Leadership is a concept that takes up a lot of space in my thought processes and in my work. I find this odd. As a subject matter, leadership is loosey-goosey, far, certainly, from scientific. You can’t really derive a formula to be followed which will lead ineluctably to successful leadership. Which makes it, I suppose, an art, if even that. Still it has its rules.
One such is that if you want to be deemed successful, in the eyes of popular history, you have to seize upon one significant achievement, an accomplishment so impactful that your memory rides it right into the books. Washington wins the Revolutionary War, founding the nation. Lincoln wins the Civil War, freeing the slaves and saving the nation.
Well, that’s macro-history, history writ large. But there is also micro-history, history, for example, of an entity smaller than a major nation-state. It was to that I turned my attention last week when I heard of the death of my former colleague and friend, Chris Paustian. For the paper — newspapers must always declare themselves and do so through their headlines — Chris’ claim to fame was that he was the ‘Longest-tenured MTI president, … ” Given that MTI is just a tad over 50 and Chris served as director/president (the title of the CEO changed during his tenure) for 24 years, the reality and logic of that is all but inescapable.
It is not, however, where I would have gone. Rather, I would have pointed, as the paper also did later in the article, first to his establishment of MTI’s current 80-acre-plus interstate campus. In 2000, at a time when enrollment was flat and even predicted to soon be declining, Director Paustian stepped forward with no state assistance and meager reserves and purchased a large, flat plot of ground and declared it to be MTI’s future. Seen from today’s reality, a time when we enjoy 20/20 hindsight, the move was obvious. At the time, though, the move was bold. Daring. Risky.
It reminds me of “Seward’s icebox,” aka “Seward’s folly.” After the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward arranged a deal with Imperial Russia to purchase Alaska. His work was met with hoots and howls of derision and the obvious wisdom of the deal came to be realized by all far too late to do Seward much good. Politicians hate deals with current penalties and only future benefits. Leaders, though, don’t mind at all.
Chris Paustian retired from MTI in 2008. By then, it was clear what a bright future for the technical institute he had helped create but most of the new buildings, the new programs, and the enrollment boosts were still, tantalizingly, in the future.
Chris didn’t seem to mind. The first time I met Chris was during my interview to be superintendent of schools in Mitchell. We had breakfast and he walked me through the current realities and the potential next steps for both MTI and the Mitchell School District at large, something he was well suited for since he was then serving, as the district’s interim superintendent. What I found most interesting about the conversation was his repeated offers of assistance, guidance, and, yes, friendship. Within weeks of my accepting the position, he invited my family and me over to the house at which time he and Sandi proceeded to ignore my wife and I and joyfully entertain our four children.
It was on that occasion when I learned something else about Chris Paustian. He genuinely liked people and he spent his time, professionally, socially, and personally, reaching out to people to help them along the way. Sure, MTI was his business and he took care of her astonishingly well.
But President Paustian saw things the way Jacob Marley did when Scrooge complimented him as a “good man of business.” “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” Take a look at Chris’ obituary at all the organizations, service clubs, and charitable missions he constantly pursued.
It is sometimes said that leaders can be mission-oriented or people-oriented. If they are the former, they get things done but trample others in the process. If they are the latter, they take good care of their people but at the expense of their institution’s mission. Yet, somehow, Chris Paustian did both.
He took care of the people of MTI, of his church, of his service organizations, of his community, of his family, and of all those who reached out to him. Simultaneously, he left behind a Mitchell Technical Institution far stronger than he had found her. Ready for a future that he could see even if many others could not quite glimpse it.
Meanwhile, I can clearly point to the greatest of his professional accomplishments at MTI. Knowing Chris, though, he is delighted that the deed was done and not at all interested in who received the credit for it.