“When you have passion as a leader, others feel it, and others want to emulate it. If they emulate it enough times, it becomes part of their persona, and the culture evolves. Then the place commands your best, and when the place commands your best, the sky's the limit.”

Fast Facts

Current position: President, High Point University
Location: High Point, NC
Years in current role: 14
Number of employees: 1,800
Other experience: Author of 18 books; motivational speaker; Executive Chairman, Great Harvest Bread Company; board member at La-Z-Boy Corporation, BB&T, and nThrive
Leaders he admires: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Kelly King

Most interviews with high-profile business leaders don’t begin with a hug. But Nido Qubein, president of High Point University (HPU), isn’t just any high-profile leader. It therefore came as no surprise that the visit with him began with a hug and ended with his proudly telling an auditorium full of faculty about an interview he just gave to an alum from Washington, D.C. This story, the story behind the interview, perfectly captures the leader that is Nido Qubein.

Nido R. Qubein is the seventh president of High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. When he became president of HPU in January 2005, he did so with a singular mission: to transform High Point University from what one journalist called “a dusty old college” into a thriving institution.

By all accounts, Qubein is succeeding. In the last 14 years, he has been the catalyst for transformational change at the small liberal arts college. The university has opened six new academic schools: the Nido R. Qubein School of Communication, the Congdon School of Health Science, the School of Art and Design, the Fred Wilson School of Pharmacy, the Webb School of Engineering, and the Wanek School of Undergraduate Sciences. During the same period, HPU has seen a more than 245 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, a similar increase in number of faculty, and a nearly 400 percent increase in campus acreage. Qubein has shifted the way the university operates and serves its students with a philosophy based on experiential education and holistic, values-based learning.

Qubein’s inspiring story starts long before he took the helm of HPU in 2005. He grew up in the Middle East with parents of Lebanese–Jordanian descent, and his father died when he was only six years old. He moved to the United States at age 17 for college, with $50 in his pocket and very little knowledge of English. He learned to speak English using three-by-five index cards, determined to speak in a fluent manner. “The rest of the story?” he asks. “Well, I went on to write 18 books in a language that wasn’t my native tongue.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from what was then High Point College and a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He later received honorary doctorates from the University of Mount Olive, High Point University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has led many successful business ventures and is currently on the boards of BB&T, Great Harvest Bread Company, La-Z-Boy Corporation and nThrive Healthcare.

Why step away from a successful business career to enter the world of higher education? Because he found a cause he was passionate about.

The passion in leadership

For Qubein, passion is a prerequisite for effective leadership. “I have an enormous amount of passion,” he says. “When I talk about High Point University, it just comes out of me. When you have passion as a leader, others feel it, and others want to emulate it. If they emulate it enough times, it becomes part of their persona, and the culture evolves. Then the place commands your best, and when the place commands your best, the sky’s the limit.”

Qubein says the work he is doing at HPU isn’t a job, it’s a commitment. Unlike a decision made with the brain, a commitment is made with the heart. “I came to High Point University,” he says, “committed to doing the work—not simply to take a new job. Huge difference.”

Qubein sees the value in seeing things through, which is why, he says, he has no interest in leading other universities. He remains committed to this university, its faculty, its students and its alumni.

He sees a similar level of passion and commitment in the leaders he admires—political leaders like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and business leaders like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and BB&T’s Kelly King. To Qubein, these leaders have important commonalities: a heart filled with hope, a soul filled with anticipation, and a mind believing in the art of the possible. These characteristics work hand in hand with passion and commitment.

Change, risk and opportunity

Qubein is an effective leader, and his willingness to embrace change is second to none. His mother emphasized the significance of taking risks. “If you take the risk out of life, you take the opportunity out of life,” he explains. “Risk and change are often married to each other.” Qubein has taken various risks over the years, including his vision to improve HPU’s appearance—its “wow” factor.

His ability to think critically and incorporate innovative solutions has largely contributed to the success of his career. “I have this right-brain/left-brain thing going for me,” he says. “I’m very creative on one hand, and I’m very financially oriented on the other hand.” Qubein challenges the status quo. He demonstrates new ways of thinking, including his mentality on treating students the way you would a customer: “That’s what drives me nuts about institutions of higher learning: we have reserved spots for the president and the faculty, instead of students,” he remarks. “This is warped!”

“For the comfortable, change is threatening. For the timid, change is frightening. For the confident, change is opportunity,” states Qubein. He seeks opportunities every day to embrace change that will lead to better, faster, more meaningful results. “With every venture, I learned new things,” he says. “With every risk I took, I matured and evolved.”

What it means to be a leader

From the outside, one might think Qubein’s leadership philosophy is driven by ambition. While ambition plays a role, his approach transcends that common motivation. As a leader, he is intentional in his words, actions, and overall decision-making, all stemming from his selflessness and desire to serve others.

With Qubein’s father dying at such an early age, his mother was left to care for him and his four siblings.

“I like to say that out of adversity can emerge abundance,” he says. Leading by example, Qubein’s mother instilled in him the value of hard work and what it means to be a leader. She believed that the environment in which you choose to spend time directly influences the kind of person you grow to be. “Who you spend time with is who you become,” he says. “So, if you want to become a great leader you have to spend time with great leaders.”

For Qubein, management and leadership are measurably different: “A manager manages a process; a leader inspires and grows people,” he explains. “If I don’t grow people, there will be no future for this institution.”

Qubein exhibits a commitment to helping students develop themselves and investing in others. He believes in following a specific framework to obtain his goals as a leader.

As he puts it: “You have to have a clear vision and a solid strategy. You have to ask yourself, ‘Where are we today, where do we want to go, and how are we going to get there?’”

While an ambitious dreamer himself, Qubein believes you have to be practical and consistent to achieve desired outcomes. “If the first time you fail you give up, you’ll never do anything in life,” he remarks. “You have to be consistently focused on executing important things in life to make them happen.”

Qubein leads from a position of strength and confidence. He is confident because he strives to be competent in all aspects of his life, especially in his day-to-day responsibilities as president. “Why do I have confidence?” he asks. “Because competence leads to confidence. What leads to competence? Knowledge, skill and experience.” He also recognizes he cannot be competent in every area of the university, which is why he takes his mother’s advice and surrounds himself with talented staff whose skills round out his own.

For Qubein, life is about choices. “Most of our choices emerge from our habitual process,” he says. “Choices become habits and determine what you do with your life. The irony about habits is that bad habits are easy to develop and hard to live with.”

To Qubein, being a strong leader means being a strong listener and communicator. However, the secret to being a great communicator is learning to connect with people. “You can be a great communicator, but a lousy connector,” he observes.

Being a great connector

Qubein is more than the guy who shakes your hand on graduation day. His ability to connect with his students, faculty and community truly sets him apart. Qubein isn’t just the president behind the desk. He strives to make himself visible and accessible throughout the university campus.

He is the person cheering students on at their soccer game in Charlotte or their volleyball game in Asheville. He is the person who hands them an umbrella from his car when he sees them walking across campus in the rain. He is the person handing out chocolate bars on Halloween, wearing silly glasses. “It’s not because these children could not afford to buy a chocolate bar,” he says. “It’s about the university president giving out chocolate bars. If I had the chocolate bar given out by someone in the cafe, it wouldn’t leave the same impression.”

Qubein places great value on building relationships with students, getting to know them and making himself accessible to them. He is known to spend his lunch hour in the cafeteria talking to students and taking selfies. He stops in to see the cafeteria workers as well. “I poke my head through the door and say ‘How are you doing? How is your day going? Is everyone respecting you?’”

Qubein is skilled at connecting because he understands what it means to truly connect with someone: “For me to connect with you, I need to understand your needs, your fears, your aspirations and your goals,” he explains. “I have to listen, be patient, be caring, be willing.”

As he continued to talk about the time he spends wishing a student happy birthday or calling a student who has lost a family member or is in the hospital, he suddenly lowered his voice, as if sharing a secret. “It doesn’t take much time,” he whispers. “People think it takes this much time; it doesn’t. It’s a habit. It doesn’t tire me to do these things. I can do these things in 15 minutes a day. But it makes a huge impact.”

Qubein understands his role as a leader at High Point University: to build an environment where students, staff and faculty can thrive.

“When students [ask to meet with me], I always say ‘yes,’” he says. “You know what? I’m going be honest with you: the day I don’t have 10 minutes to spend with a student is the day I need to move on.”

His impact on the world

Qubein’s work at High Point University keeps him busy. His passion and commitment to the university drives him to wake up every morning no later than 4 a.m. He studies from 4 to 6 a.m. to ensure that when he goes to work at 8 a.m., he is completely informed about what is going on. He’s known to work 17- or 18-hour days, driving here and there to support his students and faculty. But the decision to work that hard is an easy one. He is driven by a mission larger than himself.

“If you just want to be an executive, that’s fine; you can be an executive. But I don’t want to be an executive. I never aspired to be president,” he reflects. “I want to truly instill in the lives of our students ideas and principles, directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously, that can help them in life. Because when I die, I want people to say, ‘His impact was through the lives of others.’ And if I have at least a few others whose lives I’ve impacted, my life was worthwhile.”

Image credit: High Point University

Interviewed by Stephanie Addison and Amy Stamm.