Let’s take a moment and talk about the late Jack White and leadership and paperclips.
Jack is remembered by the Jack White Legislative Golf Classic held each year by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. The top award presented annually by the Leadership Fort Smith Alumni is the Jack White Leadership Fort Smith Award. (And for you whippersnappers out there, this is not the eccentric musician Jack White who lives in Nashville.)
Because Jack died in 1997, it’s a safe assumption that many who now give two flips about Fort Smith regional business and politics don’t know who he is, or may appreciate a reminder about who he was and what he was about.
Jack was employed by OG&E for 35 years, and when he died at the too early age of 57 was the Arkansas manager for OG&E. In that job he had an important oversight role for the 70,000 to 75,000 customers the Oklahoma City-based company then had in Arkansas.
The Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce said this of Jack after his passing: “This quiet leader was highly regarded by business, civic and political leaders across the country. In his travels throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Nation, Jack was a priceless and professional advocate and cheerleader for the Fort Smith Region.”
You, Kind Reader, might think that a simple assessment. But in my more than 22 years of watching Fort Smith area leaders come and go, I’d be hard pressed to name a handful of others who would qualify for said assessment. Name a prominent board in the Fort Smith area and chances are Jack at one time held a leadership role on it.
It could be the reason he was so adept at using power to make things happen was because of his electric power background. Too much power and you blow fuses. Not enough power and folks are in the dark. And he knew power required a circuit. It couldn’t all be one way. He knew how to handle the live wires and remain grounded at the same time. And by the time he decided to flip a switch, he knew the circuits had been completed and the power would be there.
And just as the power lines in your house are not seen, Jack remained behind the scenes. He was happy to do the heavy lifting of delivering the power, and let others flip the switches.
Possibly the most important thing to know about Jack is that he didn’t come up through the corporate ranks to reach his eventual corporate job. He was a lineman for many years. His first uniform was boots, jeans, gloves, tool belts, a hard hat and sweat and muscle. He spent long hours on weather-induced outages, to include dangerous work around debris and live wires. Years later when his uniform was a coat and tie, he wore it with a blue collar attitude.
Jack’s uniform later in life became a coat and tie because he squeezed in a lot of night classes between line work and raising a family. He would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree from Southern Nazarene University (Bethany, Okla.). He understood the importance of hard work and a focus on continuing education.
He also was a veteran. He was proud of his service in the U.S. Navy, and especially his time aboard the submarine USS Rock.
Jack was no saint, however. Like many great leaders (and former sailors), he had a few rough edges. He was a fan of the off-color joke, and his language could get blue at times. But danged if Jack’s blue language didn’t have a lyrical, if not poetic, quality. It seems his favorite word was “sonsabitches.” He would say it almost in one syllable. The word rolled quickly off his tongue, and would somehow arrive at your ear like a Julie Andrews snippet from “The Sound of Music.”
At risk of offering another simple assessment, Jack earned a solid reputation because when he was asked to be a leader, he lead. With diplomacy. Without timidity. With collaboration when possible. My first lesson from Jack was during my time working with the Fort Smith chamber. During a meeting at the chamber, Jack interrupted the speaker.
“I don’t have time to count paperclips,” Jack said with a measure of frustration, adding that if there was something bigger on the agenda then get to it because he had pressing matters elsewhere. My recollection is that the meeting quickly moved to meatier agenda items and progress was made.
It was a comment I would hear many times from Jack. “I don’t have time to waste with sonsabitches who just want to count paperclips,” he would say. Usually with a smile.
It wasn’t mean-spirited. It wasn’t personal. His opinion was that counting paperclips was an easy way to look busy without doing the hard work of directing resources and people toward a transformative accomplishment. He knew from his days as a lineman that focusing on small things wouldn’t get the poles lined up, the heavy lines hung, the transformers connected, and the power flowing.
It’s been almost 18 years since we lost Jack, and I wonder if he were to come back today would he find us being leaders or a bunch of sonsabitches counting paperclips.