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 October 2007 • NIRSA news and information
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Leadership Notes

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Tom Kirch

I learned from a wise mentor to read every day. For pleasure, for work, for self improvement, to gain different perspectives, for fun. Even for five minutes, and for whatever reason, read. Although I am challenged by time and commitments, I attempt to do so. And I am surprised by what a difference it makes both in my professional and personal life. Besides, where do you think I get all these stories I share?

I enjoy history. And I have found myself reading exceedingly more about the presidents, the great generals, and the founding fathers. I am fascinated by the stories and adventures, but more so by the character and make up of these individuals. Of course, there is often a bit of embellishment. Sometimes there is debate about the place in history these people occupy. However, what I find most intriguing is a common thread in how these leaders, in the face of great challenge, and often danger, confronted difficult conditions.

Most business schools, leadership writings, and teachers reinforce a point of commonality. What they say, and what I see, is that the first rule of being a leader is to focus on the challenge at hand. That's because "being' a leader is secondary to the act of leading. Only by doing the leading does one position oneself in front to become a leader.

Of course, I have a story to tell.

Charlie Grim, manager of the Chicago Cubs in the thirties and forties - a team that scored little, but always had potential - heard an excited report on a potential recruit from one of his scouts. "Charlie, I've landed the greatest young pitcher in the land," said the breathless scout. "He struck out every man he faced - twenty-seven in a row. Nobody even got a foul ball until two out in the ninth. The pitcher is right here with me. What should I do?" Charlie said, "Sign up the guy that got the foul ball. We are looking for hitters."

That's focus — first things first. One can be easily distracted from the need at hand when tempted by what appears to be a very attractive alternative.

In his book, Monday Morning Leadership, David Cottrell, the founder of CornerStone Leadership Institute, speaks to this point in a slightly different way. He talks about one of the most important lessons he ever learned. He shared that "I once had a manager who would remind us every day to "keep the main thing the main thing.' That is, to keep focused on what is important. If someone asked us to do something that was not part of our main thing, our manager would support us when we said that we couldn't get it done. We were a focused and productive workgroup because there was a clear understanding of our purpose. That was an excellent example of leading, being out front."

So what does this have to do with NIRSA? I have had the wonderful opportunity to serve on the Board of Directors, going on my fourth consecutive year. In that time, I have observed the challenges of keeping "the main thing the main thing.' As an organization, we have a high level of engagement, ownership, and passion for the Association — one of our greatest strengths. It is no wonder that at times, the interest of our members can move us in different directions. All well meaning, supportive of work we do on our campuses, and seemingly appropriate at the moment. At times there can be competing interests, or conflicting perspectives and ideas. How do we keep the focus on our purpose - our mission - and still address the needs of the membership?

As I read the NIRSA Mission, it became evident that to deliver our pledge " provide for the education and development of our professional and student members...' we needed to take a look at the current delivery systems, to ensure we are keeping 'the main thing the main thing.' As you know, I formed the Governance Commission last spring and charged them with reviewing the NIRSA governance. In our full-day workshop with Bud Crouch of Tecker Consultants, we developed a mega strategic question that would be the focus of their work. It states "what long-term governance infrastructure (process and structure) will NIRSA need to enhance success and create diverse options for involvement and leadership in order to provide a strong, relevant value proposition for membership?"

I have asked the Commission to keep this question in the line of sight and to address this issue, and this issue only. To do otherwise will dilute the work, affect our focus, and perhaps lead us in a direction, even though attractive, that will not serve us well in the future. This will not be easy, as the Commission involves a variety of constituents for their perspectives, ideas, and input. Balancing all of that and predicting the future will be a challenge.

As the Chicago Cubs coach understood, he was looking for hitters who knew when to hit (focus) and when to refrain from swinging (distractions). It a difficult challenge, but possible with discipline, even during the same at bat.

Take care and be well, TK

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