Be Careful In What You Wish For

My first day as editor of the Nashville Banner, with owners John Jay Hooker, Brownlee Currey and Irby Simpkins.

One of the questions most often asked of young people is, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Initially, I had a passion to be a play-by-play announcer of sporting events. As an undergraduate, I majored in broadcast journalism and had the opportunity to broadcast the University of Tennessee’s basketball and baseball games on the student radio station.

That dream evaporated upon graduation for two reasons: (1) I quickly found out that the trip to the top of the profession in broadcasting started typically at a small radio station as a disc jockey playing the “top 40,” a role that had no appeal to me, and (2) my best job opportunity after college was the editorship of a weekly newspaper in my hometown.

The “printer’s ink” permeated my system almost immediately upon assuming my role as editor. Within weeks, it became clear to me what I wanted to do with my life. I set my sights on becoming an editor of a major daily newspaper.

My plan was to do the best job I could as a weekly newspaper editor under the watchful eye of my boss, Coleman Harwell. Colie, as he was known, was a well-respected journalist who was connected across the nation with the movers and shakers in the profession. The weekly newspaper was my mechanism to build a foundation of experience.

The next logical step was to parlay the weekly experience and my association with Colie into a promotion to a major daily, preferably the Nashville Tennessean. With Colie’s help, I made it to the Tennessean, where for four years, I received the equivalent of several doctorates as I served in a variety of roles, including news editor.

I concluded that if I really wanted to be an editor, I needed to step out of the newsroom and gain some experience as an insider in other professional worlds. After considerable thought, it occurred to me that the major areas of newspaper coverage were politics, government, and education. With that in mind, I charted the pathway I would take in my journey to an editorship.

My first step was to take a position in 1967 as an administrator with the University of Tennessee, with an eye already focused on step two: serving as press secretary for a major Democratic candidate for governor in the upcoming 1970 campaign, which was a strong possibility because Seigenthaler was the candidate’s best friend and confidante, and he knew of my interest and ambitions.

Indeed, at the beginning of 1970, I received the call to serve as press secretary. The university granted me a leave of absence, and I was off to the races. My candidate won the primary but lost the general election. It was a major setback in my game plan.

However, the university that had granted a leave of absence chose to make me chancellor of one of its campuses, and I was back on track, waiting for the moment of fulfillment. Five years as chancellor passed, when, suddenly, two things happened to open the door.

The university campus where I served as chancellor was knee-deep in a federal desegregation lawsuit that was about to lead to a merger that would put my institution out of existence. On the very day that the Supreme Court chose not to hear our appeal, ending for good any hope that we had to survive, I received a phone call in Washington from Dan Coleman. He advised me that John Hooker – the same John Hooker for whom I had served as press secretary at the beginning of the decade – was poised to buy the Nashville Banner.

As soon as my plane landed back in Nashville, I called Hooker from a pay phone at the airport. He said he wanted to talk with me about becoming editor. All at once, the proverbial dog seemed to have caught the car. I was ecstatic, suddenly realizing that my long-time dream was within reach.

But the last step was not an easy one to take. A couple of complications immediately surfaced. Ed Boling, the president of the University of Tennessee, wanted me to become chancellor of another campus in the system. At the same time, I learned that John Hooker would have two partners, neither of whom I knew.

Initially, it appeared to be a no-brainer for me. Within my grasp was the fulfillment of my dream. Moreover, accepting the offer to become chancellor of another university would require uprooting my family from a city we loved to move to a small rural community in West Tennessee. I was prepared to say no to the president, but he was persistent. He asked that I at least spend a couple of days on the campus for interviews to see if that would generate interest.

I agreed to do that, and after two days of intense interviews with scores of constituents at the campus, I began to waver a bit. The comfort level I achieved during the visits blended with some growing doubt about the partners of John Hooker. Working for Hooker was something I knew would be comfortable for me, but I was not at all sure that he would be in charge. His partners, both wealthy businessmen with no experience in journalism, appeared to be very strong personalities. Conflict between Hooker and his partners seemed inevitable, even before the deal was consummated.

I decided to make another trip to the campus for a second look, which convinced me that the chancellorship was the right choice. All that was left to do – we thought – was to find some way to break the news to my dear friend John Hooker. However, that evening, an incredible, stunning event occurred that changed everything.

My wife and I had been invited to attend what we thought was a routine dinner with the three owners of the Banner and their wives. It was a pleasant evening, with dinner at one of Nashville’s most exclusive restaurants. Everything seemed normal. Then, as we waited for dessert, the three owners left their seats and disappeared into another room, leaving my wife and me and their three wives at the table.

Upon their return, John Hooker took a champagne glass in hand and proposed a toast to the new editor of the Nashville Banner. I looked at Shawna Lea, and she looked at me. My mind was racing. What do I say? What do I do? Should I graciously accept the toast and explain later? Or should I break the news that I am going to West Tennessee?

I decided to respond graciously and hope for the best. As we left that night, Shawna Lea and I knew we were in a dilemma, and there was no good way out. In a sense, circumstances had trumped reason. I was trapped.

After a restless night, we decided that it was meant to be that I become editor. After all, that had been my long-time dream. So, instead of going to Hooker to say no, we drove to Knoxville to say no to Ed Boling. What a turn of events, the strangest moment of my life.

The editorship of the Banner was an incredible roller coaster ride. As envisioned, Hooker and his partners disagreed on practically every matter. All three tried to win me to their way of thinking, and I could see that I was caught in the middle of a tremendous power struggle that Hooker would eventually lose.

I was miserable.

Then fate intervened once again. I received a call from the chairman of the search committee for the new chancellor in West Tennessee. His question to me was very simple: “Would you be willing to take a second look?”

To make a long story short, I made another trip to West Tennessee, and in a matter of days I was once again a chancellor. Behind me was a brief four months of doing what I thought was a fulfillment of a life-long dream.

The lesson is very simple: Be careful what you wish for, or as the proverbial dog learned the hard way, make sure you know what you are going to do when you catch the car.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 26, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

Now available in paperback!

If You Have to Eat Crow, Eat It While It’s Hot


My wife Shawna Lea, son Chip, daughter Tandy and myself in a feature story in the UT Martin alumni publication.

One of the great lessons to be learned from the infamous Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration is that human beings tend to forgive acknowledged mistakes. However, obstinate refusal to admit mistakes or, even worse, an attempt to cover up mistakes is a sure-fire recipe for failure. In literally hundreds of examples over my career, “eating crow while it was hot” made the penalty of mistakes much less painful.

One such mistake occurred during my chancellorship at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Historically, our campus had been a leader in providing interns for members of Tennessee General Assembly. The bulk of our interns had traditionally been assigned, for logical reasons, to West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislative seats in the Martin campus service area.

One day I received an early morning call from Jim Kennedy, the chief of staff of the Speaker of the House, alerting me that I had been the topic of discussion at that morning’s Democratic caucus breakfast. He further advised that I would be receiving a call from the caucus leader, Frank Lashlee, a temperamental senator from a small town near the campus. The problem was that somehow one of our interns had been assigned to a prominent Republican House member from Memphis.

This came as news to me, and I recognized immediately that we had a problem. I thanked the Speaker’s chief of staff and moved quickly to determine what had gone wrong. Within minutes, I discovered that the faculty member who staffed the intern program was on leave of absence and that his stand-in had decided to assign an intern to the Memphis Republican, unaware of the long tradition that had provided rural West Tennessee Democrats with this service.

Recognizing the error of his way, the faculty member was receptive to corrective action. In short, we made a quick decision to fund an additional internship and assign that individual to the Democratic caucus.

Without waiting for the caucus leader to call me, I placed a call to him. The initiative clearly startled him. Without hesitation, I told the senator that my daddy had always told me that if you had to eat crow, you should eat it while it is hot. “We’ve screwed up,” I told the senator, “and we apologize. Moreover, here is what we plan to do to rectify the situation.”  

When I finished talking, I held my breath and waited for his response. I will never forget his words. “Mr. Chancellor, thank you and have a good day.” That was all he said, and I never heard another word from him or any other member of the caucus.

We had dodged a bullet. Had we tried to defend or cover up the indefensible, we would have paid a huge price. Mistakes had been made and corrected. Proper apologies had been issued. The crow had been eaten while it was hot.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

Always Do what You Say You’re Going to Do

Without any question, I strongly believe that integrity is the cornerstone of successful leadership in any environment. Would-be leaders who lack integrity are ticking time bombs. Their credibility is certain to crumble. They are destined to self-destruct.

My official chancellor picture on the UT Martin website.

However, there is another dimension of integrity that is often overlooked in leadership training. Stated simply, it is not enough for the leader alone to be a person of impeccable integrity; the entire organization must function in a way that supports and reinforces the leader’s commitment to integrity.

The importance of this point was brought home to me in a startling and revealing way in the early days of my second chancellorship, at UT Martin. At one of my weekly “dutch treat” luncheons –which I used to maintain open communications with faculty, students, alumni, and staff – a faculty member asked me a relatively simple question.

He wanted to know whether a faculty member who was promoted in rank would receive both a merit increase in salary and the promotion stipend that I had just instituted. (That campus had never given faculty any financial reward for promotion in rank.)

My answer was simply yes, with the added observation that anyone worthy of promotion in rank would clearly deserve a merit increase.

That luncheon occurred in June, shortly before our governing board acted on salaries for the next fiscal year. Seven months later, I received a long, hand-written letter from the faculty member who had asked me the question at the “dutch treat” luncheon. It was a letter I shall never forget.

In the very first paragraph the faculty member reminded me of his question and my answer and then quickly informed me that I had not done what I said the administration would do. He had been promoted but had received only the newly implemented promotion stipend. Not one cent of merit pay increase had been given to him.

I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed. My reaction was quick and forceful. A meeting of senior staff was promptly convened. The letter was shared with each staff member. I asked how it was possible that this could have happened, since every one of the senior staff had heard my response to the faculty member’s question.

The response I received from the senior administrator responsible for faculty raises shook me. I shall never forget his words: “Chancellor, we heard what you said, but we simply assumed that was just rhetoric at the podium.”

I was livid. My response was swift and clear. “Folks,” I said, “I am relatively new on this campus. You may not know me as you should. But let’s be clear about one thing: no matter how I say it – via policy, memo, or informally at the podium – I mean what I say, and I expect actions to be taken by staff that comply.”

The senior administrator then asked what I wanted done.

Should he direct the dean to correct the error and award the faculty member who wrote the letter the merit increase?

“The first thing I want you to do,” I told him, “is to provide me with a printout of all faculty who received promotions so that we may determine if additional faculty members were treated the same way as the one who wrote me.”

The printout revealed that seven faculty members had received promotion supplements but no merit increase – seven men and women, who for seven months had believed that their chancellor had not done what he said he would do.

The frightening part of this story is that had the faculty member not written the letter, I would have never known, and to this day my integrity would be questioned in the hearts of those who had been denied what I had promised.

My directive to change all seven salaries sent shock waves across the campus, strengthening the credibility of the administration and making clear to senior staff that we were going to do what we said we would do.

From that day forward, I was ever alert to breakdowns in the organization that might damage credibility. Monitoring systems were put in place to ensure that promises were kept and commitments were fulfilled. The lesson I learned was that keeping your word is not a solo act in a large organization.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 8, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.