‘You Don’t Have to Be a Rhodes Scholar to Say Thank You’

May 5, 2017

Part 2: A Q&A With Rush University Commencement speaker Christopher Howard

Community service, the power of social media and auto-correcting are among the topics explored in the finale of a two-part Q&A series with this year’s Rush University Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, Christopher Howard, DPhil, MBA, president of Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh.

Catch up on the series by reading Part 1, when Howard, a Rhodes Scholar and decorated military intelligence officer, shared his insight on leadership, making decisions under pressure and the importance of practice.

You have touched on this a couple of times during our talk: If you’re not self-aware, you have to autocorrect. Is that something you’ve always inherently had? Or did it develop through mentorship? That doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people.

You’re self-aware so that you can autocorrect. If you’re self-aware, you can make those changes necessary to be successful. It’s pretty painful to look at yourself in the mirror and see your flaws. I think many people would prefer to sugarcoat it and say, “Well, it wasn’t my fault, it was their fault.”

But if you’re a really good leader or you try to be a good leader, you’re self-aware — you’re really working hard to be your own worst critic, but in a way that allows you to live and fight another day. It’s not easy being self-aware. It’s not comfortable. And people generally want to be comfortable rather than uncomfortable.

In terms of how I got this way: I remember as a young pup watching film with my coach when I started playing Texas high school football, and he’d show us a block I was supposed to make. Coach would show it to you three, four, seven times, and you’re looking ridiculous — diving left, he’s going right, and you’re landing on your face.  I think they do it for a reason, so after eight, nine times you start thinking, “OK, I know.” Then you go into the game, and you find yourself in the same situation. Then you go, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen here. So why don’t I autocorrect so I can be successful?” That kind of hung with me.

There’s a guy named Dr. Ron Heifetz at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and he talks about leaders being participant observers – leaders on the balcony while they’re at the dance. So while you’re down on the floor dancing, you’re also on the balcony seeing yourself making the moves. For example, I had a meeting this morning with three of my leaders on campus. I’m in the meeting, but at the same time I’m hovering above the meeting and thinking, “How do these people perceive me?” At one point I thought I was talking too much, I was interrupting too much, and I had to stop myself. At another point, I had this person who wasn’t talking enough, so I had to draw that individual out. So I’m constantly doing that.

I can imagine for those who go into the health care profession, especially those who find themselves in a surgical ward, they can probably see themselves operating while they’re operating: If I use this technique for this suture, if I use this technique to eradicate the problem, I know I need to move a little bit to the right on this or the left on that, so I think there’s probably some corollaries for the medical profession because they have to see themselves and visualize.

Based on your work with the Impact Young Lives Foundation, giving back seems high on your priority list. At Rush, we are proud of our strong connection with the surrounding community. How important is it for students to gain volunteer experience helping those in need?

Like Rush, Robert Morris University takes the civic and community service piece very seriously. And why is that? Because you will be a better citizen, a better professional, a better human being by seeing and working with others. Especially with those who are in a worse position than you’re in.

And if you spend time with people who are in a worse situation than you’re in, it provides this sense of perspective. It provides a point of empathy. It makes you respect and appreciate the fragileness of the human condition. And if you do all those things, you’re just going to be a better person, a better creature.

What we do in the classroom is great, but as Mark Twain said, “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.” And I really believe that the education piece includes being out there helping people live decent lives and good lives. It forms who you are and lets you appreciate all that you have. Because there are a lot of people out there who don’t have that.

You are very active on social media, and your posts come across as very authentic – your personality shines through – and strategic at the same time. What advice do you have for leaders who still haven’t embraced social media?

Like with any communication, I always ask, “Who’s our audience? What are we trying to achieve?” And with social media, it’s very unique because it’s ubiquitous. It’s very easy to get yourself in trouble.

So some words to the wise: Have someone double-check before you send things out. If there’s any chance it’s going to do any harm, don’t push the send button. Also, make sure you’re keeping up with what social media is. A couple of years ago, it was all about Vine. Vine is gone now. So just understand that it’s an evolving medium.

With students, they use it so much that you can connect in a very, very deep way with a tweet or a post on Facebook or Instagram. I have people from our student body and young alumni come up to me and talk to me as if we are old friends, and I love that because social media has allowed a modicum of intimacy and authenticity that would have been hard to produce 20 years ago.

And finally I would say pay attention to analytics. You want to be aware of the likes and the views. It’s not all about that, but if you’re not aware of that and using that to your advantage to advance the mission of the university or your organization, that would be foolhardy. I’m not inundating our students with so much stuff, even on social media, that they get tired. You want to make it fresh and refreshing.

Also, it is at your peril if you’re doing things that are long-winded. If we’re going to do a video and it’s going to be more than 2 minutes and 58 seconds, we have to have a real, real long conversation about why we ever want to put something out that goes more than 3 minutes. Not even my sons will watch something with me that’s over five minutes. And they love me.

But the upside is great. I walked into a restaurant, and a Robert Morris alumna comes up to me and says, “Hey, Dr. Howard, I just love what’s going on at Robert Morris.” And she starts rattling off all these great things that are going on at Robert Morris that she’s gleaned from following me on Facebook and Twitter. That happens to me a lot.

What’s one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you first started school at the Air Force Academy?

Just how much upside there is to working hard and getting it right when you’re younger. My old roommate always said, “Chris, you’re still benefitting from being a really good cadet in 1987 to 1991.” You know, I kind of did things right. I studied hard. I worked hard in the military system to rise up through the ranks, to ultimately be a group commander and one of the top five military cadets. I worked hard in the classroom. I worked hard on the football field to have some success there. I got my sleep. I didn’t drink. I didn’t stay up super late. Really, I just sort of handled my business, and it put me in a great position when I left the Air Force Academy to get a Rhodes scholarship. And that success has continued, but I laid the foundation early.

I tell young people that they don’t have to be perfect. But it’s like savings — the earlier you start saving, the better off you’ll be and the more money you’re going to have in the long run. It’s like Einstein’s thoughts on the greatest mystery in the world being the time value of money, right? If you start today trying to do the right thing, the right way and for the right reasons, that will carry over and helps you out a long, long time.

Without giving too much away, what do you have planned for the commencement speech? What do you hope graduates will take away from your talk?

I’m sorry, I’m an old Air Force intelligence officer. That’s all top secret. All locked away in a safe, password-protected place. But I would just say that I will speak to some things that I think are universal around character and around service, and hopefully have them smiling at the very end. But I don’t want to go into any more detail. I don’t want any spoilers out there, so I’ll just leave it at that.

You’ve sprinkled in references to great thinkers like Einstein and Mark Twain during our talk. What’s your great quote going to be? What’s going to be the “Chris Howard said this” thought that people reference?

I would say it’s going to probably be around empathy. I mean, the ability to walk in somebody else’s shoes is a really powerful thing. I’m going to talk about empathy during the commencement speech. But the whole idea is the two things you can control are how hard you work and your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

What happens is if you have had a decent life like I’ve had and had some success, people start thinking you’re a NASA rocket scientist. They think you’re just the smartest person who ever lived. But actually it’s not really that — it’s trying to be decent and doing the right thing, which is more important than your IQ or whatever you hang on your wall.

I tell my kids all the time, “You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to say thank you.” Maybe that will be my quote.