Philip Cotton — Servant Leadership

PC: I think that a good leader surrounds themselves with people who are better than them at lots of things. So if I surround myself with Deputy Vice Chancellors and Principals who are better than me in doing all of the things that my office has to do, and then you take that down to their level–they surround themselves with people who are better than them in the administration. And then you take it down to the next level, you’ve actually got the very best people, the most skilled and talented at the bottom of your organization. So it’s all about believing in those people and investing in those people. 

And, I don’t want to offend anybody, but I am a Christian and I am a pastor in the Anglican church. And I believe in the notion of servant leadership. It says that a good leader is prepared to travel a huge vertical distance. So if you’re familiar with a christian cross, maybe you’ll know there’s this man called Jesus Christ who some people believe is the son of god, and sits at the right hand of the father, the highest position he can entertain, and yet he got on his hands and knees to help the poorest and the most needy. And I think the best leaders can travel a high vertical distance. One who can chair an international organization and the next minute get their hands dirty building houses, is prepared to sit and listen to people. And so, for me, I don’t offer any appointments for staff and students in my university. They cannot get an appointment to see me–that’s because they don’t need an appointment. They can come any time. My door is always open. 

So if you look at my whatsapp you’ll see that in the last 24 hours there’s all sorts of messages from students sometimes just saying good morning VC, “Good morning VC how are you.” This is the kind of conversation here: “Hello, how are you, nice night” you know. But my job is to reply to all of them as much as possible.  So this student starts “Hello Cotton” and I message back “Hello sir.” I call them sir because sometimes they call me sir. “Wow, how are you? I am a student at the University of Rwanda.” I say “Thank you David, I’m really interested in making this conversation.” And this happens all the time. And my job is to always, always respond to these people. So actually the job of the Vice Chancellor is very easy. The job of the VC is just to just to create a sense of community and a sense of belonging. Because everybody else in the university will drive things forward. The Deputy VC for research will drive forward research, the Deputy VC for institutional advancement will drive forward the institution. So I think it’s about getting the face of the institution right and creating the right culture and the right community and the right sense of belonging. But you have to model that every minute of every day. 

I’ll tell you that before I left this house this morning, I have two guests staying with me who arrived the day I went away on leave and so I hadn’t seen them until this morning and they said “Why do you have to go to a meeting?” and I said “These are students who are trying to learn about the University.”  And they said “But it’s the weekend.” 

It’s just about… why are we here? Am I VC because I’m the most important person in the university, I’m by definition the scariest person in the University because I can terminate your contract. It’s not about that at all. His excellency, the President of the Republic, talks about how we like to create self importance and how we need to stop that. We’ve had students who say “Oh it’s interesting that your VC drives himself or he walks or he doesn’t have security.” In Rwanda you don’t need any of that, you just need to get on and do the work. And it was the President of the Republic who said one of the most important jobs of the VC is to listen to students. 

Yale University serves you guys, Yale University should give you every opportunity it can. The day you leave Yale you should cry for everything it gave you. And that’s what we’re trying to do in the University of Rwanda. We are a big University with ten campuses, maybe we’ve got people who think differently but are at different stages in their journeys, but our task is always to keep people moving together. 

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