Holding the levers of power that are accessible to a leader is a precious resource that must be used wisely and cautiously. I have observed over the years that some leaders go too far in pushing their agendas and lose their effectiveness, while others appear too shy or tentative to make a difference on issues and causes in which they believe. It is a delicate balance that must be maintained.
In my career, I took advantage of several opportunities to make a difference in ways that conventional wisdom might question. However, as I look back at the major decisions in this regard, I have no second thoughts. I did what was right. It made an important difference. And I am proud of the outcome in each case. I want to share one case with you in particular in this post:
Within days after assuming the chancellorship of the University of Tennessee Martin campus, I was confronted with a major athletics crisis. Allegations were made that my predecessor, in concert with the system administration, had failed to take advantage of an opportunity to gain membership in the Ohio Valley Conference, the premier conference for Tennessee small universities. Additionally, the athletics program was in shambles, with significant deficiencies in leadership and finances.
Athletics was not the issue I wanted to confront in my early days as chancellor, but I had no choice. There was no honeymoon to be had in this chancellorship. I was being tested early.
Fortunately, fate intervened at the right time. I was alone in my office one afternoon when a surprise visitor walked in. It was Ray Mears, the legendary former head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. Mears said he was in West Tennessee to speak at an alumni meeting and he had a few minutes to kill.
Mears was a beloved coach and human being, indisputably the most popular and best-known sports figure in the university statewide family. His career as coach had been cut short prematurely and tragically by recurring bouts of depression.
We talked that afternoon about the glory days of his success as coach. I had coached one of his sons as well as my son in a peewee basketball league in Knoxville. We had developed a close friendship that remained until his death.
That night, as I sat at the dinner table with my family, I mentioned the visit with Coach Mears. My son, who was then fifteen years old, asked a logical question that had escaped me. Stated simply, he asked what Coach Mears thought I should do about the athletics crisis. I had to admit that I had not sought the coach’s opinion, an answer that did not please my son.
The question, however, suddenly inspired a thought – Ray Mears might just be the perfect choice to lead the athletics program at Martin. But would he do it? I didn’t wait long to find out.
The next morning, I called Mears, popped the question, and held my breath for his response. He replied that he was wasting away in Knoxville, shoved to the sidelines by an insensitive athletics director who had assigned him the solitary task of making phone calls to potential donors from a computer list placed in front of him.
In short order, Mears said yes. Mears came into Martin like a whirlwind. At the announcement press conference, print and broadcast media from five major markets showed up. UT Martin had suddenly become the high profile university in the state system.
Mears and I shared the alumni meeting circuit over the next several months, and he took great delight in asking me repeatedly how many attended when I spoke. When I would respond that I probably had twenty-five or thirty alumni in attendance, he would quickly deflate my ego by stating that he had earlier drawn an audience of 200 or more at the same location.
There is no question in my mind that much of the success the campus enjoyed during my years as chancellor was due to the jump start that the Mears appointment provided. Our enrollment grew significantly, as did our state financial support and media coverage. And under Mears’s leadership, the university won some twenty conference championships.
While successes at the university were very important, the greatest outcome of the Mears decision was more personal. Mears openly stated many times over the years that I saved his life by giving him the opportunity to be athletics director. His despondency in the role he had in Knoxville had become overwhelming for him. He had lost the will to live. How does one put a value on something like that?
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.