Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Celebrating Milestones: the Dynamic of Leadership and Community Service"


Thank you for inviting me to share in this celebratory evening. I am very glad to be here. I want to start by congratulating Leadership Bloomington Monroe County on 25 years of service, and I bring my husband Michael’s congratulations as well. It’s inspiring to consider the impact LBMC’s nearly 700 graduates have had on this community over the last quarter century. Talk about a virtuous cycle and a great town/gown collaboration!

Michael also joins me in congratulating each of this evening’s graduates. You epitomize the spirit of lifelong learning and giving back. The projects you undertook—everything from an alternative transportation task force to increasing awareness of the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District—are clear evidence of that! And you demonstrated your leadership abilities by seizing an opportunity and making the most of it. In the process, you further developed one of the essential characteristics of strong leaders: the ability to articulate a vision and then implement it.

A Personal Perspective on Cultivating Leadership Skills

I have to add that in addition to admiring all of you for taking on the challenges of this course and balancing it with your many other obligations, I envy you for being able to delve into such a great learning experience. I have been interested in leadership since early in my career, sparked when I moved into my first management position and sustained by being in a field—information technology—that in its early adoption days depended on visionary leadership to get groups of stakeholders invested in something they didn’t completely understand. In the mid-90s I was also very fortunate to be able to participate in a four-week institute for women in higher education administration, and there I was exposed to my first serious experience in leadership studies. I went on to teach in the Leadership Institute of EDUCAUSE, the national consortium for IT in higher education. I held the title of “faculty” and the participants were the “students,” but we were really all one group, engaged together in exploring and discussing our ideas. I’m sure you’re all feeling a little bittersweet, knowing that this unique experience is ending but also reveling in having been part of such a wonderful community of learners.

Role Models

Experiences like Leadership Bloomington are, of course, central to your development as leaders. But throughout our lifetimes, I think role models play an even more essential part of fostering excellence in leadership. As Hoosiers, you can draw from a vibrant lineage of leaders in a wide variety of fields. That lineage includes great statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln, Richard Lugar, Birch and Evan Bayh, and Lee Hamilton. It includes union advocate and presidential candidate Eugene Debs. It includes entrepreneurs like Eli Lilly and Madame C.J. Walker. It also includes individuals who have shaped the media and influenced how we see the world—Ernie Pyle, David Letterman, and Jane Pauley. Then there are artists like Twyla Tharp, Robert Indiana, and Wes Montgomery, authors and songwriters like Kurt Vonnegut, James Whitcomb Riley, Theodore Dreiser, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael. And that’s only a short sampling of the long list of Hoosier leaders. Each of them inspires by their accomplishments, character, and life story.

And role models matter! They define the characteristics of good leadership and good citizenship, help us see our future, our better selves, and they give us an identity to aspire to. I am sure we can all point out strong role models who have helped determine who we are today. I can think of several of my own, including the many exceptional first ladies who have served IU before me—from our first first lady Margaret Ritchey Wylie to Jesse Jordan and Charlotte Lowe Bryan, to the more recent first ladies that I am honored to call my friends today. I have learned and will continue to learn a great deal from them.

I have also learned to take inspiration from those whose opinions and actions I might not agree with, but whose focus, determination, persuasive argument, and tactical brilliance form a textbook for good leadership. This is particularly important to me as a woman, given how relatively few female role models there are. As an example, I might have taken exception to some of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, but I am in awe of her leadership abilities. We should learn from anyone we can, within the bounds of basic human values and human progress.

But it is my mother who serves as my most influential role model. Almost fifty years ago, she was only the second woman to run for and serve on the Ann Arbor City Council. She was the first woman to run for mayor in 1965. And after she was widowed suddenly later that same year, she went back to school, earned her Master’s degree, and went to work as a senior aide to the President of the University of Michigan, all the while raising me and my three siblings and engaging in numerous community projects and organizations. I admired all this even as a teenager (although I probably didn’t tell her that), but of course now I realize just how fortunate I was to have been raised by a woman who understands that part of being a good mother is to show her daughters, and her son, how to lead.

It was my own mother’s example that helped me understand that even one person, acting in the interests of others, can make a difference. It is a deeply empowering act to give and to be able to give, whether it’s of your time, your money, or your attention. And as the mother myself of four daughters and two sons, I am also highly motivated to pass these lessons along to them, which are crystallized by a statement attributed (but probably wrongly) to Winston Churchill, “we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Theories of Leadership

I have another personal connection to the study of leadership, particularly political leadership. My uncle, James McGregor Burns, is one of the pioneers of the field of leadership studies. He is the founder of the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland-College Park that bears his name, and the author of numerous books about leadership, from his Pulitzer- and National-Book-Award-winning biography of FDR, to his classic work, simply titled Leadership. It was in this book that he formulated his foundational theories in transactional and transformational leadership. And he’s still writing, at age 90!

My uncle is first and foremost an historian, and was greatly influential in my decision to major in history in college (and for a time, to pursue graduate work in history until I was seduced by computers. . . ). Uncle Jim helped make history come alive for me, to understand it not just as the march of human events but the development of human values, to see historical figures as real people, struggling with the adversities and challenges of their own times, just as we do in ours. I remember one visit to his house when I was in high school, when Anna Halsted, FDR’s daughter, was a dinner guest. And when I was in college, Jim brought me along with him as his temporary research assistant when he was visiting the Henry Ford Museum archives in Dearborn, Michigan, which hold numerous documents on labor history. It was a transforming experience to hold in my hand an original letter from Nicola Sacco, written from jail, futilely pleading his innocence.

My uncle’s mentorship and my own experiences helped me to more fully understand the nature of the work involved in leading people, in guiding and inspiring others to face and surmount challenges. To paraphrase my uncle, “lifting people into their better selves is the secret of transformational leadership.”

Jim Burns, in fact, developed the concept of transformational leadership, building on the idea of transactional leadership described first by Max Weber in 1947. Transactional leadership is based on the hypothesis that followers are motivated through a system of rewards and punishments. In the 1970s, Jim introduced a different model of leadership in which “leaders and followers make agreements with each other to advance to a higher level of morality and motivation.”

He describes the transformational leadership style as one that creates significant change in the lives of people and organizations. It redesigns perceptions and values. It changes the expectations and aspirations of employees. Unlike the transactional style, it is not based on a “give and take” relationship but on the leader’s personality, his or her values, character traits, and ability to motivate change through personal vision and goals.

I had the privilege of introducing my uncle this past March during a conference at the Randall Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence in Indianapolis. The Tobias Center focuses on both the practice and theory of leadership in all sectors, regionally, nationally, and internationally. It is a marvelous resource, one I would encourage you to explore.

In his remarks at the event, Jim talked about leadership in a rather different way, which is to think of it as “followership.” This refers to a leadership style that is principally concerned with the motivations and aspirations of those who follow, because true transformational leadership comes from the chemistry that exists between the leader and the led. The “followership” concept of leadership seeks to inspire broad participation, particularly relevant in the wake of a presidential election, where despite its historic nature nearly one-quarter of the eligible electorate did not show up at the polls. For sustainable change to occur, those that follow must feel invested in the success of the enterprise over the long term, whether it be a company, a church, a university, a community, or a nation, and in turn, a good leader must be invested in ensuring that his or her followers are inspired to be part of that forward movement.

Leadership Lessons Learned

Each of you here tonight have no doubt learned much about leadership through your own work and from your experience in Leadership Bloomington. I would like to share with you some of the lessons I have learned about leadership.

1) Motivations for Leadership: The first of these is the importance of understanding your own motivations for leading and being passionate about the causes you embrace. As Eleanor Roosevelt so aptly put it, “work is easier to carry out if your heart is involved.” I know you all had individual motivations for enrolling in Leadership Bloomington. Some of you wanted to explore volunteer opportunities. Maybe you wanted to expand your network of contacts. For some of you, the impetus was professional development. For others who’ve recently relocated to Bloomington, Leadership Bloomington Monroe County presented a way to get to know Bloomington from a unique perspective.

I can appreciate all those motivations. When I arrived in Bloomington I knew that finding a local cause was a good way to put down roots. I soon discovered that among other worthy organizations, Bloomington is home to a national model program addressing domestic violence, one of only six in the country. Middle Way House is successful because of its comprehensive approach to helping women find meaningful alternatives to living with violence. Not just emergency shelter, rape crisis support, legal advocacy, and emotional support, but also transitional (2-year) housing and child care while mothers find work or educational opportunities, numerous training partnerships with first responders and law enforcement so that everyone understands what victims need in the aftermath of violence, and jobs. Middle Way runs two social enterprises, one a catering business and the other a document shredding business, that employ women who in some cases have never worked before. These businesses give women much-needed job skills but even more importantly, much-needed confidence in their ability to support themselves and their children.

The outcome statistics are astonishing—in the last 3 years, between 2% and 12% of Middle Way clients returned to their abusers. This contrasts with a national rate of 55-70%.

Now, I didn’t arrive in Bloomington with a particular passion for fighting domestic violence, despite being fundamentally concerned about DV as a social issue and having been very supportive of the program in Ann Arbor.

But something happened to me when I met the Middle Way House staff and learned about the organization. The sheer force of their commitment to helping women take their first, then second, then third and many more steps toward independence, coupled with what I learned about this highly innovative, visionary organization led to a moment of real insight, of realizing that we cannot have a civil society if violence against women—and their children—exists.

I am acutely conscious of my good fortune in having experienced directly and indirectly the blessings of stable, healthy relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. I know just how essential this experience is to my own sense of optimism and confidence in the world around me, to my ability to learn and grow, to my basic ability to be a successful, productive member of society. If communities are to thrive, there must be strong institutions and strong families. And for those institutions and families to thrive, they must be built on strong individuals. We need everyone to have the freedom to live up to her, and his, potential.

We are so lucky to live in a community with so many great organizations to get involved with, and discover our own individual passions, and they will energize and inspire us to lead.

2) Resilience and the Vital Role of Failure: My second insight is that good leaders are resilient, and they embrace the lessons of failure. Inherent in this is being willing to take risks for something critically important, surely one of the key characteristics of good leadership. And of course, risk-taking means accepting that things might not pan out. One of our greatest Hoosier leaders, Abraham Lincoln, was himself a great proponent of this philosophy, and in fact could rightly be described as great failure. In 1832 he ran for the Illinois State Legislature and lost. He applied to law school and was rejected. In 1834, he ran for the Illinois State Legislature again and won, but in 1836, he sought to become Speaker of the House for that body and was defeated. In 1843, he ran for U.S. Congress and lost. In 1846, he ran again and won, only to be defeated in 1848. In 1854, he ran for the Senate and lost. Two years later, he sought the vice presidential nomination of his party and received less than 100 votes. This was four years before he was elected president of the United States and then re-elected in 1864. One of our nation’s foremost statesmen, he once said, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” He was never content, nor should we be. In my case, my first stint as an executive didn’t end well, but despite the disappointment I knew that I had learned more from what had gone wrong than I’d learned from all the little successes that got me to that corner office in the first place. It’s counter-intuitive, that failure breeds confidence, but if the failures become learning experiences they build our resilience for dealing with the inevitable next one.

Another great statesman, Winston Churchill, put it this way: “Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” And that is one of the most potent secrets of transformative leadership: using your failures to fuel your continuing enthusiasm for leadership.

3) Nurturing the Next Generation of Leaders: My third lesson has to do with being a role model for the next generation of leaders. I want to quote my uncle again, who defines leadership as “...the mobilization of activists who in turn mobilize followers who then become future leaders.” As leaders, we have the obligation not just to empathize with others, help clarify their needs and intentions, take risks as part of the shared agenda, and do all we can to promote the growth and autonomy of those we lead and serve. We also have to ensure that the achievements we’ve helped realize, the changes we’ve sponsored, and values we treasure, are sustained. The best legacy of our own leadership is the inspiration we leave for those who come after us.

Leadership development is one of the great human resources challenges of the corporate world, and of civic life as well. One of the giants of corporate leadership, Jack Welch of GE, was always thinking about who would succeed him. He looked for individuals with the ability to articulate a vision, instill confidence, harness the energy of change, and set goals that express shared values. And he systematically cultivated and challenged them. He believed that “before you are a leader success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader success is all about growing others.” Jeff Imelt, Welch’s successor, came up through this system, emerging from an elite group of managers as its next CEO. And he is continuing Welch’s system.


I have no doubt that as graduates of this stellar program you have learned all these lessons and more. I will leave you with some final words from Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a great deal to say about the importance of leadership development. She once wrote, “perhaps the most important thing that has come out of my life is the discovery that if you prepare yourself at every point as well as you can, with whatever means you have . . . you will be able to grasp opportunity for broader experience when it appears. Without preparation you cannot do it.”

Let me once again congratulate you on your graduation from Leadership Bloomington, which has provided you with such a strong foundation for grasping future opportunities.