by J.W. Smith
From the Editor: J. W. Smith is the immediate past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio, and those who regularly attend the national convention will recognize his name as one of the people who has headed our membership recruitment effort. He joined the NFB in the early 1990s and quickly found his way into leadership. Here are some of his observations about things to do and things to avoid in being an affiliate president in the National Federation of the Blind:
I have been fortunate to have a variety of leadership opportunities including as a professor in the classroom, a committee chair, an administrator, a church choir director and youth leader, and a father and husband. Most of my leadership opportunities have been within the context of my university life, at least since 1983. I can honestly say, however, that serving as the president of the NFB of Ohio from 2008 to 2012 was the most satisfying and enriching leadership experience of my life to this point. For the past year or so I have been thinking about some of my experiences from those four years, and I thought it might be helpful to share some of my musings and advice for those currently in leadership in our movement and perhaps those thinking about it at the affiliate level.
I recognize that every situation will be different in opportunity and ascendancy to the affiliate presidency, and it may go without saying, but I think it really does need to be emphasized that each leader should and will bring his or her own uniqueness to the position. Your story may be different from mine, i.e., I had the privilege and challenge of following one of our longtime leaders in our affiliate and at the national level. It was clear to me and probably to most anyone else in our affiliate that Barbara Pierce would be a hard act to follow and that I had very big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I welcomed the opportunity and began with what I think is the key point for effective leadership:
Even though I had been first vice president in our affiliate for fourteen years, it was essential that I reintroduce myself to our membership and establish my leadership plan early on. In fact, I received a call shortly after being elected. The person on the other end of the phone was one of our relatively new board members. Although I had run unopposed, she still felt that she needed to know who I was and what my plans for the affiliate were. With this in mind and because I was sure that she was not the only one who had questions, I took the opportunity to answer her questions in my first president’s column in our newsletter. Here is in part what I said:
I am a father and a family person, and I love my wife and two daughters with all my heart. I’ve been married since 1986, and because of my wife Regina I am who I am today. She keeps the home fires burning, provides stability, and allows me to travel and do what I feel I’ve been called to do. She has always been a quiet, reserved individual who detests the limelight, but I think the statement “still waters run deep” best characterizes her personality and her perspective on life. Through the years you’ve read much about my daughters Ebony and Joshelyn. Ebony is in her first year at Ohio University, majoring in interior design, and Joshelyn is in her first year of high school, majoring in anything she can get into. These women are the joy of my life and the center of my world.
I am a fighter and a futurist. I was a wrestler in high school, and I had a reputation for being tenacious and one who fought till the bitter end. I will bring that same tenacity to the office of president. I will fight for what is right for blind Ohioans, and I will fight for those who either have lost their fight or don’t feel empowered to fight. I don’t intentionally go looking for fights, but I am a futurist in that I like to see the big picture, and I like to move the ball down the field. I love to play chess and checkers, and, as you know, to be successful at those games, one must anticipate as many future moves as possible for both oneself and one’s opponent. My futuristic tendency allows me to be farsighted, trying to be proactive rather than reactive.
Finally, I am a performer, a professor, and a partner. By performer I mean a musician, public speaker, and preacher. I’ve been a professor at the university level since 1983 and since 1993 at the Ohio University, where I teach in the School of Communication Studies. By partner I mean I’m a team player, and I have no interest in being a Lone Ranger leader or dictator.
I bring continuity and commitment. I want to continue the consistency that our movement in Ohio has enjoyed through the years. As first vice president since 1994, I have been a part of that consistency, and I want it to continue. I want to ensure that the NFB of Ohio is a place of stability and strength and that our positions are communicated effectively and persuasively. I want to continue our presence and prowess in the disability community in general and the blindness community in particular. We have established a reputation for integrity and credibility and the ability to get things done thanks to Barbara Pierce and Eric Duffy, and I want to keep that going.
I am committed to our philosophy and principles. We are changing what it means to be blind every chance we get, and I’m committed to the idea that blind people can do anything they want to do with proper training and opportunity. I’ve been a Federationist since 1990, and I’ve never been more committed than I am today. I attended my first national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1992, and I made up my mind then that I would give my life to this movement, so I am here for the duration, and I’m committed to our programs and our policies. My leadership style may be different from Barbara’s, but my commitment to all that is the NFB of Ohio will be the same.
I bring education and enthusiasm. By education I mean both formal and informal. I don’t want to be snobbish here, but I think that I have been able to use my years of formal education effectively in the real world. My formal education has taught me to be a facilitator and a problem solver. I think these skills will come in handy in this new job. I am enthusiastic about the capacity of blind people to do anything in life they want to do. I’ve traveled a great deal, and I’ve met a lot of people. In short, I have had and continue to have an exciting life that I think allows me to convince other blind people that they can have the same kind of experience. Research demonstrates that communicating enthusiastically and energetically can be contagious. Because I believe in this movement and the limitless capacity of blind Ohioans, I won’t have any problem communicating all things NFB-O enthusiastically and energetically. Of course I will want to make sure that this excitement and enthusiasm are balanced by substance and purpose.
I bring organizational skills and an opportunity-friendly leadership style. I value organization and efficiency, and I take great pride in putting it all together. I also enjoy creativity and innovativeness. It’s often difficult to keep the interest of this new generation, but I think that, as a movement and organization, we must try. My predecessor has made this job easier for me because of her meticulous attention to detail and superb organizational skills. I want to build on those and add my own creativity. I am one who likes to delegate tasks, and you might say that I enjoy discipling others. Discipleship requires time and commitment and a willingness to step in and not just pull people along but walk with them every step of the way. I want to give our members opportunities to work in our movement, but I want to make it clear that I will expect them to seize those opportunities and be positive contributors to our purpose and mission. For example, I want committees that get things done, and I want an infusion of new blood and faces.
That’s who I am and what I believe I bring to this office. I am not perfect, and I will depend on the efforts of my board of directors and other leaders in this organization to ensure our success as a family. This is a “we” operation, and we need as many committed individuals as possible to help make our collective strength that much more evident. For the next two years I will try to be the best CEO I can be. I will try to guide with love and affection and genuine concern for all of you. I pledge to be the best president I can be. I pledge to continue our success, to be committed to our philosophy and programs, to educate others about who we are and what we want, and to provide opportunities for leadership and input that will be in the best interests of the NFB of Ohio. Together we can make it work, and I might add, work very well.
That is what I said in my letter to the colleague who wanted to know who I was and my plans for our affiliate. You’ve probably heard the old saying “people don’t plan to fail; they just fail to plan.” I believe that effective affiliate presidents must have a plan and must clearly identify who they are and how they plan to implement their goals and objectives.
Aristotle once said, “There’s only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” If you are not prepared to deal with and learn from criticism, you should reconsider taking on this leadership opportunity. Even though you might think that your plan and approach are flawless and beyond question, you will quickly discover that there is something to be said about meaningful input from others in the affiliate. It’s important that you identify those you respect and trust and encourage them objectively and constructively to critique as many of the aspects of the affiliate as possible, including your own leadership.
One of the first things I did was to appoint an ad hoc committee charged with evaluating as many aspects of our affiliate as possible and letting me know what people were thinking about what we were doing or should be doing. At board meetings I tried to set a tone that encouraged constructive feedback, and I routinely communicated with my officers to ascertain their critique of how we were doing as a leadership team. No one likes criticism, especially when it is intentionally hurtful and harmful, but you need to have a thick skin when it comes to accepting criticism as an affiliate president. I think effectiveness in this area begins with an overwhelming willingness to do the job. In fact, Dr. Jernigan often said, “To be president, you have to want the job.” In my mind, if you really want the job, you will be willing to stay in the kitchen even when the heat and fire of criticism gets hottest.
Barbara Pierce used to refer to aspects of this one as “keeping your board with you.” Leadership does not mean that you have all the answers or that others expect you to do so. It does mean that you are willing to work with others to find solutions to the problems related to making life better for blind people in your affiliate and your state. As I said earlier in this article, I value delegating and appreciating. I made up in my mind early on in my presidency that I wanted each board member to have a task that he or she was committed to and that I would find every opportunity to validate and appreciate those efforts. There are different leadership styles, so you should find the one that works best for you. I sought to have the most constructive and productive team or board possible. In my case, our affiliate has always enjoyed relative peace, harmony, and goodwill, so it was incumbent upon me to tap into that reservoir of goodwill and productivity.
Trust is another commodity, however. It must be earned and maintained. We often give our affiliate leaders a great deal of trust. As leaders we should never abuse that trust or use it in a way that is counterproductive and poisonous. When you boil it all down, because we are essentially a volunteer organization, trust and goodwill are the most significant elements we bring to the table, especially as leaders. Let me be clear here: if something occurs that has the potential to damage the trust between you and members of your affiliate, do all that you can to address it, learn from it, and build on it. Recognize, however, that it will always take time to regain and rebuild that trust and sometimes you never really get it all back.
Two incidents come to mind in this area, and, while I will not go into detail about them, I offer them here from my own experience. When I assumed the presidency in Ohio in 2008, we had always conducted our board meetings in person, especially the next one after our state convention in November. I decided on my own to try having our winter board meeting by phone. I thought that it would save us some money and take away the uncertainty about the weather that often affected attendance at that first meeting of the year. One of my board members sent me an email saying that she thought that the first meeting with a new president should be face-to-face. Was she correct? I could have put my foot down and decided that it was going to be my way or the highway, or I could have taken her advice and observation under consideration, which I am very glad I did because she was right. This is one way to build a team.
The second incident caused pain and public humiliation for one of our board members because of my failure to follow through in communicating information and caused me to have to seek forgiveness and do all in my power to regain trust and love. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it can teach us something if we are willing to listen. I immediately admitted my mistake and continued to seek ways not to let it occur again on my watch. I am pleased today to report that that person continues to be an effective part of this affiliate.
I want to conclude my thoughts here with some safe driving tips as they apply to leadership in the NFB. Nationwide Insurance says:
In an article entitled “Top Ten Safe Driving Tips” Ed Grabianowski maintains,
Finally, Robert Schaller in his article entitled “70 Defensive Driving Rules” suggests:
With these experiences and tips, I hope that current and future NFB leaders can navigate around some of the potholes and difficult roads on their journey to bringing the blind to first-class citizenship in America and the world.