Saturday, September 05, 2009

T.J. Sullivan Speaks on Leadership and People

THE APATHY MYTH: a Blog for America's College Student Leaders

by T.J. Sullivan


Dr. Lori and I were chatting yesterday, talking about the death of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Lori is married to a Republican, so she had to talk quietly (kidding). She said she was struck the most by the vast number of people with stories about the Senator reaching out to them personally at a time of need.

When 9/11 happened, Kennedy personally called the family members of every 9/11 victim with a tie to his state of Massachusetts. There were many. I saw a story on ABC News about how Kennedy invited one 9/11 widow and her young son to visit the Kennedy home in Hyannis Port to go sailing and talk about the husband/father they lost on that terrible day. For nearly 40 years, he called the family of every Massachusetts service member lost during war.

Kennedy was an important man who understood what was most important. People.

Lori and I talked about how some of the leaders who have shaped our lives the most did so by simply taking a personal interest and reaching out.

A couple times a year, I get a personal, handwritten card from Durward Owen. He's sort of the Ted Kennedy of our fraternity, although he would hate that comparison. Durward was our executive director for three decades, honorary fourth founder of our fraternity – the "lion" of Pi Kappa Phi. Every time I get a card from him, I save it. He doesn't just do it for me. He does it for every man who ever worked for him. People.

In my home office, on a bulletin board in front of me as I type this, are two more handwritten cards. One is from my business partner, David Stollman, in which he tells me he's proud to have built our company with me. The other is from Dr. Phil Summers, a former national president of my fraternity and a chapter brother from Indiana. In the nearly illegible handwriting of a man near 80, he tells me that my keynote was the best part of our fraternity's leadership school.

It doesn't have to be a handwritten card. Coincidentally, yesterday (before talking to Lori), I reached out to a fraternity brother who is going through a medical battle, and I asked him how he was doing. It was a Tweet, not a handwritten note, but I think it hit him on a day when he really wanted someone to care. I got an email from him yesterday evening thanking me for reaching out. He told me how much it meant to him.

Here's the leadership lesson. The things people tend to remember aren't the business decisions you make for your organization. It's not the meetings, or the power struggles, or the flashy event that was held under your watch as a leader. It's not the t-shirt, the party favor, or even the amazing legislation that you worked months to pass in your student senate. It's not how many friends you had on Facebook.

What they remember are the personal connections that you take time to foster. Dropping by to ask your advisor if her son is feeling better after having the flu. Driving your fraternity brother two hours to visit his ailing grandmother. Taking that friend out for fries at Denny's after he loses the election. Helping your girlfriend's best friend hook up her computer one night over a pitcher of margaritas.

Don't get so busy being a student leader that you forget what really matters. It's the moments you stop being a student leader and act like a real caring person.

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