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Summer 2002
Baylor Alumni

McCall's Example

Legacy of a servant leader remains a vital force

By Jeff Kilgore, BAA executive vice president and CEO

The sufficiency of scripture, the separation of church and state, the priesthood of the believer, and the autonomy of the local church are enduring concepts that undergird the Baptist faith. The first two, in particular, have sustained Baylor University's leaders since 1845.

In John 13, Jesus personifies another concept that has guided Baylor’s leaders over the decades. It is the concept—or model—of servant leadership, and it was this concept that was the focus of a recent event honoring Joe Coleman '55, JD '57. The setting was the Baylor School of Law, where during a luncheon Coleman was honored as Baylor Lawyer of the Year. While I enjoyed being in the company of Baylor law’s finest, I was even more impressed with how Coleman graciously turned his acceptance speech into a tribute to Judge Abner V. McCall, Baylor's president from 1961 to 1981.

Coleman offered praise and appreciation for the impact McCall had on his own life—but more especially for the lasting impact that McCall's servant leadership had on Baylor. As Coleman phrased it, McCall's intelligence was integrally combined with his accessibility to students and his personal humility.

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf introduced the term "servant leadership" as one of higher education’s best practices. The concept continues to influence generations of institutional leaders. Greenleaf believed only a servant leader could successfully call back an institution to its basic servant ethic. The defining characteristics of a servant leader included persuasion over coercion, sustaining spirit over ego, foresight over control, and listening over directing, among others. While Greenleaf's research and writing were hailed as cutting edge in 1970, for McCall the concept of servant leadership was nothing new. In fact, he had been living it for years, successfully serving and leading at Baylor as a teacher, dean of the School of Law, and president.

I personally never had the privilege of meeting McCall, but on countless occasions I have heard him revered, admired, and appreciated for the profound effect his style of leadership had on the lives of fellow alumni and this great university. Those closest to him have pointed out to me that his most endearing qualities were a genuine aversion to praise and a crystal-clear understanding of his own human failings. The Judge always avoided being considered a great figure, defining a Christian as one who sees the beauty in Christ's life and is convicted of his own personal shortcomings compared to Christ.

McCall was a classic servant leader, but he more commonly referred to himself as a bottom-up leader. That is, he believed his role was to enable the Baylor community’s efforts to build Baylor as he and the governing board visualized it. He made "molehills out of mountains" to remove obstacles in the way of the faculty, development office, and other departments of the school. He was very quick to channel praise for success away from himself and toward the faculty and staff. This was believed to have been very helpful in keeping the university community close. Clearly, McCall was an intelligent, committed, confident, and selfless leader.

Because of his leadership of Baylor and his standing as a two-time past president and a founding father of this self-governed alumni association, I believe this tribute is especially fitting as we mark the advent of the BAA's Sesquicentennial Celebration in 2009 and as the Baylor family eagerly awaits the Baylor Board of Regents’ announcement of a presidential search process that will define the university for the ages to come.

With all due respect to the Board of Regents' authority to make the final decision regarding Baylor’s next president, I join the governing bodies of the Faculty Senate, Student Body, Staff Council, and Baylor Alumni Association in asking the regents to give voice and vote in the search process to faculty, students, staff, and alumni; to seek presidential candidates with proven records in higher education; and to seek a president who embraces the example of servant leadership of Abner V. McCall as he was so beautifully remembered by Baylor Lawyer of the Year and former regent Joe Coleman.

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