January 5, 2020

Good evening. It is always fun to join colleagues and friends at the annual Credo Dinner. Thank you to Tom Gavic and his fine team for this evening and, even more, for your contributions to Alvernia and to many other schools represented here. And thank you, Tom and Credo, for this humbling honor. That this recognition is unexpected and comes after I have left the presidential stage makes it more meaningful.

It is a special joy to be introduced by Bill Craft who, along with Ann, has been a friend since we shared that long-ago, first Natty Bo at my Gettysburg apartment. Bill, beyond four decades of friendship, you are an inspirational advocate for the humanities and liberal learning. Along with several other presidents whom I admire, you champion ideals of private higher education dear to me: the values-based education of the whole person, the preparation of graduates for engaged citizenship, and the cultivation in our students and our communities of interfaith understanding and other forms of respectful, inclusive dialogue.

Though sadly not Jesuit trained, Bill nonetheless has modeled for me the Jesuit ideal of educating “men and women for and with others.” And Bill has also, to his everlasting regret, expanded my college basketball loyalties beyond my own alma maters, since his passionate worship of all things Carolina Blue . . . helped make me a Duke fan.   

Except for the newest presidents, who have many evenings like this ahead of you, those in this room have sat patiently if restlessly through countless award-dinner speeches with the requisite litany of thank yous for parents & partners, family & friends, co-workers & colleagues, teachers & mentors, benefactors & bosses. I recently attended a presidential retirement dinner at which this secular litany lasted 15 minutes, even without the ritual response of “Pray for Us.”  I trust that you will allow me simply to stipulate that I too have such a list and that you will be grateful that I spare you this ordeal. For I want to take my few minutes to reflect with you, less on what we do as leaders but on how and why we do it.

At past Credo dinners, I have rejoiced in the selection of deserving honorees like Mary Meehan and Kim Phipps, but I confess I have rolled my eyes a bit over the award’s descriptor of “courageous” leadership. Yes, effective presidents must take risky steps, make bold decisions, adopt unpopular positions. But considering such actions to be “courageous” seemed to elevate our work to heroic status.

Not surprisingly, having Tom Gavic inform me of this honor prompted a reassessment. I realized my scholarly work on the literature of modern war, focused on the experience of ordinary soldiers, had led me to define courage too narrowly as individual acts by individuals, sort of like the neighbor who unhesitantly runs into a burning house on a rescue mission. The unsung privates and sergeants so responsible for the success of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach, for example, exhibited this kind of courage under circumstances about which we can only marvel. There are—to be sure—in the actions of these mid-level officers, lessons to be learned under far less dramatic circumstances by those of us at the top of the collegiate leadership pyramid: spontaneous initiative, creative daring, embrace of daunting responsibility.

Yet courageous leadership, in a successful presidency, is less about isolated actions than about fidelity, during both crises and ordinary times alike, to habits of the heart and the soul as well as habits of the mind.  Courageous leadership is far from a one-off—a big idea or bold decision. It is found in always-faithful stewardship of institutional and personal core values, whether through brilliant innovation or painful cost-cutting. It requires passionate devotion to our people and to community-building, on and beyond the campus, as much as to positive results and favorable metrics. It requires fidelity to one’s vocation even more than to one’s career, whether in recommitting to leadership at our college or university or in behaving nobly when subject to petty meanness or unfair public criticism. For me, it also came to mean, if you forgive the cliché, “finding my voice” to speak out and write publicly on important, even contentious, issues.

Courageous leadership demands continuous self-reflection, but it is selfless and self-effacing never self-aggrandizing. It is about we not me. It requires humility and self-criticism alongside self-confidence. In fact, it depends on outlandish self-confidence, since it presupposes that we listen and ask questions more than pontificating and that we be genuinely receptive to better ideas and different solutions. Let’s be honest, colleagues: it takes little courage for Type A+ leaders to impose our vision and will on those around us. Modifying our leadership style to help a colleague be more successful; deflecting credit to others rather than basking in what might well be justified praise; embracing responsibility rather than shifting blame; planting seeds for others to cultivate--these are ways we all practice courageous leadership.

Let me close with three quite different examples. Twenty-five years ago, as an ambitious young provost, I recall feeling insufficiently appreciated when praise for two major initiatives I had led focused mostly on others. In contrast during my final years at Alvernia, I relished the fact that three phrases I had introduced early in my 14-year presidency—the distinctive “Alvernia Advantage,” the Franciscan vision of cultivating “knowledge joined with love,” and the challenge to our students “To Do Well and To Do Good”—had been adopted by most on campus as their own.

A far more prominent illustration: In a stunning reversal of papal practice, Pope Francis has welcomed criticism and uncomfortable disagreement as necessary and valuable. His refusal to shut down even harsh, unjust attacks on him has made his advocacy of mercy, compassion and open dialogue credible and compelling. Finally, just last week, after setting two all-time NFL quarterback records, Drew Brees avoided interviews but instead took time to send autographed gifts and personal thank you letters to over 170 individuals who had supported and shared in his accomplishments. 

My own thank you list is far shorter than that of a future hall of famer, but I am grateful tonight to personal and professional mentors, to several fellow presidents (including some here tonight) and to key campus and trustee leaders—whose companionship on my journey was indispensable—and to family and close friends who were my rock in the worst as well as the best of times.

Courageous leadership is rewarding, as we know, but it is never easy. It reminds us poignantly that virtue is always fleeting and that imperfection is ever-present. I will date myself by asking you to recall the words of that great American philosopher, Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman: “To Err is Human, But Why Must You Be So Human.”

Tonight, however, join me in choosing instead to recall those moments when each of us has been at our best as our best selves.  And join me in celebrating that the private college presidency is a privilege and a rare opportunity for us, like our graduates, “To Do Well and To Do Good!”

Thank you.

Tom Flynn
President Emeritus, Alvernia University
Senior Fellow, ACCU & AGB