Westmont Magazine Crucibles That Shape Us
by President Gayle D. Beebe
Peter Drucker emphasized that an effective leader is not the one who wakes up in the morning and asks what they want to do. Instead, it’s the one who wakes up and asks what needs to be done. In the past 14 years, we’ve had lots of opportunity to wake up and ask what needs to be done. This year, that question has become especially poignant. As we moved deeper into fall semester, we continue to face unique challenges, enduring tensions, and wonderful opportunities that invited us to make our best effort.
Recently, I’ve begun teaching again, focusing this semester on our Presidential Fellows, who are part of our Augustinian Scholars program. One of the articles we’ve read focuses on the unique challenges we face that fundamentally test our character and our capacity to overcome adversity. Years ago, a book, “The Adversity Quotient,” attempted to amplify the importance of perseverance in overcoming setbacks. Another volume, “The Crucibles of Leadership,” followed closely and explored the different ways people respond to adversity while striving to fulfill their responsibilities as leaders. More recently, Nancy Koehn has written “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” which accents the remarkable and defining crises that galvanized the leadership of five extraordinary individuals: Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton, Frederick Douglass, Rachel Carson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Koehn deftly defines and articulates the crucibles of leadership each of these individuals faced.
The crucibles that shape us include crises that refine our character and call forth our best effort. Rarely, if ever, anticipated, they test our capacity to adapt and change and invite us to find new solutions to vexing problems to reach a successful and enduring outcome. As I reflect both on the individuals and events that have shaped me, I’m struck by seven defining crucibles: natural disaster, social conflict, personal choice, moral conscience, missed opportunities, enduring challenge, and moral compromise.
During my time at Westmont, we’ve faced the crucible of natural disaster with the Tea Fire, the Thomas Fire, the Montecito Debris Flow and the COVID-19 pandemic. In each case, these disasters created real and present dangers to our campus and generated an existential threat to our mission and survival. Our extensive disaster preparation played a key role in our ability to respond. But the biggest factor contributing to our success was the quality and competence of the Westmont people at every level and the grace and faithfulness of God. We simply got great performance from every sector of the college and felt the presence of God as we faced each circumstance and challenge.
Last spring, as the world shut down, the racial conversation and conflict opened up, and we experienced the crucible of social conflict. Born of long simmering tensions throughout our country, the conversation and conflict came to our campus. Festering realities arising from unfulfilled promises often set social conflicts in motion. As we’ve moved through the summer and opened campus this fall, we’ve had an opportunity to make real and constructive efforts to address issues of racial justice, equity and inclusion. We realize we have a long way to go, but we’re encouraged by the efforts underway that help us make a sustained response.
Sometimes we just make mistakes. At other times, plans simply fail to work out. Occasionally, we make choices that end up going terribly wrong. In the crucible of personal choice, acts of omission and acts of commission threaten our leadership. In circumstances like these, we’re tempted to play the “what if” game and create scenarios in which one altered decision leads to a completely different and positive outcome. But life is seldom—if ever—that easy. Daniel Kahneman writes poignantly about the natural human response of regret. It reflects the protective urge of every human to imagine we have more control over our circumstances than we actually do.
Our cultural moment has elevated the long arc of the civil rights movement that bends towards justice, an example of the crucible born of moral conscience. The recent death of The Honorable John Robert Lewis has reminded us of the epic journey so many embarked on in the last 70 years. Jon Meacham, in his book, “His Truth is Marching On,” writes beautifully of the essence of Lewis’s remarkable life by elevating his deeply held convictions that non-violent, civil disobedience was, “…not only a biblical imperative, but a transforming reality…” This commitment provided Lewis with the spiritual strength to endure personal hardship and corporate setback as he pursued the greater good of a free and equitable society.
We often look at our circumstances as fixed rather than fluid, which leads to the crucible of missed opportunities. If some of us tend to overestimate the benefits of pursuing a new direction and underestimate the consequences, most of us have just the opposite tendency, which often paralyzes and inhibits us. What helps us break free? At our most recent board meeting, we approved the purchase of the Westmont Downtown building. This physical presence in the downtown corridor just off of State Street arose from incremental innovation. Although pundits and gurus often encourage us to think outside the box, most of our best efforts produce real and lasting impact when we learn to envision new ways to pursue our work within the box. Innovation within the box led us to recognize that if we could create Westmont in San Francisco 332 miles away, we could start Westmont Downtown three miles from campus. Expanding our programs in Santa Barbara has placed us on the cusp of realizing some remarkable opportunities and breakthroughs in high-tech and healthcare.
Winston Churchill famously said, “…when you’re going through hell, keep going…” His comment illustrates the crucible of enduring challenge. Often effective leadership is enduring leadership. “How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions,” a 2020 book by Susan Eisenhower, especially highlights this quality of leadership. Noting the multiple setbacks Eisenhower faced and overcame throughout his military and political career, his granddaughter amplifies the personal qualities that allowed him to endure: “…the measure of a leader is more than the sum of his or her successful decisions… qualities of empathy and fairness…as well as…the willingness to be accountable are central to a leader.” Ike’s persevering spirit propelled him beyond the monumental challenges he faced and helped him rise above the circumstances of the moment to make lasting contributions that shaped the second half of the 20th century.
Often the most difficult circumstances are ones we didn’t create but still must respond to, such as the crucible of moral compromise. A key associate or even a close friend engages in behavior that’s questionable at best and utterly destructive at worst. Our first instinct may be to ignore the individual or the circumstance, hoping it will resolve itself over time. But bad news rarely gets better with time.
In each case, we develop a disposition to respond by cultivating deeper self-awareness and a willing-ness to self-correct. We need clarity of purposes, a vision that always exceeds the inconvenience, and a sound strategy to work well. But we also need to be surrounded by competent co-workers whom we respect. Purposeful implementation of key initiatives and plans is essential. Effective decision-making is key. Ultimately, a culture of integrity, care and respect promotes individual flourishing and allows us to make a contribution that can outlive us. Together, these sustaining values help us persevere and develop the moral courage it takes as we encounter the crucibles that shape us.