The Braille Monitor                                                                        December 2005


Reflections on Leadership

by Larry Streeter

Larry Streeter
Larry Streeter

From Mary Ellen Gabias: Larry Streeter has served the Federation in several capacities over the past thirty years. His reflections on sound leadership in the following article may be familiar to the more experienced among us, but finding them gathered together in one place will certainly be useful to newer members of the Federation family. Besides, it is valuable for us all occasionally to review what we know to be true. This is what he says:

The four major influences affecting my life every day are my religious beliefs as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my family responsibilities, my employment as the dispute resolution coordinator with the Idaho State Department of Education, and my involvement in and commitment to the National Federation of the Blind.

I have been a member of the NFB for over thirty years. Without a doubt it plays a major role in my life. In those three-plus decades I have been shaped by our philosophy and influenced by our dynamic leadership. Like many others I do my best to live our philosophy every day. I know that no one can succeed perfectly, but it is still an ideal worth striving to achieve.

Each summer, following our NFB national convention, I attend an education law conference in Portland, Maine. After the conference this year I caught a train back to Boston so that I could attend a session at our church's temple there. I do some of my best thinking inside our temples. After the session was over, I sat for a long time reflecting on my spirit, my religious convictions, my general beliefs about life, and my activity in the NFB.

In his book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis identifies three major ingredients of leadership. His concepts have become very important to me in my Federation work and in the rest of my life.

1. The first is a guiding vision. The leader has a clear idea of what he or she wants to do and the strength to continue even when failure occurs. We must know where we are headed, or we will never arrive at our destination.

2. The second ingredient is the combination of passion and hope. The leader loves what he or she does. He or she also knows that hope is essential, for without hope we cannot progress and will therefore not survive. This hope spreads to others and inspires them to succeed.

3. The final ingredient is integrity. The way we conduct ourselves is critical for others, blind and sighted alike, for we are constantly being judged.

These principles were already a part of my life when the opportunity to serve as NFB of Idaho president was offered to me. I did not seek the office; my colleagues sought my services. After accepting the challenge five years ago, I always felt I knew where I was going as president, had great passion for the position, and served with integrity. Years of observing our movement in action and developing my own leadership skills had taught me that these qualities were basic requirements of the job.

When I attended my first convention in Chicago in 1975, I had been a member for a very short time. I had been involved in reorganizing a chapter and had then been elected president but did not know beans about the organization. I decided to go to the convention because of the strong urging of a fellow member. I arrived just in time to register, which took quite a while in those days. The first person I met in that long registration line was Bennett Prows, who was kind enough to take time to respond to my many questions. I wondered how the Federation functioned and wanted to understand the philosophy. He talked to me about the basics of the organization, the meaning of leadership in the Federation, and the foundation on which we stand. He was an excellent mentor.
Ben's mentoring was just the beginning of my study of our policies and history. My exploration quickly proved to me that we have done more to make life better for blind people than any other entity in the field. In large part these remarkable, hard-fought achievements have occurred due to the efforts of those talented people who have held the presidency on the national, state, and local levels, ably aided by dedicated, active, resourceful members.

Most organizations pass leadership from one president to another at each election, like passing a loaf of freshly baked bread around the table and watching each person take a slice. We are often accused of being undemocratic because we do not have term limits for our presidents. But it takes time for a person to develop into an effective leader. How foolish to squander that time investment by removing a president from office arbitrarily at the end of a term!

The NFB has much more at stake than a run-of-the mill organization. It seems to me that we have the responsibility to choose with care those who lead us because the presidency at every level of this organization demands a unique perspective. Our approach has driven our opponents crazy over the years. They do not comprehend why our view of leadership and the presidency is so different from their own, and they fail or refuse to understand that this view is tied to our success.

Clearly, finding leaders is our most important internal decision. The first duty of any president is to find his or her successor. Finding the right person is no easy task. We should carefully observe individuals over an extended period, mentor them to the best of our ability, and provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their talents. At some point we must step back and observe the results of our efforts, like a mother bird watching her young fly for the first time. Though finding leaders is difficult, future leaders are easy to recognize when they appear.

I observed this process in action when I attended the farewell dinner for Dr. Jernigan in Des Moines in 1978. I was moving about the hotel the night before and met Mrs. Hazel tenBroek and Muzzy Marcelino. They invited me to join them. For over an hour they overflowed with information about the Federation. They encouraged me to continue reading and to ask questions. They invited several of us, including Fred Schroeder, to join them for dinner. The food was great, and the conversation was an educational experience. I learned much that evening.

After dinner Mrs. tenBroek, Fred, and I headed back to the hotel. All of a sudden Mrs. tenBroek, who was in the middle, threw one arm around Fred and the other around me. What a privilege and honor it was to spend time with Dr. tenBroek's widow. I recall that she made me feel completely comfortable. I felt particularly honored to be spending time with such a great lady because Fred and I were just young pups at that time. I observed Fred and had a very strong impression that this guy was being groomed for future leadership.

The NFB has always been blessed with great leaders, starting with our founder Dr. tenBroek. He freely gave of his time, energy, and resources to create and build an organization that would alter the course of life for coming generations of blind people.

Even when Dr. tenBroek was not serving as president, everyone still regarded him as the leader of the movement. I firmly believe that it is possible to be a Federation leader without holding an office. James Omvig is a perfect example. He demonstrated leadership for many years before serving as Maryland state president and continued leading when he moved to another state. Several years ago I invited him to Boise to participate in one of our leadership seminars. He taught us well.

Though it is not necessary to be president to be a leader, it is essential that presidents be leaders. We expect many things of our presidents. Here are a few that seem important to me:

Presidents should be teachers. Every member must learn our most basic philosophy. While Dr. Jernigan was alive, I often heard the words "equality, opportunity, and security." While we have not lessened our commitment to these concepts, those words used to be part of the NFB logo. I sometimes wonder if the introduction of the vigorous, active Whozit logo without these three words has lessened our emphasis on the concepts. Dr. Jernigan taught us the importance of these principles, and these three goals have inspired many members to reach a higher level of commitment. We must continue to teach these basics to old and new members alike.
Good presidents encourage members to read, study, and digest our literature. Our writings are critical in the development of the membership. They tell of our history, identify our philosophy, and keep us abreast of current issues in the blindness field. They are the heart of our movement and declare our vision, mission, and independent spirit. Reading our literature also has a tremendous impact on our level of personal commitment.

Presidents set the example for their members. Glenn Crosby served as president of the NFB of Texas when I moved back there in late 1977. President Crosby never expected anyone to do more than he did. The affiliate did not have a dime to spare. We made up for the money we did not have with our enthusiasm. We sold stuffed animals to raise funds. High school girls just loved them.
Glenn knew the importance of teaching NFB principles. He took the money we earned from the sale and conducted a leadership seminar in San Antonio. It was a tremendous weekend. We were taught about our history, the importance of being in the organization, and the benefits of our efforts. We shared personal stories of success and failure as blind people and made a commitment to work together for the betterment of the blind. The result was a more cohesive and collaborative affiliate. It was a privilege to serve as first vice president later in his administration. A few of that group have gone on to a better place. However, every living person who attended that seminar has remained strong in our movement to this day.

Presidents should be committed to improving their own personal skills, including Braille, independent travel, and the other skills of blindness. But this also includes general leadership and communication skills. Although most of us will never be able to write great speeches like presidents tenBroek, Jernigan, and Maurer, we should still take the time and make the effort to improve our writing skills by raising our personal bars.

A good president is not afraid to set high expectations for the organization. Once a major issue has been identified, our presidents have expected excellence of themselves and the membership. Our goals have often been lofty and seemed impossible, but we have always been a motivated, decisive, and talented group of blind citizens. If our goals were too easy, we would all become bored and lazy. Many of us would become inactive or even leave the movement.

Presidents must be good communicators. Peggy Elliott, our esteemed second vice president, once told me that poor communication is the most critical of all member complaints. I strongly concur with her thinking. However, communication is a two-way street. We all need to work to communicate better. Presidents are not mind readers and should not be expected to be. If a president is worth his or her salt, a member should be able to go to that president and discuss anything under the sun.

Presidents must be willing to respect and honestly consider the opinions of all members. Members should be encouraged to voice their opinions, even those that are strongly held or opposed by others. Open discussion is critical to organizational success; every issue has at least two sides.

Part of communicating is listening. Presidents must listen closely and be open to constructive criticism. One of my former Idaho board members was very good about calling me to express her opinion. We did not always see eye to eye or agree immediately. I readily admit that I was not always ready for her open manner of addressing issues, but I appreciated her candor just the same. Sometimes I had to hang up the phone and think about her comments to digest fully what she was communicating. But her calls helped me to see and appreciate other perspectives.

Presidents must be flexible and able to deal effectively with a diverse membership. Blind people mirror our society. This great movement attracts people from various classes, religions, geographical regions, and ages. The president must work with them all.
Good presidents demonstrate confidence. At times the membership may misinterpret confidence, labeling it as arrogance. People who are regarded as confident share a number of characteristics. They are goal setters, active planners, and decision makers. They are not afraid of opposition or fearful of expressing an opinion. They are assertive, self-motivated people who usually achieve their goals. Confident people in our movement have at least most of the characteristics above, demonstrate positive attitudes about blindness, and have good skills. Confidence goes hand in hand with competence. The more work we do in the Federation, the more likely it is that our confidence and competence will grow and the greater our commitment will be.

Presidents must be willing to face and learn from adversity because it is inevitable and can help us to grow and become something better tomorrow than we are today. It is not always easy to understand. Dr. tenBroek provides a dramatic example. I never knew the man but have read many of his works. I have been told that in addition to his intellectual capabilities he was kind and considerate. For nearly two decades he built this organization into a strong entity, only to have his opponents viciously attack him. He was forced to watch the organization he loved endure a civil war, and he eventually chose to give up the presidency. This courage and selflessness spurred the Federation to resolve the crisis and laid the foundation for our unity and strength today. Several years after this decision, Dr. tenBroek returned to the presidency for the final two years of his life. He never left the movement that he had created. Rather he stood the difficult test.

A good president writes well in order to carry the message to the membership and the public at large. Dr. Jernigan set the standard high, and his speeches will always influence our thinking. President Maurer continues to impress the membership and society with his words of wisdom. Their eloquent, powerful, and truthful words have certainly been a major factor in changing what it means to be blind.

We expect our presidents to be good speakers. I have heard many eloquent speeches delivered by state and local presidents. However, when it comes to blindness issues, who can name two better speakers than Dr. Jernigan and President Maurer? The high points of our annual conventions are the presidential report and the banquet address. No one will ever be NFB national president for long unless he or she possesses the skill to deliver a powerful presentation.

Presidents must set agendas and plan, organize, and conduct meetings. In the name of democracy they should encourage members to speak their minds and then cast their votes. But once the vote has been taken, the time for debate has passed. Members then have the obligation to support the decision the group has made. If a member still continues to oppose the will of the majority, the healthiest and most responsible course for him or her to take is to remain silent on that subject until everyone has had a chance to observe the policy in action.

Presidents must understand and apply organizational policy. The issue of person-first language is a good example and particularly important to me. Our society pressures all of us to be politically correct for no very good reason. Some of us have fallen into this trap. I served on the Resolutions Committee the year Dr. Jernigan wrote his resolution on person-first language, and I sat next to him while he eloquently read it. Chills ran up and down my spine. I had not realized just how strongly opposed I had been to person-first language until he put my feelings into words. My opposition today is just as strong as it was then. Person-first language either removes the word "blind" from our vocabulary or hides the characteristic behind the noun. We are blind people, not people who are blind. I am absolutely convinced that using person-first language is dangerous because it implies discomfort with the characteristic. In my opinion a good president should implement this Federation policy by resisting person-first language at every opportunity and absolutely refusing to let it creep into his or her speeches and writing.

Presidents must frequently testify on legislative issues and represent the organization in the community. They appoint committees and supervise their work and are often called upon to help solve members' personal problems. One of the most important skills for presidents to develop is the ability to know when and how to delegate responsibilities. Every president must provide leadership in guarding the NFB from threats to its autonomy. We are not a cross-disability group. I heard Dr. Jernigan say on more than one occasion, "If we need to participate in a cross-disability effort, let us get in and get out again quickly." Occasionally I hear people say, "We need to work together." The doctrine of working together goes far beyond sitting around in a circle, smiling at one another, holding hands, and singing "Kum Ba Yah"; clearly that is not what we are all about. Of course we need to work together with other organizations when our interests coincide, but working this way requires that we allow open and honest discussion of difficult topics. Nothing is wrong with working with others outside the Federation as long as we always plan the activity and speak for ourselves through our own collective voice.

We must all remember that we are the voice of the nation's blind, the National Federation of the Blind. We are the leaders of the blind community. Not everyone in the world is happy about this fact. We did not get to this position overnight; it took considerable time and effort and more than one battle. Our enemies want to see us fail. They would be delighted if we were to go away, to disband. We will never see eye to eye with some of these individuals and organizations. So be it.

The Federation has been very good to me. I am thankful for the many powerful, unforgettable experiences I have had over the years. They have helped me become a more determined person in my daily life, given me the confidence to compete on terms of equality with my sighted peers, allowed me the opportunity to serve others by sharing my time and talents to improve our future as blind people, and guided me to acquire knowledge and come to a better understanding about blindness. At least for me the Federation is a way of life.

I think of the Federation as being like our galaxy with the sun, moon, and stars. Whether on the national, state, or local level, the sun is the president and the moon is the person being prepared to assume the office some time in the future. The stars are the general membership--some who burn brightly, some who sparkle from time to time, and others who can barely be observed. How brightly we shine, regardless of our position, depends on our understanding of the Federation's basic principles and our personal level of commitment.