Exemplary Leader Michael Sorrell
Profile of an Exemplary Leader: President Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College
A core intention of my business, Rise Leaders, is to promote individuals who are making a positive impact in the businesses and communities where they lead. They are taking a different path, coloring outside the lines and disrupting the norm. Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, is an exemplar. Paul Quinn College (PQC) is a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) located in Oak Cliff, a community in Dallas’ Southern Sector. The college was fighting for its life when he stepped in.
Leadership of the type written about here is uncommon and only for those willing to take a strong stand for what they believe in. President Sorrell demonstrates that it takes a galvanizing vision, a mission that won’t be compromised, a tireless work ethic and love for those being served to turn around a failing institution.
I had the opportunity to hear President Sorrell speak at a Sum + Substance gathering in Dallas early in the Fall of 2015 and knew I wanted him to be my first interview. I hope you enjoy and are inspired by what you read.
As background, President Sorrell had a few goals on his list as a young man. Not like most of our goals. His goals included public service as a mayor, owning an NBA franchise and becoming a college president. We began our conversation with how becoming a college president arrived on his list in the first place. While attending Oberlin College in Ohio (where he had a very impressive basketball career), Sorrell had a serendipitous meeting with Dr. Johnetta Cole, who was then president of Spelman College. A seed was planted for his future; only he didn’t pursue the qualifications needed to realize that goal. He went on about his plans to become a lawyer, which he did. He said he figured he would get to be president by virtue of his other life’s accomplishments.
In response to his “plan” for becoming president, I jokingly commented that I heard he had admitted to being cocky. While he claims not to remember the admission (smirking), he did comment on his confidence, which comes from a strong work ethic. We’ll pick up the interview there.
Is the willingness to work hard an important leadership trait for you?
The key to my confidence is my work ethic. There is no problem you can give me that I won’t find a way through. I am willing to outwork anybody. This makes me supremely confident in my abilities.
People make excuses for why they come up short and aren’t successful. I think that most people simply don’t want to work hard enough to truly be successful. We’re having a lot of success [at Paul Quinn], but the first three-and-a-half years, I regularly worked fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-hour days. I went back to school to get a doctorate [a Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania] and worked full time. My students saw me come to the office on weekends at nine o’clock in the morning and stay until nine, ten o’clock at night. They saw that I don’t ask them to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.
The reality in dealing with under-resourced communities is that this population has a dysfunctional relationship with work. There are a myriad of contributing factors; it’s complex. You have to teach people the expectation of hard work. Telling them that they don’t work hard enough doesn’t mean I don’t love them, doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re wonderful, doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re special. But you can make some amazing things happen for yourself if you roll up your sleeves and work your way through it.
Tell me about the Four L’s of Quinnite Leadership here at Paul Quinn. Did you create those?
Our institutional ethos is WE over Me – the needs of the community supersede the wants of the individual. When I got here I looked around a realized we needed something to hold on to. The Guiding Principles of the institution are the Four L’s of Quinnite Leadership:
- Love something greater than yourself
- Leave places better than you found them
- Live a life that matters
- Lead from wherever you are
The Four L’s are basically my personal value system, learned through great parenting and a Jesuit education, but repackaged for Paul Quinn. The Jesuits teach us to be men and women for others. That translated to loving something greater than yourself.
My parents taught me to always, always leave places better than you found them.
We wanted to communicate to the students here that you don’t have to wait to lead; leadership begins today. In under-resourced communities, people need to become action-oriented. They need to be empowered. They need to hear, “You have the ability to change this. You don’t have to wait. You have something within your personal arsenal that can change your circumstances. Let’s go find it together.” That is lead from wherever you are.
Live a life that matters … When I was a freshman in high school I learned about renaissance men and women in my World History class. History remembers them as being good a many different things. I thought to myself, “Man, I want to be a renaissance man. I want to be someone that history remembers.” If you live a life that matters, that’s your legacy. Leave places better than you found them, improve other people’s lives, be selfless. History will remember your service.
What is Paul Quinn College to Oak Cliff, symbolically?
Our goal is to be one of America’s great small colleges. Period.
One of the things that’s very important to us, and important to me, is the use of language – controlling your narrative and establishing the narrative to be completely what you want, and not what others impose upon you. That’s important, especially in under-resourced communities and institutions, because people are always telling them who they can be, and what their dreams can be. Our goal is to create an extraordinary national institution. We want to be the signature higher education experience for students from urban, under-resourced communities.
In the context of Oak Cliff, we represent the non-gentrified possibilities for a better tomorrow for the indigenous people from this community. We’re not going to transform this school and then make it inaccessible for the very people we came to serve. What we’re saying is, when you subscribe to these values, the price won’t be what keeps you out. What will keep you out is your ability to serve. If you don’t want to serve, you don’t belong here. If you don’t want to be taught to lead, you don’t belong here.
Everyone has all this angst over “how do we develop Oak Cliff? How do we develop Southern Dallas?” The same way you’ve done it everywhere else. When you have a sustainable four-year, high performing institution, it produces the middle class that transforms the community from within.
Do you hope that graduates of this school stay in the area and reinvest themselves?
It’s not even about hope. I expect that a segment of my students will stay, and that they will pour themselves into transforming the area, absolutely. Not all of them, because we’re national. We need some people to go be mayors of LA, and Oakland, and Chicago, and New York, and to go do extraordinary things so that it raises the profile of the institution and inspires. We’re going to transform the institution and create an amazing place for the folks in this community who have held on for thirty, forty, fifty years, while a city built up everything north, and no one thought about them.
At the Sum + Substance event, you talked a little bit about anger. You said that it’s an important emotion – it causes things to happen if you use it the right way.
I think righteous anger can be incredibly healthy. You need to be angry about the state of affairs because you need to constantly be critical of those who come to you and say, “We did the best we could.” No you didn’t. You did what was in your best interest to do. You did what was safe for you to do. You did what soothed your conscious, but don’t tell me that this imbalance was the best that you could do.
When a bank tells us that our campus is worthless, when grocery stores told us, “People in that neighborhood don’t look like our customers”, I said, “Thank you, because you didn’t have to tell me the truth. You could’ve given me the polite song and dance. You telling me the truth has infuriated me. It’s infuriated me enough that I am taking this personally, and I will expend whatever personal capital, whatever institutional capital that we must to do right by the people who deserve it.”
Revolutions don’t start from above. Revolutions start from below. They start from the places of unhappiness. They start from the places of dissatisfaction where people have lost a sense of hope, and they’ve lost their direction. They’re fed up with being told, “It’s not your turn, or you’re not good enough, or sorry, we did the best we could do.”
Revolutions are also messy. How do you plan for that?
Why do we have to plan for the messiness of the revolution? Life is messy. Poverty is messy. So what if some people’s feelings get hurt on the way to creating a better, more balanced city? Don’t we think that people’s lives have been hurt and their feelings have been hurt by living in mind-numbing poverty for generations? I’m not saying that you have to be angry to the point of irrational behavior. What I am saying, is that you also can’t allow yourself to become consumed by what everyone else is going to think about what you’re saying. You have to identify your constituency. You have to represent them to the best of your ability. I don’t want people to hate us, I don’t want people to hate me, but I also don’t think that it’s right that people live in food deserts.
I was struck by a few quotes from another interview and would enjoy hearing what’s behind them:
You can be our kind and not be our color.
In my estimation, what HBCU’s are meant to really do is provide opportunities for students who have some type of disadvantage in their background.
I’m not insecure about our institutional heritage. I’m not insecure about our African American heritage. In fact, I’m so secure about both that I can welcome others as well. It doesn’t diminish mine.
Are we less of a Historically Black institution because our Miss Paul Quinn College is Latina? Are we less of a Historically Black institution because we have white soccer players? Are we less of a Historically Black institution because we have a diversity of religious experiences? No, we actually now have more to offer our Black students because those things; because we are expanding to become a HBCU that is also a Minority Serving Institution. What often happens when you grow up in under-resourced environments, is that you tend to engage in the ‘politics of less.’ That is, you define everything from a position of what you don’t have. You look around and you say, “I don’t have enough of this and I don’t have enough of that. If I share with you, I will have even less.” We reject that thought process. We believe that we can all have more if we share our resources. It’s not a zero sum game, but if you’ve grown up in poverty, that’s how you’ve been taught to define your life. We’re not going to do that.
The education you’re providing is more than academic.
Absolutely. I think that we would do our students a disservice if all we did was provide them with solely an academic education.
What is next? How can Dallas link arms and be part of the story?
The real estate community has completely embraced us.
Trammell (S. Crow) and The Real Estate Council (TREC) have been amazing. Trammell has been our number one donor for years and I don’t know if TREC could be any more supportive from the stand point of getting their members to provide services and help us in all other sorts of ways. We’ve got to build new buildings. There haven’t been any new buildings on this campus in forty-plus years. We need help. We need friends. They all know this and they’ve just been phenomenal.
As I think about what else we need outside of more economic resources, we need people to have some faith, that what they’re seeing is really happening. People don’t tend to believe something they’ve never seen before.
What would exemplify that people have faith?
I do think a lot of people have faith in us. I would like to see the counselors in DISD (Dallas Independent School District) show some faith by sending us more of their best students. We’re getting really good students now, but they rarely come from DISD. We can get great students from Detroit, Chicago, Pennsylvania, New York, St. Paul, and from California. We do an amazing job with gifted students. Because we are smaller, the line to stardom at Paul Quinn is much, much shorter.
There are so many people embracing us: the business community, the philanthropic community, and the majority of the Black, Hispanic, and Anglo communities. Politically, our elected officials have been incredibly supportive. I think the exception is more with a certain segment of the community that my students engage with more than I do. My students sometimes feel beaten down when they’re so excited to be Paul Quinn students and they go out in the community to serve, and hear disparaging things from this segment.
I think ours is just an issue of time with the non-believers.
It sounds like your reputation hasn’t caught up with you in some circles.
That’s exactly right. Who we are today hasn’t translated yet. In fairness this school (seemingly) struggled for twenty years and just started really getting back on track in the past five. It’s a matter of interpretation, but it makes a difference.
What advice can you give to other leaders facing the hard work of a turnaround situation?
- The opportunity has to personally resonate with you. You have to believe in it.
- I tell people all the time, “You should not lead people you do not love.” I think you lead with love. I think that makes an enormous difference. I love this school, I love my staff, I love my students. I feel it is a privilege every day to come to work and be their president. I genuinely feel that way.
- You have to know where you want to go.
- It’s really important to have a sense of humor; you need to be able to laugh at yourself. You’re going to do ridiculous things.
- Understand that failure isn’t forever.
Coming back to leading with love, you also need to learn how to love. The best advice I was given, advice that fundamentally transformed my presidency, happened early. The first summer that I was at Paul Quinn, I got into a huge argument in the middle of campus with a student. On the outside this young man looked and acted tough. We were still yelling when we got to my office where broke down into tears. After he left, an extraordinary staff member, Ms. Dickerson, said to me, “Baby, you know, I met your mother. I know that your mother loved you. I know that you grew up in an environment where there was strict discipline, but you never spent one second of your life wondering if you were loved. You bear all the markings of a guy who has had an abundance of love. If you hadn’t had that, and your college President yelled at you, would you have heard the love, or would you have just heard the tough?” She said, “They won’t hear you until they know you love them. You have to learn to lead with love.”
I can’t begin to tell you what a difference it made. It didn’t make a difference immediately, because there were still students for whom I thought, “You don’t need love, you need to have your butt kicked. You don’t get that other part,” (laughter) but it made a difference. I see the difference it makes. It’s made me a far better leader.
The other thing is my students need to see me as a husband, and as a father, because many of them have no model for that. They see me being very loving towards my wife. They see me bringing my son up and hugging him. They see him come up here and run around wreaking havoc. They see my little girl (she turned one in February). It turns out that people need to see how I do these things, and it’s okay to be sensitive in front of them.
I have a final question if you will indulge me. Are you in line with what you feel your life’s purpose is? If you think about those kinds of things, would you say that you’re on track?
I think that I have found a peace that I did not have before. To the extent that that peace is only possible when you are aligned with your purpose, then perhaps so. I think I am becoming the man that my family would’ve hoped that I would become. I think maybe this is what I was built to do.
Thank so much for your time. This has been delightful.
Thank you for thinking that I’d be a worthy subject.
Today a very solid foundation is in place at Paul Quinn College. There is fidelity in their Core Ideology, which surfaced naturally in our conversation. There is strong alignment between Sorrell’s personal values and those of Paul Quinn – there is no wonder that he feels peace. He is also demonstrating the ability to hold two important poles in business: a relentless pursuit of goals and executional excellence and the ability to be a compassionate leader and role model for a population who direly needs it.
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LeeAnn Mallory is a leadership coach and consultant who develops exemplary leaders and thriving organizations.