcaster Ann Curry was in Massachusetts this spring, she cited several noted alumni to encourage the Wheaton College grads; regrettably, all but one of the alums she highlighted, actually graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois.

We’ll at least hope to have our geography right today!

As a student and teacher of English, I have always enjoyed figures of speech and literary devices.  During my Webster Commencement Tour 2010, providing remarks or addresses at several Webster campuses in the past year, I have used stories, metaphors, and analogies as my starting points.

Today seems ripe for paradox.

You no doubt are familiar with several—

The child is the father of the man.

The first shall be the last.

Orwell’s Animal Farm commandment: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

And one I’m sure you can complete,

Less is ____________ (more).

Or how about this first sentence from Jim Collins” bestseller—

“Good is the enemy of _____________ .”

The paradox I have been exploring this year is one we at Webster shared with you last summer—the notion that we each, as individuals, as leaders, as members of communities and organizations—will become most effective when we focus on our strengths rather than focusing on our faults and failings. 

Of course, this is not to say that weaknesses do not deserve study—the point is--that doing so will not help us know our own strengths and the patterns that characterize them so we can refine, apply, and optimize what makes each of us unique and at the same time capitalize on the differences of those with whom we work.  

Conventional wisdom, as lived out in most of our growing up and schooling, instead centers our attention on correcting errors, overcoming deficiencies, and gaining understanding of our health, our relationships, and our world by analyzing what doesn’t work as the basis for effecting what will work.

Paradoxically, strengths psychology, based on over 30 years of research and interviews with over 2 million people makes these 2 assumptions about us and the organizations we lead:

“Each person’s talents are enduring and unique.

Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.”  (p. 8 of Buckingham & Clifton’s Now, Discover Your Strengths)

Last summer, you and many of us at Webster completed the online Strengths Assessment based on Clifton and Buckingham’s work.  What we gained were 5 top themes to describe our individual human talents, and what we also know are the clusters of talents within our groups. 

Do you recall your top 5 themes?  And did you find those compelling? 

At The University of Akron and again at Webster, the members of the teams I have led have assessed their strengths.  In almost all cases, individuals find the themes descriptive of themselves when they are performing their best—when they are so in the flow of work/play that sense of time passed vanishes from consciousness.   And so it is with me—

My 5 individual strengths are: learner, focus, strategic, achiever, and communication—first assessed several years ago.  People who know me best would testify that I am happiest when I am learning new content, skills, people, roles, institutions, communities—it’s why I relished the thought of joining Webster University this past year and have so thoroughly embraced the process of learning what it means to be  president of Webster—an American institution with a global mission. 

That’s why I have traveled to 15 Webster campuses this first year.  And it is that combination of focus and strategic that has defined my leadership through the development of initiatives and partnerships that build on an institution’s strengths and the unique contributions an institution makes to the communities it serves. 

We have just begun to undertake that work at Webster, based on assessing our institutional strengths—it’s all part of the learning that Webster and I need to do.  And as one who is energized by bringing ideas to life through putting them in words, I have a love of story that prompted our My Webster Story website to gather the stories of Webster—many of yours are there for us and for generations to come. 

As soon as we have synthesized those stories and data to develop the defining Webster story for our future, I look forward to finding the most compelling ways to tell the Webster story as a source of inspiration for prospective students, alumni, employers, donors, and partners as well as our current faculty, staff, and students. Because while I individually am driven to achieve, it is the achievement of the university that I serve that is most important to me. 

What can we say about Webster’s leadership team and their strengths?

It’s encouraging to me that not only is learner a top strength for me, but it’s also a strength for 10 members of the Webster leadership team of vice presidents and deans.   Seems a good fit for those of us leading a learning organization.   We also cluster around strengths such as arranger, input, maximizer and relator.

As the leader of this organization, I have worked in two ways to optimize our strengths.  One is to partner in leadership with colleagues to use our individual and collective strengths for Webster’s benefit.  Two of these involve fellow learner Dean Akande:

 Dr. Akande and I are developing the prototype of a leadership academy that will help to develop skills of all of us to lead from where we are in the Webster organization—it’s a tangible investment of Webster in the people of Webster for the strengthening of Webster.  During the coming year, we will convene a small group of colleagues who will develop the curriculum that will enable us to recruit the first class of Leadership Academy participants in Fall 2011.

When Dr. Akande and Dean Debra Carpenter of the School of Communications hosted St. Louis native Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter on the St. Louis campus in the fall of 2009, I became a quick adopter, fan, and fellow tweep.  From that time, Webster’s use of social media—for creating more transparency, immediacy, and inclusiveness for our leadership and for more fully engaging the world of Webster—has mushroomed.  And my sense is that you and we have not seen anything yet.

In addition to investing in my own strengths and  helping members of the leadership team play to their strengths, we are also working purposefully at Webster to add to the depth and breadth of our strengths reservoir.  In this year, we have added individuals to the Webster team who bring new talents that enhance our ability to accomplish a bold vision and mission. 

In our Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, we have added someone who is deliberative in ways that help us identify and manage risks.  Our AVP for Human Resources strengthens our arranger and relator talents, and we anxiously await the data from the strengths assessment for our new provost, an individual who, if our intuitions and emotional intelligence are right, will serve as a complement to me and to other members of the team.

Because, we at Webster are attempting to put our strengths to work, adopting these three maxims:




And as we develop a well-rounded team composed of top-performing individuals with singular clusters of strengths, we’ll work to maximize our team’s ability to lead and strive to understand and meet team members’ needs. (See Strengths Based Leadership, Rath and Conche, pp. 2-3).

But what about you?  How have you invested in your individual strengths this year, and have you developed a sense of the kinds of team members you’ll need to recruit to complement and strengthen the teams you’ll lead?

If we go by the numbers, this class of Globals has 4 predominant strengths:

Relators—people who nurture deep, longlasting friendships

Activators-people impatient for action

Futuristic—those with a vision for what could be

Harmony—individuals who seek to establish common ground.

Do those seem more credible to you now than they first did last summer?

Have you had opportunity to see these in action as you have traveled the globe this year?  Have you made the most of your patterns of thinking, acting, speaking so that your contribution to the global class has furthered the class goals?  And if you have strengths other than those 4, have you sensed their usefulness in bringing balance to this class?

Using the words of the Webster University mission statement, have you been transformed to achieve individual excellence—your own array of strengths—and at the same time developed a sense of yourself as a citizen of the globe—within this class of Globals and within the world you have inhabited these past 11 months?

The two concepts (individualism and community) are connected, and that realization is what ultimately resolves the paradox of strengths work and the duality of the Webster mission—that we must simultaneously value our own and each other’s uniqueness and see that as a strength of community. 

One cannot effectively exist without the other.  Our families, our friendship groups, our teams, our neighborhoods, our communities, indeed this university, and our world—are strongest when we are most diverse.  And individually we will most thrive when we depend upon others to complement and enhance our own uniqueness in ways that free us to be our very best individual selves.

As I enter Year 2 of my Webster presidency, I realize I still have much to learn¬¬. While I have visited 15 Webster campuses, there are still 84 to go—and that assumes no repeat visits!  And there are many more individuals to tap and learn from—students, employees, partners, alums, and on and on.  I have only just begun to use my own learning strengths to further communicate Webster’s focus and strategy that will help Webster achieve in ways that define the future for another 100 years as we approach our centennial in 2015.

And what will we see from you—how will this year define your future development?  I trust in positive ways, but if you didn’t quite achieve the positive approach yet, don’t worry.  It’s not too late, and we at Webster—in St. Louis, in Vienna, and around the globe, are counting on you—for global citizenship and individual excellence. 

My best wishes to you individually and collectively.

We are important as individuals—the diversity of our talents is the source of our individual excellence.  And we are important as members of communities—our commitment to strengthening our own unique talents and those of the diverse others with which we share our world.