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The Women's Center 27th Annual Leadership Conference: "The Power of Purpose"

Teresa A. Sullivan

First of all, thank you for that introduction, thank you for recognizing me today with your Leadership Award, and thank you for what you do in the Washington area to help women lead more vital and fulfilled lives.  You have assembled an exciting program today with an amazing audience.

Your topic, “The Power of Purpose,” is important for leaders.  My favorite story about the power of purpose happened in a medieval city in France.  An observer saw three stonecutter apprentices pulling hand-carts filled with cut stones.  The observer said to the first apprentice, “What are you doing?”  The apprentice said, “I am dragging these stones from here to over there.”  “What are you doing?” the observer asked the second apprentice.  The second apprentice said, “I am learning to build a wall.”  The observer asked the third apprentice the same question, and the third apprentice said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Later in the day, when the sun got hot and the stones got heavy, something tells me it was more motivating for the third apprentice to think that his purpose was to build a cathedral.

Here is another story, this one from Charlottesville.  On the morning of January 21, at about 5 a.m., a truck from County Waste was driving down Wertland Street, picking up the trash, when the workers on the truck saw that the porch at 1256 Wertland was on fire.  This was a wooden frame house that was home to thirteen of our UVA students.  The waste disposal workers are taught to be quiet so as not to awaken customers when their trash is collected, but this truck driver did something that they never do: he leaned on his air horn, and at the same time called 911.  His partner also did something that workers at his company never do: he picked up stones and threw them at the second-floor windows to awaken the sleeping residents.  Two of the students were awakened by the stones, and instead of saving themselves immediately, they went from room to room to wake up their housemates.  When the first responder, an officer from the UVA police force, arrived, the house was engulfed in flames and 11 of the students were outside.  Heedless of the risk, the officer went into the burning building to look for the remaining two students.  Meanwhile, the 11 housemates realized that the two who were missing had spent the night elsewhere.  The Charlottesville Fire Department called in two alarms and saved the adjacent houses, but the house at 1256 was a total loss, and the students lost everything they were not wearing.  But they were alive. 

The workers for County Waste might have said that their purpose was to collect the trash, but their larger purpose was to make life better for their community, and when they saw the fire, they responded to that larger purpose even though it required improvisation and creativity. 

Your general theme today is the “power of purpose.”  Wherever YOU are a leader, you can generate the power of purpose by thinking through three things: What is your purpose? What are your values? How can you achieve your purpose while honoring your values?

Suppose we apply these three questions to my organization, the University of Virginia.  While this is not our formal mission statement, a good paraphrase of our purpose might be this:

The purpose of the University of Virginia is to develop the next generation of leaders for the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world, by providing them with structured and unstructured opportunities for learning the knowledge and wisdom of the past while acquiring the skills of discovery for the future. 

What are the values we emphasize?  Leadership is a value, and implied in the statement itself.  To achieve the right sort of leadership, we value honor, ethics, and initiative, which are individual characteristics of leaders.  We value self-governance by the students, because we are also developing a community of leaders. Diversity is a value, because the Commonwealth, the nation, and certainly the world contain diverse people, languages, and ideas, and being a leader requires finding common ground – but first you must understand the differences among the people you are leading.

We value both knowledge and wisdom, and we understand that they can be acquired through the formal structure of the curriculum but also in the less structured environments of the laboratory, the library, the seminar, and student-led organizations.  Knowledge can be acquired in many ways, including reading and on-line interaction, but we believe that our residential setting adds value by immersing students in an environment of learning. 

We value skills, especially the skills that contribute to new knowledge, new ideas, new technology, and new forms of organization.  These are, not coincidentally, the skills that will be needed in any economy, but especially in an economy that is changing rapidly. 

Achieving our purpose while honoring our values is straightforward, because our purpose and values are so closely intertwined. 

Or let’s consider another organization, the Girl Scouts of the USA.  On Tuesday, March 12, the Girl Scouts will celebrate their 101st birthday.  The Girl Scout mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.  We could consider the purpose of the Girl Scouts to be to help girls develop into mature, successful women in an atmosphere that encourages fun, friendship, and learning new skills.  The Girl Scouts state their values in the Girl Scout law, and it says that they value  honesty, fairness, friendship, helpfulness, consideration, caring, courage, responsibility, respect, and being good stewards of resources.  The chances are good that many of you in the room are Girl Scout alumnae or perhaps active as volunteers; there are 59 million such women in the United States. 

In its 2012 Annual Report, the Girl Scouts presented results of a survey of 13-to-17 year old girls which showed that girls believe that while women can rise up in a company or organization, they will only rarely make it to the very top.  Nearly 40% of girls say that they have been put down, usually by peers and classmates, when they’ve tried to lead. (GSUSA Annual Report,, p. 9).  Girl Scouting has a good track record of countering these negative beliefs and experiences, and giving girls an experience of successful leadership.  I can lead the University of Virginia today because I first learned to lead as a Girl Scout.  My first lesson in leadership, as a patrol leader, was the old Girl Scout maxim: a good patrol leader puts her patrol ahead of herself, and her troop ahead of her patrol.  Today we might describe that as servant leadership, and it is a reminder that leadership is a service we offer those around us.

Another thing I learned as a Girl Scout was that the motto, “Be Prepared,” had many practical applications.  As a Girl Scout, I learned first aid and I also learned safety in a whole array of situations, including boating, camping, and traveling.  I have, from time to time, had to draw upon this knowledge.  You hope that these skills won’t be needed, but it is a source of confidence to know that, if necessary, you could give CPR or recover from a canoe tipping over.  Learning about safety teaches you to think ahead, and to link cause to effect.  When you build a campfire safely, you are thinking ahead to preventing an uncontrolled fire.  A key role of the best leaders is prevention of problems – the problem that doesn’t explode because of early identification and action. 

The University of Virginia has changed a lot in the nearly two hundred years since Mr. Jefferson’s day, when the medical curriculum took only two years to complete because we knew so little! And the Girl Scouts have changed a lot since I learned to set a table and to make a bed with square corners.  Today a Scout can earn badges in financial literacy and netiquette.  Our organizations can change with the times, and still change neither their purpose nor their values.

It startles and saddens me that so many teenaged girls are pessimistic about the opportunities for women to lead.   I think this pessimism could persist because our definitions of leadership are too constricted.

When we speak of leadership, many of us mean heroic leaders – leaders who step up in a crisis, and often through sheer force of personality, manage to save the situation.  Who is part of their team may be forgotten, or may it even be quite secondary, because it is so clear that it was the hero who won the day.  There is much to admire in the heroic leader.  This is a leader who is single-minded in resolving the crisis, sometimes at great personal risk to reputation or even life itself.  Think of George Washington in the Revolutionary War: it is not clear that anyone else could have led the ragtag, starving, and miserable Continental army to the improbable victory over the world’s undisputed military superpower, the British.  On the other hand, it is easy for many us to exclude ourselves from the ranks of leaders if this is the only model of leadership we carry in our heads.  And it might be that some of the teenagers who are pessimistic about women leaders are really pessimistic about women succeeding as heroic leaders.

But heroism is not the only way to be a leader.  There are also what I call the sustainable leaders, who build value for the long haul and who put in place the systems, organization, and culture in an organization to ensure its long-run success.  Sustainable leaders are more likely to think in terms of an entire team – who constitutes the team, what kind of training each member gets, which members of the team could take on more responsibility, and how the team can continue to function if one or more members leave.  Sustainable leaders build a system.  While charismatic heroes may still appear, the sustainable leader tries to build so that the entire organization does not rely on the personality of an individual. 

Although his heroic leadership is perhaps more glamorous, George Washington was also a sustainable leader.  He turned down the opportunity to be king and also the opportunity to be president for life, realizing that a peaceful transition of power would help create stability in the new republic. His refusal to be a permanent executive was a decision about succession management, knowing that the generation of the Founders would pass away and there would need to be new leaders from the next generation. 

As the example of George Washington shows, these two types of leadership are not meant to be mutually exclusive.  The hero may well be able to create sustainable systems once the crisis has passed, and the sustainable leader may well be able to deal with crises as they arise.  The two types of leaderships are also not necessarily gendered, although the heroic leader may more often be male, and the association of heroic leadership with “real” leadership may reinforce the stereotype that women cannot lead as successfully as men.

Both types of leadership have their dangers.  The sustainable leader may fade into the woodwork because teams work well, and such a leader may be overlooked or even assumed not to be leading.  The danger for the heroic leader is that there can be a kind of addiction to crisis, and if there is no crisis, the hero might go forth to create one, to get the adrenalin charge that comes from saving the day once more.   The comic book superheroes have a never-ending parade of crises to handle, so creating one never becomes an issue for them.  For real-life leaders, it can be a temptation.

The point I would make to a young person – whether a student at my University or a Girl Scout – would be that leadership is multi-faceted and not the prerogative of a single personality type or of a specific background. 

My goal for the University of Virginia is to develop a culture of leadership among all of us who work there – first, because that is how we can best help our students become leaders, and second, because that is how we can best improve the University.  Every employee brings a unique perspective to how a particular job is done or how a particular unit functions.  Empowering employees to lead can be threatening.  Last fall, a nurse in our hospital stopped an operation because a surgeon had not completed the proper safety checklist before a procedure began.  Some people thought that a nurse shouldn’t tell a doctor what to do – but a patient’s safety was at stake, and patient safety is a high value for us.  The surgeon was suspended for a few days, and every nurse learned a leadership lesson.  The power of purpose was at work, because our hospital’s purpose is to heal and teach, and patient safety is the cornerstone of our clinical care. 

Every day I get up and know that I am following the purpose of building the next generation.  There are days when it feels as if I am just moving the rocks from one place to another.  And there are days when it feels as if I am only running into walls, not building them.  But most days I understand that my job is to remind everyone on Grounds of our larger purpose and to empower them to accomplish it.