In life at the top, it is “what have you done for me lately” that counts the most. Yesterday’s successes simply don’t transfer to tomorrow, particularly when a new playing field must be confronted.
At almost every move as I stepped up the career ladder, I was greeted with skepticism. When I was named chancellor at UT in Nashville, some faculty and staff quietly questioned why President Boling had put a thirty-five-year-old “kid” in charge of a campus in a state of crisis. Five years later, when I was named editor at the Nashville Banner, hard-bitten reporters openly questioned my limited newsroom experience.
Despite my experience as a two-time university chancellor and as a daily newspaper editor, my appointment as state commissioner of education was greeted by the president of the state teachers union with the words: “Naming Smith as commissioner is like a kindergarten teacher being named president of the University of Tennessee.”
The harsh reality of “what have you done for me lately” hit me squarely on the chin in the immediate aftermath of my greatest professional achievement and at the pinnacle of my career. It was a wakeup call that re-ignited the competitive juices that had fueled my career for more than three decades.
The scene in question was my transition from state commissioner of education to chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents. The change came in the afterglow of the successful passage of landmark educational reform legislation that was judged at the time as the most significant in the nation’s history.
It was a heady time for me. I thought I was on top of the world. A sense of invincibility permeated my being. It was indeed a proud moment for a small-town kid.
But in the euphoria of success, I forgot practically every lesson that had guided my career to that point, and made the greatest mistake of my professional career. I turned the day-to-day operation of the nation’s seventh largest system of higher education over to a chief of staff, a position I had never staffed in my career. I forgot for the moment that my climb to the top and the career best achievement as commissioner had been accomplished by my personal involvement in all the major decisions.
The young man who served as chief of staff did his best, but there was no way he could compensate for my personal style of leadership. The result was that within eighteen months, the glow of success that I had achieved at the Department of Education as commissioner had been replaced by the aura of discontent in a new environment. My leadership was being challenged and questioned for the first time in my life. I was not getting the job done.
The shock of that circumstance aroused my competitive instincts and caused me to reach back to the work ethic and leadership style that had served me well over a lifetime. I became again my own chief of staff. And in short order, the ship I had been commissioned to captain was back on course.
The lesson is clear. Successes of the past do not guarantee successes in the future. Credibility earned in one environment does not necessarily transfer to another environment. Each day in a leader’s life is a new day. Nothing can be taken for granted.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com