Lessons from Dewitt by Mike Chapple

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Recently the higher education IT community suffered a great loss when Dewitt Latimer was tragically taken from us after a motorcycle accident in Montana. The news of Dewitt’s accident spread quickly through the institutions he served: Clemson, Kent State, the University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, and Montana State. This quickly led to an outpouring of stories on social media and mailing lists from those who knew Dewitt and the impact he had on higher education IT.

I first met Dewitt nine years ago when I came to Notre Dame for a campus visit and series of interviews. I must admit that my first impression was something along the lines of "this guy is a little bit crazy." Over the subsequent nine years, I learned that, yes, he was a little bit crazy, and also brilliant, kind, and intensely devoted to his family, friends, and the communities that he served. That combination of qualities enabled him to make tremendous contributions to IT and higher education as a change catalyst, thought leader, and innovator.

Dewitt was my friend and mentor and always shared lessons about life, leadership, and IT generously. Over the past weeks, I've been touched by the many stories shared by his friends and colleagues. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the many things that I learned from him and wanted to take this opportunity to share them with you all.

So, here's my list of the top things that I learned from Dewitt:

  1. Be bold. Take risks. The most exciting and valuable things happen when you try things that haven't been done before. Being the first to do something is daunting and fraught with risk, but can have a tremendous payoff. At the same time, when you take risks, you must be prepared to fail. Learn from those failures and move on to the next thing.
  2. Don't let noncritical details get in the way of your vision. The world is full of a million i's that need dotting and t's that need crossing. You'll never get to every single one of them. Trying to do so will only stop you from making progress. The trick is figuring out which details are critical to realizing your vision and zeroing in on those.
  3. Don't put lipstick on a pig. If something is fundamentally broken, no amount of tweaking is going to make it better. You need to tear it apart and start over.
  4. Assemble a team of great people and expect great things of them. If you hire "A" players, they will figure out the right things to do and live up to your expectations, especially if you set the bar high enough that it seems slightly out of reach. Assemble a team of people with strengths and talents that differ from your own, and know when to let them take the lead.
  5. Push the boundaries of your comfort zone regularly. Force yourself to step into the middle of uncomfortable situations, such as speaking opportunities, job searches, and unusual experiences. You will grow as a result. Do the same thing for people around you.
  6. Be kind. Everybody has a story. Take the time to listen to it, and use it as the lens through which you interpret their words and actions. Be compassionate and empathetic.
  7. Build networks. Share openly of your time, knowledge, and talent with people from many different organizations and walks of life. Do this even if there is no foreseeable return. Good things will come as a result.
  8. Mentor future leaders. Spend time with staff who show the potential for leadership. You will be serving your organization by helping to prepare the next generation of leadership and, at the same time, will experience tremendous personal and professional satisfaction.
  9. Ask crazy questions and spark controversial conversations. Every once in a while, you'll be onto something. At the very least, you'll have a lot of stimulating conversations with interesting people who will expand your horizons.
  10. Have fun. Work shouldn't be boring or dull. It should be full of exciting opportunities to learn, grow, and explore. Make an effort to engage your team in a way that makes work enjoyable.
  11. Family comes first. Your professional career will probably only span about half of your life. Your family has been by your side since before you got your first job, and they will be there long after you retire. Invest your time in them.

Dewitt had a powerful influence on many people, and we will continue to miss him greatly. I know that this list probably fails to capture many things, but I hope that sharing these thoughts will help others benefit from his wisdom and experience.

© 2013 Mike Chapple. The text of this blog entry is covered under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.