On Topic: Tips on leadership and oranges

Michael Chevy Castranova, business editor
Michael Chevy Castranova, business editor

Ron Kitchens told me his story about the can of Mandarin oranges not long after we’d first met, which was only days into his post as head of Southwest Michigan First, one of that region’s economic development agencies.

The essence of the tale is that when Ron was four years old, his father was accidentally killed at work, leaving the family to struggle through tough times.

One Christmas, a basket of food was dropped off by men from a local church — “men that we did not know, who were members of a church that we did not attend,” he writes in a recent blog post. Included in that gift basket was a can of Mandarin oranges — a pretty exotic item, he notes, in the eyes of impoverished youngsters in the Missouri Ozarks.

Ron’s mother decided the family should save those oranges for a very special occasion. The can was bequeathed a key spot on the shelf.

Over time, the contents became bloated, and the can got pitched, eventually replaced with another can.

And to this day, Ron swears, in every desk at every job he’s held there’s been a can of Mandarin oranges — as a reminder of the kindness of strangers and as a symbol of how education can help the determined escape poverty.

As I was reading another recent post of Ron’s, I was reminded of that can of oranges. One of the points he makes more than once in that post, “What Makes a Great Leader,” is about looking first, jumping later.

Or as they used to say on a long-running PBS television show, measure twice, cut once.

He notes that good managers will talk to the people who work for them in a “meaningful” way — something beyond a wave and a how-are-you-doing as they keep on walking.

Kitchens also cites the advantage of old-school handwritten notes — even if the message is no more than a heads-up about an industry-related article. That the supervisor took time, however briefly, to put pen to paper signifies appreciation.

He also notes that good leaders are on time. That shows they respect their workers’ time and agendas, and it demonstrates good organizational skills.

Remember, we’re role models, too.

And he talks about taking time to plan — “Success is not dependent on education, family status or luck,” he writes, reminding us of that representative can of oranges — and to think.

He advises arranging pockets of time to contemplate not only your own future but also that of your company — “and that next great idea.”

As Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman, once commented during a McKinsey Quarterly interview a few years ago, important ideas don’t come during times of desperation. They happen when one person or a small group, alone, sits quietly and thinks. Recent studies from the Harvard Business School and the University of California-Irvine support this notion.

In other words, the acting-quickly part comes after the consider-your-options part.

After all, you don’t always want to open that can of oranges right away.Note: In last week’s column, I wondered about the future of the newsgathering business and noted that, “It’s a vial question.” The adjective I meant to reach for was “vital.” Not “vial,” which has more to do with chemistry than journalism, nor “vile,” which is far more Voldemort than I ever intended. Sorry for any confusion.

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