My Sermon: Find the bright spots and go do more of that.

John Warner
10 min readJul 11, 2021

Initially presented as a Sunday sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Greenville, South Carolina on January 9, 2011.

Opening Reading

Max De Pree, Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community.

“Exceptional organizations are movements:

Beth Israel Hospital in Boston — the first hospital in the United States to publish a declaration of patient rights and to incorporate employee and patient ideas into its operations,

Willow Creek Church west of Chicago — which reaches out into the unchurched culture rather than expecting all people to reach out to the church,

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Madison, Wisconsin — a pioneer in Christian ministries in higher education, business, and ethnic cultures, and

Apple Computer in its formative years.

“Movements like these dot the organizational landscape and serve as models of energy and devotion to a compelling cause.

“We are defined by our stories, which continually form us and make us vital and give us hope. Stories teach us and preserve traditions and practices and policies and values. I don’t know many people who prefer a manual to a myth.

“Our fidelity to our stories, like fidelity to choices, shapes our characters and in so doing shapes the movements of which we are a part. Stories play a key role in our movements because they are the vehicles through which we expose and, therefore, greatly reduce the temptation to impose.

“One of the first things required in movements is spirit-lifting leadership, leadership that enables, enriches, holds the organization accountable, and in the end lets go.”


Max De Pree became CEO of his family’s business, Herman Miller, in the early 1960’s. Under his leadership, Herman Miller became one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies. He built the business on a foundation of trust and integrity. Working with some of the world’s great design icons such as Ray and Charles Eames, and George Nelson, Herman Miller established itself as a no-compromise, innovative design firm that produced beautiful modern furniture. Max De Pree’s body of work earned him a place in Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame.

This is the context in which I had read much of Max De Pree’s earlier books: Leadership is an Art and

Leadership Jazz. I was open to gleaning the best practices Max had to share about what had made him and his company successful.

Then bam…

He hit me with one of the most powerful admonitions I have ever read.

One of the first things required in movements is spirit-lifting leadership, leadership that enables, enriches, holds the organization accountable, and in the end lets go.

I’ve committed that to memory and incorporated into the fabric of what I believe is essential to great leadership.

I love what I do and often am inspired and writing in the wee wee hours of the morning. This was written about 3 AM on Saturday morning. I’m almost always digitally connected, and what I have found that that there is community of other people I know who are also up and inspired in middle of the night.

Many of you may know Phil Yanov, who is the technology networking guru around here. Over several decades Phil has run very successful networking organizations. Recently he launched a program called Technology After Five, a pure networking event each month for technology and entrepreneurial types. The best way I can describe Ta5 is that the first beer is free. It is a brilliantly simple idea, which Phil has now expanded from Greenville to Columbia, Charleston, and Charlotte.

Phil and I were texting back and forth one morning at 3 AM about how to make our community a better place. Clearly what I was describing was too complicated for Phil, which is often the problem with my brainstorms.

Then bam…

Phil hit me upside the head. “John, people are looking for hope and a path.” That simple, concise punch impacted me so much that I am telling you about it on a Sunday morning a couple of years later.

We all tell stories of who we are and how we got here. I recently heard author Dan Heath who shared that good leaders use stories to explain the bright spots to others to inspire them to go do more of that. Especially when we are challenged with doing something new, we often are paralyzed by the fear that the chasm between where we are and where we want to go is too large and we will fail.

There were three ministers out in a boat, fishing and talking shop about faith and miracles. One minister said, “I’m done for the day,” and got out of the boat and walked across the water to the shore. A bit later another one said, “Me too,” and he walked across the water as well. The third minister was dumbfounded and discouraged that he did not have the faith of his colleagues. Summing up all his courage, he stepped out of the boat and went splash into the water. The first minister turned to the second and asked, “I guess we should have told him were the stumps are.”

When leaders tell stories, they are trying to let others know where the stumps are so the chasm of doing something new doesn’t’ seem too far. They are trying to give people hope and a path.

I got a call one Sunday about ten years ago from the SC Department of Commerce. They were inviting me on a trip the next morning to Austin, TX to meet with George Kozmetski, the architect of the Austin model. Dr. Kozmetski had been dean of the business school at the University of Texas in the late 1970s, and he created the endowed chair model that made Austin Austin. What we learned from this trip is the basis for the endowed chair program in South Carolina. The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, for example, has four endowed chairs created under this program at the center of it.

We spent the entire day with Dr. Kosmetski and others involved in the Austin model, like Bobby Inman, who was a former director of the CIA and also director a semiconductor alliance in Austin. What are the bright spots I can share with you a decade later from my conversation with Dr. Kozmetski?

First, we were discussing how to get industry and universities to work more closely together. To a large extent corporate executives and academics live on different planets, with different time lines, incentives, and values. The refrain that Dr. Kozmetski repeated over and over that day is to focus on the talent, focus on the talent, focus on the talent. The need for world class talent is what industry and universities have in common, and it is the key to getting them to work together.

A couple of years later when the discussion was occurring that led to CU-ICAR, the original idea was to build a wind tunnel. Chris Przirembel, Clemson’s VP of Research, went to see Helmut Leube, President of BMW Manufacturing, to ask him to rent time on Clemson’s wind tunnel. Dr. Leube said, “Chris, we have research in Germany, and we don’t need research in Greer. But we would be interested in partnering with Clemson to develop world class talent.” Amazingly that is precisely what Dr. Kozmetski said he would be interested in. Today CU-ICAR is best understood as a talent magnet. Preeminent scholars attract top students who graduate and are employed here. In a particularly delicious part of the ICAR story, the first PhD in Automotive Engineering in the country graduated from Clemson a year ago. He is from Austin and now works for Michelin in Greenville. So rather than us losing top talent to Austin, we are now attracting top talent from Austin.

Dr. Kosmetski also told me not to underestimate how important the public television program Austin City Limits is. Creative cultures are creative in all kinds of ways, from technology to business to the arts. Being cool is incredibly important to attracting bright talented young people to Austin. A few years ago, many of us were working on a project to envision what Greenville could become in 2025. One of the elements was Greenville would be cool, which seemed stupid to most of us until someone defined cool as a place your kids want to live when they graduate from college. With a daughter who graduated from Clemson last May, and a son who is currently a sophomore, I now completely get why it is important that Greenville is cool. At Main Street Jazz one Friday evening I was explaining to a young Furman student how Greenville may not be a great place right out of school, but it is a terrific place once you are married with kids. She looked at me confused and said she didn’t know what I was talking about, she and her friends loved downtown. I knew instantly that Greenville has reached a huge inflection point. I told that to my daughter who was a student at Clemson, and she said, “yea, my friends love downtown and we go there all the time.” “Whoa,” I said, “You drive 45 minutes from Clemson to Greenville, but can’t drive another 15 minutes to the house.” Oh we won’t go there right now.

When we were leaving Austin, I was standing in a lobby with Dr. Kozmetski waiting on the car to take us back to the airport. He was 87, and I was 43. He put his arm on my shoulder and asked, “How long do you think this is going to take?” I replied, “I am in this for the long term, five, ten years, whatever it takes.” He looked at me and said, “Son, if you don’t dedicate the rest of your life to this you will never see it.”


If he has taken a two by four out and hit me in the head he would not have made a greater impact. The longer I have done what I do, the more I appreciate cultural change is generational change. A mayor once told me his city was two funerals away from progress.

I am fascinated with how successful things get started. I’ve been involved in starting companies, arts organizations, academic centers, not-for-profits, and government agencies. The best way to find out what made

people successful is to go ask them.

Virginia Uldrick was a middle school arts teacher who had a vision to create the best arts high school in the country, and perhaps the world. Graduates of the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities have gone onto Julliard and Oxford, so Virginia’s dream is being realized. I asked her how she went from doing tempera painting with eighth graders to running one of the world’s best arts schools. She described how she put together allies for her plan and convinced the legislature to provide the money. Then she said she has always been an out of the box thinker and described how she recruited a faculty of out of the box thinkers. “Wait a minute” I said, “you went to the legislature and made them promises to get the money.” “Yes,” she said. “”Well, you have a bunch of out of the box thinkers, how do you get anything done?” I asked. “We had policies and procedures,” she said. “No, no, no,” I said, “your ballet teacher is Stanislav Issaev, who danced in the Bolshoi and won the Nijinsky Prize as the best male dancer in the world. Are you going to tell him how to teach dance?” “Of course not,” she said, “He’s going to show me how to teach dance.” “Well then,” I asked, “how do you balance the creative tension of being out of the box with being accountable for results?” “She got really pensive as that was likely the first time she had consciously faced that tension. Then she looked intensely at me and said, “This is what told him, ‘This is was is essential for this school survive. You have to give me that. Once you do, I’ll build you a stage to perform at the highest level.’”


Oh my goodness. That is where we all want our children to go to school, isn’t it. That is where we all want to work. That is where all the people who work for us want to work. Tell me what I have to be accountable for, and then let me pursue my passion. That is the most profound lesson in leadership anyone has ever given me.

I have found over the course of my career that a key to success is to find the bright spots and go do more of that. Sometimes the bright spots are from a connection half a continent away. Sometimes they are down the street, and all you have to is go ask about what worked and why, and then be inspired. Remember that not everything you learn is a good idea. It’s OK if you are inspired after the sun comes up.

Closing Reading

Eric Hoffer. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

“Common suffering by itself, when not joined with hope, does not unite nor does it evoke mutual generosity. The enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, ‘their lives made bitter with hard bondage,’ were a bickering, back-biting lot. Moses had to give them hope of a promised land before he could join them together. The thirty thousand hopeless people in the concentration camp of Buchenwald did not develop any form of united action, nor did they manifest any readiness for self-sacrifice. There was more greed and ruthless selfishness there than in the greediest and most corrupt of free societies. Instead of studying the way in which they could best help each other they used all of their ingenuity to dominate and oppress each other.

“It is of interest that the Jews who submitted to extermination in Hitler’s Europe fought recklessly when transferred to Palestine. And though it is said that they fought in Palestine because they had no choice — they had to fight or have their throats cut by the Arabs — it is still true that their daring and reckless readiness for self-sacrifice sprang not from despair but from their fervent preoccupation with the revival of an ancient land and an ancient people. They, indeed, fought and died for cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted.”



John Warner

Serial entrepreneur sharing 40 years of insights to control your destiny in our turbulent times