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Leadership Is…

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It was an August night, and I was driving to the Jersey Shore to meet up with my family after returning from my interview with the PRSA Nominating Committee.  Around 11 p.m., I received the call informing me I’d been nominated PRSA’s chair and CEO. I was on top the world, excited, and ready to make a difference in the Society.

I walked into my house, eager to share the news, expecting a hero’s welcome. Almost everyone was asleep — except for my youngest daughter, who was little more than a toddler. Surely, I thought, she’ll be impressed with my news. As I moved down the hallway, brimming with excitement — thinking I was king of my little piece of the world — my daughter taught me an essential lesson in leadership.

The first words uttered to me as the chair and CEO nominee were: “Daddy, I have diarrhea; can you wipe me?”

And my first task as the nominee? Well, that’s obvious.  The lesson was simple — leadership isn’t about titles, process or programs. In essence, leadership is service to others.

I’d be reminded of that lesson again in January 2009, the first month of my term. In prior years, strategies were developed, tactics outlined, and  programs planned. There was a routine. Then, in the final quarter of 2008, Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history, the Fed had to bail out insurance giant AIG, the Dow suffered its worst weekly loss ever, and the government rescued both General Motors and Chrysler. The great recession was upon us, and all our advanced planning was quickly replaced with hardship programs for members who had lost their jobs or income, as well as offerings and insight to help members navigate the economic storm.

PRSA became less about public relations, and more about simply helping a community survive an economic meltdown. Leadership is solving problems for those who put their trust in you.

Maybe I’m PRSA’s dark cloud, but I was president of the New Jersey Chapter — a thriving PR community with most of our membership just outside New York City — when the September 11 attacks occurred, changing the world forever. For a month afterward, the parking lot of the hotel we used for our monthly meetings was lined with cars of people who’d never made it home that fateful day. It was a period of mourning and our chapter – the world – paused.  Holding a monthly meeting about pitching local reporters just didn’t feel right.  Instead, in an effort to foster understanding, we held a session in December of that year with the Arab-American Institute.

Leadership is also about helping people make sense of the world around them and, when necessary, helping them find hope.

Often there is nothing more bewildering or discouraging to members of an Association than governance… the maize of parliamentarian gobbledygook of motions, amendments and seconding. During my tenure on the PRSA board, the assembly voted to rewrite the association bylaws and I found myself chairing the gathering that would update the rules and regulations controlling the actions of the entire society. Imagine, a day-long meeting, involving hundreds of wordsmiths, trying to update a legal document. The process included countless motions, plus motions to motions. In the end, we were successful and I’m proud of the process and outcome.

What stands out most are the words given to me by the parliamentarian just  prior the assembly: “This is their document now, you’re here to help them.”  Leadership isn’t about command, control or authority, it’s about helping others achieve their goals.

Serving in PRSA leadership was, first and foremost, an opportunity to give back to a profession that gave so much to me. As a second-generation public relations counselor, I realized early on that the profession put the food on our table — and it also came to defined who I am and how I think.  In addition, serving PRSA was the single greatest leadership development program I can possibly imagine.

PRSA served me, helped me solve problems, assisted me in finding hope, making sense of the world, and achieving my goals. In the end, perhaps it’s PRSA that’s the true leader.


Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA, 2009 PRSA Chair and CEO, is Executive Vice President of Success Communications Group in Parsippany, NJ. Follow him on Twitter @mcherenson.

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