“Dear Mr. Logan: I am very sorry about the loss of the barn and especially the cows and feed. We have needed for some time a larger and better barn and now I hope we shall get it. I leave matters regarding the barn to your judgment. I am going to have the loss published in all the papers and I hope there will be gifts to make up the loss. Will write more fully later. Yours truly.” -“November 24, 1895,” Booker T. Washington
One can either confront challenging situations with a sense of despondency and despair or with a sense of unbridled hope and optimism, and the founding principal and president of Tuskegee Institute (University) chose the latter in the incident of “the loss of the barn.” Without question, the loss of a barn in the late 19th century was a significant financial loss. Mr. Logan, Mr. Washington’s treasurer-a modern-day chief financial officer-had indicated to him in a prior communication that the “insurance” loss was totaled at “fifteen hundred.” All the same, note Mr. Washington’s response to his CFO. First, he empathized with his colleague over the loss. He knew that Mr. Logan was both faithful and loyal to the university, and that had probably taken the loss personally. He recognized this in Mr. Logan but did not dwell up the darkness; he proceeded to the decision. Second, Mr. Washington took action. Creatively, he turned a negative incident and made it positive. He went to the papers to publicize the loss. One’s supporters-true supporters in both words and works-are often anxious to provide support if they are able to understand what the difficulties are. Lastly, he possessed hope that the loss might be leveraged into gain. He hoped that “there will be gifts to make up the loss.” Here again, the “Wizard of Tuskegee” was not merely a manager of the micro matters confronting the institution. Behind the curtains, indeed, he was a wizard at communications via the media to leverage a negative into a positive, which is the attribute of every successful leader of any successful organization.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.