Servant Leadership: 'Leaders must work for those who work for them'


Shannon Cullinan Web 3

Shannon Cullinan has held a variety of leadership roles at the University of Notre Dame since returning to his alma mater 19 years ago. On July 1, he assumed the role of executive vice president.  He oversees the University’s $13 billion endowment, the $1.6 billion budget and eight divisions: Campus Safety and University Operations, Economic Development, Facilities Design and Operations, Finance, Human Resources, the Investment Office, the Office of Information Technologies, and University Enterprises and Events.

While he’s known by many at the University, NDWorks took this opportunity to introduce him to those not familiar with his background and work.

NDW: You have a long-standing relationship with your predecessor, John Affleck-Graves. What have you learned from him?

SC: John has been a great mentor and friend for more than 15 years. He never once made the position about himself — it was always about advancing our Catholic mission. John knew that faculty, students and staff are at the heart of the University of Notre Dame and that our job is to serve them to the best of our ability. I will forever admire John for his capacity to balance his role as the financial steward — which meant having to say “no” from time to time — with his vision and commitment to advancing the University. 

NDW: What do you see as the primary role of the EVP division? 

SC: The EVP division is dedicated to our people, our culture and the wise stewardship of our resources. Notre Dame is a mini-city that requires teams of people to prepare countless meals each day; serve thousands of customers in retail outlets; build, operate, maintain and clean our facilities; care for the campus grounds we all enjoy; ensure that our technology platforms perform; pay the bills on time; thoughtfully manage the budget and endowment; and ensure the safety of all of those at our campus facilities both domestically and internationally. Our dedicated staff provide the essential services that enable the University to operate in a manner worthy of our mission.

NDW: How would you describe your leadership style?

SC: Leadership is not solely for those who manage people. Every Notre Dame employee can lead in a variety of ways, none more significant than in the daily interactions we have with one another and all visitors to our campus. 

I also recognize that leaders must be flexible and adapt to the situation, but what I strive to be on a daily basis is a servant leader. My vision is rooted in a deep, continued commitment to our people. As Steven Sample says in “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership,” leaders must work for those who work for them. I admire leaders who are authentic, mission-centered, give credit away, hire and develop great talent, schedule time to think, and treat everyone with dignity. 

NDW: What experiences have prepared you to take on this leadership role?

SC: I have been fortunate to learn from a number of great leaders. My parents raised five boys. They taught us the value of hard work and genuine respect for each person. I observed my father working daily in his hardware store, patiently listening to customers and serving each one with kindness and dignity. My formation continued as a student at Notre Dame through my relationships with faculty, fellow students and Holy Cross priests. After graduation, my nonprofit work in Boston, Chicago and at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend showed me firsthand how committed people have the potential to be a force for good. 

Since 2000, I have been privileged to serve in a variety of roles at Notre Dame. These diverse experiences, from working with several service-oriented teams on campus, to crafting the current fundraising campaign, to leading the Finance Division, have helped me grow as a leader and heightened my understanding and appreciation of the operational and academic dimensions of Notre Dame. Today, I am grateful to my predecessors who wisely shaped the EVP division, dating back to the original visionary, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. I am one of many who commit their lives to serving this mission and having a positive impact on those with whom we teach, serve and pray.

NDW: Why have you chosen to work at your alma mater all these years?

SC: I have a vivid memory of being at the kitchen table when I was 18 years old. After dinner, my mother encouraged me to find a quiet place to open an envelope from the Notre Dame Admissions Office. When I learned I had been admitted, my eyes teared up with joy. Later, when I received a scholarship offer, my father, a member of the class of 1952, was filled with a similar, overwhelming emotion. He told me, “You have been given an enduring gift you do not yet fully understand.” 

I could not have imagined the lifelong impact Notre Dame would have on me. In the years since then, I have come to appreciate the life-changing experiences that take place for every member of the Notre Dame family. Now, I am grateful to play a small role in creating similar opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others. Although I will never be able to repay all that Notre Dame has given to me, I remain steadfast in my commitment to humbly serve, advance and strengthen our great mission at Notre Dame.

Click to read about other new high-level leaders at the University.