Vancouver School of Theology
Thank you, Richard, and good evening everyone!
I am honoured to be here tonight to deliver the G. Peter Kaye lecture. The topic I will be addressing is “Faith and Leadership in a time of crisis.”
The time of crisis is, of course, COVID-19, and it’s a crisis that the entire world has been grappling with for two years now. Though there are signs of hope on the horizon, the very fact that I am speaking to you remotely tonight shows that the crisis is still very much with us at present.
However, it’s not the only crisis we face. We are also confronting an environmental crisis that has the potential to be even more devastating than COVID-19. In addition, we are confronting the legacy and consequences of colonialism and racism. The discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, and continued incidents of race-based violence and injustice remind us that these too are crises that we need to address.
The question we face is: can faith help lead us through these multiple crises?
As a person of faith, and as the leader of a large, complex institution, I hope so and I believe so.
At times like these, the strength of leadership at both the micro and macro levels is suddenly revealed. When the ground is shifting so rapidly beneath our feet, it’s easy to lose our footing and focus. And so, we look to leaders to regain clarity and purpose. And we also look to our faith.
But if we look to our leaders, where do our leaders look to? That is where faith comes in.
It is my privilege and responsibility to be a leader. For the past five years, I have had the honour to serve as president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia. As I’m sure you know, UBC has two campuses — one in Vancouver and the other in Kelowna. More than that, it comprises 16 faculties, 18 schools and two colleges, 68,000 students from more than 160 countries, and 17,000 faculty and staff. Leading such a complex institution is demanding even in normal times; during a time of crisis, it is even more challenging. Yet, it is at such times that leadership is most important.
My own leadership philosophy is one called “servant leadership”, which was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1964, and refined by many others over the intervening decades.
Servant-leaders focus first on the growth and well-being of others. They aim to build strong communities and lead by influence, rather than power. They start from a position of humility and respect, and they strive to listen and serve with compassion and empathy.
In his 1970 essay on servant leadership, Greenleaf wrote:
The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Servant leadership certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make tough decisions or assert yourself. But when you approach people from a foundation of mutual respect, no one is left feeling disempowered or dehumanized.
And there is really no secret formula for servant leadership, but there are some important guiding principles: you have to support your teams … grow your people … listen well and often … build community, and … reflect and learn.
This approach can be extremely effective when you’re trying to turn a big ship and get everyone paddling in the same direction. And it can be applied broadly, from the frontlines to the C-suite.
So when the pandemic hit, we didn’t have to cast about for a new approach to managing: we simply returned to the lessons of servant leadership that have served us so well over the past few years.
Once again, we turned to our various communities, and listened carefully to their needs… their fears… and their desires and aspirations.
Servant leadership is very much in keeping with my faith. As Jesus says in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
As a university president, my focus on service is agnostic of denomination or faith. It’s really about my responsibility for others and focusing on them.
And so, it’s entirely consistent with my own faith that I can be supportive of all faith groups, and also of students, faculty and staff who are still searching or have decided that there is no room for faith in their lives. I still need to serve them, regardless of what their beliefs or interests might be.
At UBC, there are about two dozen student clubs that have a faith affiliation. I don’t focus so much on the similarities and distinctions of the particulars of different religions. I focus more on the fact that for individuals that do have a faith, it’s an important part of their identity. It’s an important part of their wellness.
For that reason, at a secular university like UBC, I can be supportive of very different kinds of people with different faiths and different beliefs, understanding that for each different group of people there are different ways that are necessary to support them and for their wellness.
I’d like to give a bit of insight into my own development as a leader and my faith journey, because neither came naturally to me.
My own faith journey is certainly not remarkable in any way, shape, or form. In many ways, it wasn’t meant to be. I think I owe it to God that I was able to find Jesus and that I was given the privilege of being a servant leader. I will tell you how that came about.
I was born here in Vancouver in 1962, some years after my father and mother had emigrated from Japan to North America. At the time, my father was a professor of Mathematics at UBC.
My mother and father were not believers and did not practise any religion. From kindergarten through 12th grade, despite growing up in predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant neighbourhoods, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore after leaving Vancouver as a toddler, I had very little concept of what happened in churches.
I walked past them going to school and later drove past them on the way to different places, but I didn’t really know what happened inside churches.
The only times we, as a family, would enter churches would be to listen to music. My father loves music, and we would go there on Christmas Eve, or to hear someone play in a church, just because that’s where the concert happened to be.
I didn’t think the pews were very comfortable, but I was curious about what actually happened on Sundays, and on evenings and afternoons. These churches were really nodes of activity, places where people built community.
In some ways, I was jealous of not being part of that mysterious activity happening in churches. But I thought that churches were community social clubs where people gathered on Sunday for coffee, and where my friends attended Boy Scouts group meetings.
My first introduction to God and Jesus occurred in my freshman year, as a student at the University of Chicago. With the sudden freedom of living far away from home, and with no parental guidance, I slipped into a trap that perhaps some of you did as well.
I partied hard and frequently drank too much on Friday nights and weekends. Indeed, I think that part of my binge drinking had to do with a deep dissatisfaction with my life deep inside my soul—maybe a lack of a reference point, a lack of a spiritual anchor. However, I didn’t know it at the time.
There was one particularly risky evening, when I had had far too much to drink, and was hanging from an open windowsill on the 5th floor of my residence hall, on a very cold night in Chicago.
I don’t remember much about that evening other than that two of my friends rescued me from the windowsill and helped me get into bed. It was a very difficult night and they stayed by my side the entire time to ensure that I made it through. I am sure that some of you have friends to whom you owe your lives.
These two friends were very active in church on campus and started to take me with them to church services. We went to Bond Chapel, a Catholic chapel, and to Rockefeller Church, the large church on the University of Chicago campus. They took me to Inter-Varsity groups, both large and small.
They also took me back home to their suburbs to attend their churches, to meet with their ministers and mingle with their home congregations. In particular, they took me to their families for some family love, because they thought that I was lost.
I remember feeling very special when I entered these churches. I felt chills down my spine as I knelt down to pray, not understanding what that meant. Although I had virtually no knowledge of the Bible, there was something about simply being in those churches that moved me as I had never been moved before.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, I made my way back to Canada to be a graduate student in Experimental Medicine at McGill University. My girlfriend from Chicago was meant to join me in Montreal but she never ended up doing so, and I quickly spiralled into a deep depression. I began drinking again, heavily, and had suicidal thoughts.
Fortunately, I encountered a fellow graduate student. She played the piano. I played the cello. The pianist’s name was Wendy Yip. Sometime later we would start dating, and eventually she became my wife.
Wendy took me to her church. I was a doubtful, smart aleck non-believer when I accompanied her to church, even though I had already these feelings, these chills down my back whenever I entered a church.
We would spend hours talking about why I had problems believing in God and Jesus. I had been educated as a scientist, to look for proof, and I could see no proof of the existence of God or Jesus.
After many conversations, and my attendance at a Sunday school with 11-year-old kids, I started to understand the concept of faith, and the persuasiveness of the Bible and the power of those who believed, as evidence that there must be a God.
A particular pastor worked with me and my faith emerged and grew stronger day by day. I’ll never forget the day I was baptized in Westmount Baptist Church, on a glorious, sunny Easter Day.
Although my attendance at church would be variable, I became an even more committed Christian once my first daughter was born.
There was a pivotal moment when I was a Senior Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs at Emory University in Atlanta. Emory was originally a Methodist university but is now a secular, multi-faith university.
I discussed the issue of faith with then-president of the university, Jim Wagner, and also with a professor that I admired greatly, Tom Flynn, a Catholic priest.
President Wagner was relatively open about his faith (he is a Presbyterian) but he reminded me that, as a senior administrator, it was important for me to respect and support staff, faculty, and students of every faith, as well as those who had decided not to believe.
Professor Flynn, on the other hand, was different. Although he was a Catholic priest, he was extremely discreet about letting people know about his faith. He encouraged me to hide my Christianity and to be, as he said, “a stealth Christian.”
After more than a year considering the possible options, I made a decision not to be a “stealth Christian.” In fact, I decided to immerse myself in supporting students of all faiths at Emory University. I continued this practice at the University of Cincinnati, and now at UBC.
Since moving to UBC, I have maintained my approach in supporting faculty, students, and staff in whatever faith they might practice, and regardless of whether they are believers or not. I also do not hide my Christianity.
For a large proportion of our campus community – whether faculty, staff, students, or alumni – faith plays an important role in their identity and their wellness.
And, therefore, it’s important for me to respect each of those faiths. It’s important for me to be supportive of their needs and to advocate for them with respect to their needs on a secular campus, to fulfill that part of their identity and their well-being.
I said earlier that becoming a leader was not a natural path for me either.
When I was growing up, I was the black sheep of the family. One of my two brothers was destined to be a mathematics professor and the other a concert pianist.
I was expected to become, at best, a businessman.
My family was very surprised when I actually graduated from the University of Chicago and received a PhD from McGill. They were even more surprised when I became a university professor first at John Hopkins, then Harvard and University College London.
I became an academic because of my natural curiosity and passion for science. That passion and curiosity led me to an academic career in medicine and biology.
As I progressed in my academic career, I also began to assume administrative and leadership responsibilities, first at Emory University and then at the University of Cincinnati and now at UBC.
I am privileged to be in this position at one of the world’s most outstanding universities, and I am humbled at where my path, and God, have led me.
There are multiple gifts that result from having a spiritual path. My own faith keeps me anchored and keeps me focused on why I use my efforts to help individuals in the university community and beyond. It is especially important at times of crisis, such as this.
As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
That phrase “with all your mind” invites us to welcome discourse and dialogue and difficult questions in our spiritual life.
Through questioning our faith, I believe we become stronger individuals. For me, a real gift of the spiritual path is you grow as an individual and your faith becomes stronger because you’re constantly asking yourself questions and perhaps sometimes doubting your decision.
This is really at the heart of what it means to innovate. How do we welcome innovation in our spiritual lives?
There are churches and congregations where there is active debate and sometimes tension between different members of the congregation or different parts of the congregation and the minister.
And some people don’t want to be in that kind of environment, but I believe that those are the strongest churches. We really come to believe when our faith is challenged and we work through inconsistencies or differences of opinion.
In the same way, the best universities are the ones where people have the freedom to voice different points of view, and to either change their mind or strengthen their belief based upon honest discourse. To explore the questions and mysteries of science and faith together. And to acknowledge the humility of what we don’t know.
In closing, I’d like to once more say how honoured I am to be here and how excited I am to share my faith with you. I think what I have learned in my journey is that God is everywhere, and that faith in God can lead us and strengthen us, not only at times of crisis but at all times.