Rob Garris lives and breathes leadership.
He currently serves as Managing Director of the Leadership Development Initiative at Trinity Church Wall Street, which is focused on training the next generation of leaders in the faith community. Previously, he did similar work at various education institutions, including Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the Rockefeller Foundation, and Schwarzman Scholars.
We chatted with Rob about all things leadership in this current moment - what’s happening, why it’s important, and what great leaders need to be doing now.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You characterize your work as “creating and improving programs that develop young leaders who aspire to create positive change at community, national, and global levels.” What draws you to this?
I didn’t start out with this as a plan when I was in college. But, my own experience of getting a Ph.D. in history exposed me to how very intentionally detached from the “outside world” a lot of academic research and university teaching is. As I finished my Ph.D., I made a very conscious decision not to pursue a career as an academic historian.
Fairly quickly after that, I found my way towards an ambition to actually change the way universities work so that the research and teaching that’s done at universities is much more relevant to the world outside the campus gates and to the needs of students.
In a variety of different settings – at Columbia, at the Rockefeller Foundation, for Schwarzman Scholars, and now for Trinity Church Wall Street – I’ve worked to either create new academic programs or reform existing ones. The goal is to prepare students for the kinds of challenges that they will face after they graduate, ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, and mindsets to actually create positive change in the world.
Could you tell us about your current leadership project at Trinity?
The goal is to create new structures of development and education for people of faith who are in leadership roles.
The initiative grew out of conversations with Church leadership about whether Episcopal and Anglican clergy were being well-prepared for the responsibilities they faced when they finished seminary and took responsibility for a parish.
The traditional structures of seminary education have focused on Biblical studies and theology, preparing the person to lead a congregation through spiritual formation – giving sermons and providing pastoral counseling, for example. But these clergy also face very practical concerns as they are put in charge of churches with buildings and assets and employees; sometimes also running schools or providing services to the homeless and underserved in their neighborhoods.
Folks not just in Trinity, but really all around the church, started saying, “How do we change seminary education or create continuing education so that it prepares people for both roles?” While the traditional preaching and pastoral aspects of their work are critical, we believe faith leaders need additional education and training in other areas to be broadly successful.
Trinity is going to do direct education through a “faith and leadership fellows program” where we will provide this kind of leadership development with a small group of fellows on an annual basis. Then we’re going to do a digital version of everything that we created for the Trinity fellows and offer that online, free, and open access to anyone who’s interested in leadership at a connecting point with faith. But most importantly, we’re going to partner with seminaries and diocese to help them integrate leadership development into their degree programs and continuing education, so that these mindsets and skills become much more widely available and permanently anchored in educational institutions.
We hope that thousands of people find this helpful, enroll in those classes, and make use of these resources.
Based on the evident value of the concept at Trinity Church Wall Street… why now?
The Church is in crisis right now. In a secularizing world, attendance is going down. When an institution is in crisis, it’s willing to listen and act in bold ways. I think the crisis that the church is facing is partly driving readiness to do this now.
Episcopal seminaries themselves are not actually part of the formal structure of the Church – they’re separate academic institutions. But, they are also in crisis now, for overlapping reasons related to secularization and shrinking congregations. So, all the major players in the system that we’re trying to affect are facing crises, and as difficult as those struggles are, they at least open a space for creativity and inspiration.
One thing that we think gets lost in the discourse about leadership is that it’s a different function depending on institutional context. For you to help Schwarzman Scholars, a brand new institution, go from zero to one, as opposed to Columbia or Trinity Wall Street, how have these leadership roles been different and what have the common threads been?
Yeah, very different settings. Columbia had just celebrated its 250th anniversary when I joined. That was, more than anything else, an experience in change management. The dean at the time was very passionate about building a faculty whose research was policy-relevant – scholars who were doing serious scholarly research that was based on data from the real world and relevant to challenges that the contemporary world is facing.
So, that was a question of taking an unusual vision and figuring out how to make it work within a very well-established existing structure where there were lots of relationships in place and deep investments in things functioning as they had for decades.
Across all of the settings, start-up and established, success still depends on relationship building and helping people find a common interest in a shared goal and vision.
When you’re working in a new organization or a new institution, do you find that the leadership role that you expect to have when you’re being recruited usually tracks with what it ends up being?
No, I don’t! If there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s that there’s that sort of “dating stage” where you’re going through interviews and everybody’s checking each other out, where you get excited about the grand vision of a change that an institution wants to go through. Then, as you actually start the work, you see the resistance is to change, whether it’s conscious or unconscious.
You just have to be prepared for it. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong, but any new creation that disrupts a system is going to encounter resistance. Anyone who intends to be successful just has to see resistance as part of nature and not be frustrated or angry about it.
When that resistance comes, I try to immediately start looking for mutual interests so that you can get people on board. I think there are others who say, “When you meet resistance, crush it.” That’s just not my approach.
What do you think makes the difference between leaders who are truly able to rally a group around them versus those who aren’t?
It’s very much about being willing to put in the face time with everyone on the team at all levels. In places I’ve worked where there was a strong shared and common sense of purpose, it was because the leader was willing to spend time talking to individuals, listening to them, and really genuinely taking their perspectives into account.
How do you empower your colleagues and your team to achieve their full potential?
For me, it’s about two things: one, doing the deep work of understanding people’s personal motivations so that I can help connect them with what the team and the organization as a whole needs. That’s about understanding people as individuals, which is much easier said than done.
The second thing is constant dialogue and adaptation. I want to hear what the team thinks about how they’re doing as individuals and how we’re doing as a team. There’s that initial work of trying to understand someone and trying to match their motivations and desires to the team’s needs, but then constant check-in, listening and adaptation as well. That’s also easier said than done.
We believe that everyone has a superpower. What’s yours?
I’m shy about calling it a superpower, but I’ve gotten great feedback from colleagues that I’m really good at finding and focusing on mutual interests. In particular when you’re disrupting an existing space, you’ve got to find mutual interests among all stakeholders and then remind everyone constantly about what they want to achieve together.
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