Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Friend Paul Tipton

With all the communication and social media tools available to us, we have instant access to breaking news in an unprecedented manner. When Tim Russert died, I read the news on twitter before it was posted at I make this point because by June 13th, the day of Russert's death, a man who served as one of my mentors and who I was proud to call my friend had died about three weeks earlier, and I hadn't heard a word about it until yesterday.

His name was Paul Tipton - Fr. Paul Tipton. It had been five months or so since I last spoke with him, so yesterday afternoon I finally picked up the phone. I called his cell, then his home phone - both had been disconnected. I of course knew he had been battling cancer, and while I didn't want to admit it to myself in the moment, I literally felt his loss at the other end of the line. I googled his name and found his obituary in the Washington Post. I invite you to read about his extraordinary life.

I then called a longtime friend of Fr. Tipton, and still a dear friend of mine, who felt terribly that he had not called me. I assured him that this was not his responsibility, and with my move to Boston, neither he nor many others had my current cell number. I simply slipped through the cracks of the communication grid.

Fr. Tipton officiated my wedding, and he was a client for four years during the time he served as President of Jacksonville University. He had a larger than life personality with a heart and an intellect to match. He loved sailing and his dog - a black lab named Beau, who died just a short time ago.

Not everyone understood Fr. Tipton. He could be tough on people at times and was not universally loved by any means. (He'd be the first to agree with that statement with a bit of proud laughter). But for the lucky ones, like myself, who were fortunate to be invited into his confidence and experience his vision, faith, and infectious laugh, we're all richer for having known him.

I have a number of humorous Paul Tipton stories that I'd share if I had a great deal more space, but he taught me something about leadership and how to follow a leader that I'll never forget. While the Washington Post story mentions that Tipton served as president of Jacksonville University, it doesn't describe how he willed its positive transformation during his tenure. He did it by expressing one simple idea: students are at the top of the organization chart and the administration is at the bottom. Students first. Period. It marked a sea change for the university and not everyone was happy with being upended.

Now that said, the employees could be divided into two categories: 1) Those who were guided by the "student first" mission, and 2) those who would present ideas based on what they believed Tipton really wanted to hear. Those who were guided by the mission succeeded, those who were not, failed. It's that simple. Even if you had a bad idea, if it was student centric, it was OK. You may be sent back to try again, but at least he didn't believe you didn't get it.

Not "getting it" had biblical ramifications - lots of thunder, lightening, floods, etc. The survival rate for those people was not good. It's one of the most valuable leadership lessons I've ever learned. In graduate school, I wrote a paper about Paul Tipton and his leadership at JU which I later shared with him. He was very proud of his portrayal, and yet quipped, "is that really me?"

Let me just say that for all the communication tools out there, we have no excuses for not staying in touch. My lack of diligence about sharing my contact info more broadly cost me an opportunity to pay my respects at Fr. Tipton's memorial service. I figured I'd share my thoughts here because while Paul Tipton may not be walking the earth, knowing him, he's figured out how to get internet access. I hope he's reading this right now with Beau at his side.

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