On January 25, 2019, Auggie Campbell, West Houston Association CEO, delivered the keynote speech at the West Houston Leadership Institute’s Annual Retreat held in Galveston at the Hotel Galvez. The West Houston Leadership Institute is an experiential learning program designed to provide participants with a breadth of knowledge concerning healthcare, transportation, education, diversity, government, business and many areas of life in West Houston.
Thanks to Nicole, Kathy, Joni, and the West Houston Leadership Institute for inviting me to speak.
I read a study that it’s very important to start out speeches with a joke. So I am sure that the real key-note speaker will be here any minute.
I will start out by saying that the most important thing that I can teach about leadership is picking something that is important to you, stick to it, but make sure you stick with what is important.
In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver was a scientist at 3M who wanted to create a “super strong adhesive.” He failed miserably. What he came up with instead was a low-tac, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. He searched for a commercial application for his sticky substance. Again, he failed miserably. Dr. Silver held seminars and workshops, pitching a “solution without a problem” for five years. During that time, no one came up with a commercial purpose for his sticky substance.
Flash forward to 2017, during Hurricane Harvey, Judge Ed Emmett and the Harris County Emergency Management Team realized that they had a potential catastrophe in the making. Thousands of people needed to be rescued from their flooding houses. The County, City, State, FEMA, and all other official entities had less than 100 rescue teams. The government did not have nearly enough resources to help people as their homes were filling up with water.
Judge Emmett asked his chief emergency officer for a solution. The chief said that he had an idea, but the Judge probably wouldn’t go for it.
Ten minutes later, Judge Emmett was in front of live cameras asking people with boats and high-water vehicles to call and help with rescues.
Hundreds of regular people called in asking to help. Now, Judge Emmett and his team had another problem. They had to match literally hundreds of impromptu rescue teams with literally thousands of people needing to be rescued.
This is where Dr. Silver comes in. It took a while, but by 1980, 3M used Dr. Silver’s sticky substance to make Post-It Notes. And Post-It Notes and a large wall at Transtar, Harris County’s Emergency Operations Center, were what Harris County OEM used to match up rescuers with flood victims. And it worked.
The West Houston Association exists to think about what works and how to make Greater West Houston better. We think that it would be much better if our residents’ houses didn’t flood. And then perhaps we wouldn’t have to rely on Sticky Notes and the Cajun Navy to save us. It will take $30 billion to reduce regional flood risk in Harris County, but that’s a lot less expensive than the $125 billion in damage that Harvey caused.
Houstonians are world famous. We are known for Apollo 13 and Hurricane Harvey. Houston is the most diverse major city in the United States. We have over 6 million inhabitants in our metropolitan statistical area. That number is set to double over the next 40 years.
By 2060, Greater West Houston is set to add over 1.4 million more people. That’s a population the size of San Antonio that will be sharing roads, schools, housing, and jobs with the more than 1.8 million people who already live here. We will be able to add somethings, like schools and jobs. By 2060, we are likely to more than double the number of jobs in Greater West Houston for a total of 1.1 million jobs.
What will that mean for transportation, for housing, for schools? How do we make sure that we keep Greater West Houston a great place to live and work while we add all of these people? How do we make it better and sustainable? That what I care about and the West Houston Association members, like Paul Locke, care about. You can read our very high-level thoughts on the matter in our West Houston 2060 Plan.
What I would like to get to are the points and the parts that aren’t in the West Houston 2060 Plan. Things WILL NOT GO AS PLANNED.
That’s why we need leadership. We need people who recognize good ideas, stick with them, but are not afraid to change course to get to a better outcome. Whether it takes ten years or ten minutes, we need leaders who will see that we make the right decision, no matter who comes up with the idea. You’ll notice that Dr. Silver and Judge Emmett didn’t come up with the ideas of Post-It Notes or calling on boat owners. What they were was responsible for getting the ideas where they needed to go.
To be a leader, you don’t have to be a doctor or a judge. You don’t need to be the smartest or most knowledgeable. You need to be responsible for making the right things happen—picking the things that you are passionate about, hearing from people who know more than you, and sticking to what matters.
President Harry Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Whether you read from Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, or Harvard Business Journal, there is a growing body of literature and evidence that supports the idea that what we need in a leader is not a boss but a doer—someone with good listening skills and follow-through.
We need tenacity, understanding, empathy, and passion. Everyone in this room has all of those things. You just need to figure out what is important to you and to stick with it. And you need a great team.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about hedgehogs and foxes. Companies that understand the one thing that they do well (hedgehogs) are much more successful than the companies that try to be good at many things (the foxes). And according to Collins, the leaders of these hedgehogs were not anymore dynamic, charming, or intelligent than the average employee—in fact they are often introverts. These very successful leaders understood what was important to the company. They had the right values for their organization and the drive to make their companies successful. They stressed that their success was down to very good fortune and being part of a very good team.
So what does all of this mean to an aspiring leader like you? You need luck. And you need to find people who care about things that you care about. The fact that you are in this class with people who seek to understand leadership and how to make the community better is a great step.
You also need to think about whether you need to be the leader on a particular issue. Hedgehogs don’t chase after things.
The West Houston Association can probably take more credit than any single other advocacy group on the timing, the amount, the language, and the success of the $2.5 billion Harris County Flood Bond that passed on August 25, 2018 by 86%, which is a record for Harris County. The credit for making the decision should go to Harris County—the county judge and commissioners. The credit for the projects that were selected was up to County Staff, like Russ Poppe and Matt Zeve.
What the West Houston Association deserves credit for is shining light on the “solution” to the problem. The West Houston Association’s members understood the funding issues that Harris County Flood Control District was facing and the sentiment of the communities and other, similar organizations. Harris County did not have enough emergency funding to keep making repairs past September. Without these repairs, some communities would flood after relatively minor rain storms. We understood what the County needed.
We had reached out to dozens of other organizations to see what they thought. You are a lot more likely to luck into leading an effort that is important to you if you bring knowledge or skills to the table, if you listen and take chances, and if you stick with what matters to everyone—whether its Post-It Notes or saving a city.
Best of luck of luck to you and whatever team that you commit to work with. I’m honored to be here with you future leaders, and that’s no joke! Good night!