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 August 2007 • NIRSA news and information
Front Page Membership Education Conference & Expo Sports Foundation Leadership Notes Research Risk Management Sustainability
Tom Kirch
Leadership Notes

Take off your blinders, look to the rainbow, and set sail! Or something like that

In the past couple of years, I began to recognize elements in NIRSA that seem to me to be significantly different than just a short while ago. This observation struck me at the 2004 Annual Conference in Albuquerque. During the Business Meeting (or perhaps it was a General Session), the mediator asked the audience to stand based on the decade in which they first attended the Annual Conference. For those that began in the 2000s, half or more of those in the room rose. As we moved to the 90s and back, of course fewer and fewer members stood. My turn came in the decade of the 70s (1979 was my first Annual Conference). As I looked around the room, there were only about 50 of us, almost all of whom I had a personal relationship with. Believe it or not, there were even a handful of members who reached back to the 60s, still active in the Association.

That was a sobering moment for me. First, where has the time gone? It was not all that long ago that I was that first-time member, wandering the halls of the hotel in Atlanta, program in hand, dissecting the property’s floor plan so I could move strategically among sessions, the exhibit hall (“I’m just a small-town kid from the Northwest — maybe this is something I don’t need to know about”), and the Career Opportunities Center (“my supervisor suggested I check this out and now I’m worried”), while simultaneously observing this sea of people, all of whom seemed to know each other as if they were in the same massive Greek house in a time long past. Twenty-nine conferences later, I am still amazed at the energy and passion I see at the Annual Meeting and in that all-important network that binds our Association together like no other.

Secondly, our Association has become so young. Our most recent membership data tells us that more than 60% of our members have five years or less experience in the Association, and that the median age is 38. It may not be so to some, but to me that’s just ‘kid’ age. So we are in the midst of the Millennium Age and all that it represents. Having two twenty-something-year-old children, I have firsthand knowledge of the generation gap and the differences in the world-view we each possess. How do we manage those differences and find common ground for meaningful interaction?

Finally, and most importantly, how do we identify and nurture the leaders of the future? Who will step forward to guide and contribute to our Association when those from the 70s and 80s and 90s have moved on? What role do the ‘seasoned’ professionals have in that effort? How do we share our history, the legacy that has been left, and who will mentor and teach the leaders of tomorrow? Most significantly, how relevant will NIRSA be to those members who were the first group to stand in that room in Albuquerque?

As I like to do from time to time, I went searching for someone in the department that I could lament to and share my thoughts. Unfortunately, most everyone had been born during or before my formative junior school years, so my concerns fell on deaf ears. I did find one dear colleague with whom to share these perspectives and concerns. We began to commiserate about these changes and what it meant for NIRSA in the future. Then we began to reminisce about our past experiences when we were the young neophytes, and what those that came before us must have thought about those young rebels. And over time, how easy it has been for us to get set in our ways of thinking and viewing what is best for our Association. My friend left me with a quote that day that crystallized our conversation and led me to my surprise, a newfound consideration and self reflection. There was no source to the statement, so perhaps it was his wise perception and counsel to me that made such a difference when he said:

“Above all, as you move on, remember that human attribute: the ability to turn around and look in any and all directions. Blinders are for horses, not for people.”

What seemed like such a simple axiom provided focus for me in a journey to understand and seek knowledge. I asked myself, do I really practice the complete turn, or do I limit my view by keeping my feet firmly in place? After all, we are often encouraged, in an effort to be grounded in our world, to hold on to certain beliefs. Do I simply turn from side to side when convenient or necessary, or do I ever see beyond the confines of my peripheral vision? That simple recognition seemed to give me freedom to broaden and expand my thinking and has led me to see the possibilities rather than the limitations. It also has brought me hope and anticipation that the broad spectrum of points of view of younger generations, who are not so limited in their thinking and perspectives, will make all the difference.

So what about the future?

Two thoughts come to mind, that coupled together, may be important considerations for us all.

I recall a line in a song from the film “Finian’s Rainbow”:

            Look, look, look to the rainbow
            Follow the fellow who follows the dream

And, an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote (included in my President-elect presentation):

            I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand,
            but rather in what direction we are moving:
            we must sail sometimes with the wind,
            and sometimes against it –
            but we must sail, not drift, nor lie at anchor.

Who will have the vision and courage to navigate our future, and will we be willing to follow? And, will we be under sail or drifting in no particular direction? Or worse, will we remain anchored in our past?

Take care, TK

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