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by Michael Robinson
On the eve of his ousting from the Speakership, Jimmy Naifeh, as the clear and undisputed leader of the Tennessee House Democratic Party, was asked what Democrats would do, having lost the majority in the House of Representatives. “We’re going to do what we have always done,” he said without hesitation. “We’re still going to govern.”
This is a great lesson for anyone to learn. It is not only a lesson in humility, but a lesson of perseverance. A true leader, indeed, does not worry about limitations beset against him — he worries about what he can accomplish regardless of those limitations.
Five months ago, I was lucky enough to be selected to serve Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh during the 107th General Assembly. As the legislative intern for the Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership, I was able to witness a true statesman at work. I was able to help him, that much is true; but mainly he helped me. He helped me learn what it means to serve the public; what it means to give 40 years of one’s life to public service (two years in the Army and 38 years in the House of Representatives). He showed me what it means to care about the less fortunate — every downtrodden citizen, every teacher in the poorest of facilities, every soldier crippled from war, every child turned away from medicine. Every one of them had the honest heart and mind of Speaker Naifeh.
Finding myself in proximity to the likes of such leadership as consistently displayed by Speaker Emeritus Naifeh has brought to my attention one major lesson: that effective leadership is affecting leadership. I was given the opportunity to witness and be positively influenced by a once-in-a-generation mind, an honest to goodness great leader. Because of that, I am better apt and more inclined to serve my university and my state.
And so is the goal of the UT Institute for Public Service and its fantastic staff — not only to promote leadership, but affect leadership; to inspire the next generation of leaders; to cultivate the next rare Jimmy Naifeh and effective leaders like him.
Let it be clear that UT and the state of Tennessee are both entering a stage of uncertainty. Programs established and managed by the Institute for Public Service should have the full backing of every Tennessean, in the hopes that we will be able to solve the key issues of our time with the same amount of stature and effectiveness as leaders such as Jimmy Naifeh have done for their generation.
During the hour that followed Jimmy Naifeh’s official announcement of retirement from the House of Representatives, after nearly four decades of service, well wishes were coming in from United States senators, former governors and former vice presidents — and Jimmy Naifeh was asked what his greatest accomplishment was during his tenure. As I stood behind the line of newsroom cameras and reporters, I was somewhat surprised to hear him assert his greatest accomplishment — founding a community college campus in his hometown of Covington.
This should not have been a surprise.
My boss, Jimmy Naifeh, wants every child to be given the same opportunities he had. No matter the financial situation, no matter the social status, he simply wants children to be successful and thrive in the Tennessee of tomorrow.
So is my hope for the future of programs established by the Institute for Public Service. My hope is that the programs will continue to be supported and funded so that more members of the next generation can experience the great impact an effective leader can have. ■
(Michael is a senior in political science and American studies at UT Knoxville.)