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On Determination

Determination: firmness of purpose. Resolve. A synonym for will. A common characteristic of successful development professionals; indeed, a quality common among successful people of all stripes.

Most people we know are people of good intention, of goodwill. What sets us apart as effective development professionals is our determination, our resolve to act upon our good intentions to effect some greater good. Action is the determinant of success. As essayist Henry James wrote, "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

Think about that for a moment. To me it speaks to the importance of deciding what it is we commit ourselves to and how we fulfill that commitment. It both reveals and tests our character. That should be a matter of serious concern to us, because what really do we have to offer other than our character?

Stephen Covey in his bestseller on personal change, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, states that our ability to make and keep commitments is the essence of growth and of developing the basic habits of effectiveness. In "making promises, setting goals, and being true to them -- we build the strength of character, the being, that makes possible every other positive thing in our lives."

Too often, I think, our commitments are made offhanded. We make resolutions to ourselves that we have no real intention of keeping. We make promises to others in casual conversation that we both know are insincere. We set goals without any plan to follow through. We say "yes" because it is easier at the moment than saying "no." Each time we do so, we diminish our effectiveness. As Covey suggests, to be effective habitually, we must be thoughtful about the commitments we make.

What happens when we make a commitment to which we are not firmly resolved and from which we will not be easily released? How do we respond when the sense of obligation nags at us and the growing conflict produces a twisting and roiling in our gut? Do we give in to it, begin to backpedal on our commitment, lie or make excuses? Do we let the guilt wash over us like the incoming tide? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have succumbed at times.

As E. M. Gray observes in his essay The Common Denominator of Success, "The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose." Covey goes on to explain, "It also requires independent will, the power to do something when you don’t want to do it, to be a function of your values rather than a function of the impulse or desire of any given moment. It’s the power to act with integrity..."

The determination that arises from our will enables us to focus sharply and to marshal all our resources in order to attain our goal. In The Art of Being, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm posits, "The first condition for more than mediocre achievement in any field, including the art of living, is to will one thing. To will one thing presupposes having made a decision, having committed oneself to one goal. It means that the whole person is geared and devoted to the one thing he has decided on, that all his energies flow in the direction of this chosen goal."

People who are determined to succeed at their chosen goal have a strength that is observable in action. It reminds me of Jacque Vaughn, the All-American point guard on last year’s University of Kansas basketball team (arguably the best team in the nation). You could see the determination in his eyes as he lowered his head and charged down the floor, dribbling the ball in for a driving layup. The air was charged with the energy of his sheer will.

This notion of action is critical. Fromm says that will is based on activity. The exercise of our will is physical as well as emotional. Psychoanalyst James Hillman, in his research, noted that when action is taken in accordance with conscious will, the corresponding emotion tends to be intentional and creatively purposeful. It is expressed by the voluntary nervous system.

Back to KU basketball. I was involved in raising funds for the creation of a monumental bronze statue of legendary coach Forrest C. "Phog" Allen to be installed in front of the fieldhouse at the University. Phog was a master motivator and a builder of character. He was known as the father of basketball coaching and taught outstanding men like Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Dean Smith at North Carolina and Ralph Miller at Oregon. He was largely responsible for the inclusion of basketball as an Olympic sport beginning with the 1936 Berlin games and instigated the postseason NCAA tournament in 1939.

This idea of raising a statue in his honor had already been attempted at least since his death in 1974. It was the "right" thing to do" considering the tremendous impact he had on the game internationally, his significant influence on those who played for him, and the standard of conduct he established for the sport.

I stepped into the project thinking that it would be a piece of cake to raise $175,000. A foundation had already been formed, an advisory board had been recruited, the Allen family was enthusiastic, and the sculptor had been selected. I met with the University chancellor who was supportive.

However, it was a case of not asking better questions. I didn’t know that the project had originally been conceived as a commercial venture, against the wishes of the University’s Endowment Association. Therefore, no names and addresses of prospective major contributors would be provided. The board of directors of the foundation were my age (young!) without the ability to make significant financial commitments or access to those who did. The advisory board had been recruited without the expectation that they would either give or ask others to give. And there was some controversy swirling around the competition in selecting the sculptor.

Nonetheless, I flew to Colorado to meet with several alumni who (I was assured) were able and interested in making lead gifts. Not long into lunch at Garden of the Gods, I discovered otherwise. It seemed that none of them really believed the project could be successful, and so, were not willing to make an investment.

Consequently, we had to create a strategy to establish credibility. First, we had to convince the advisory board. We helped them envision the leadership role they would play. We established a goal, developed a strategy and persuaded them to take assignments. We later spent many hours compiling a list of prospective donors with addresses and telephone numbers. We published newsletters, arranged for newspaper articles, and placed an advertisement in the alumni magazine to reach a broader audience.

One member in particular, Otto Schnellbacher (also an All-American football player), stepped forward to put his name on the line by arranging for some personal solicitations, signing letters, talking it up to everyone he saw during the basketball season. Finally, we received a gift of $7,500, which ended up being the largest gift we would receive. Then another gift of $5,000 which was matched by several others. That gave us enough money to authorize the sculptor to begin.

We just hammered away. We were determined to be successful. We were bent on repeated exposure. We kept the project in front of people and we wouldn’t let the naysayers discourage us. Our persistence paid off. We established enough momentum to create a bandwagon effect. Once we were able to convince people that this was going to happen, with or without them, they wanted on board. They wanted their names attached to the project, cast in bronze and printed in the dedication program.

A project that was a year-and-a-half in organizing was over in a few months. The statue was dedicated on a cold winter day during the 100th year of Kansas basketball and the 90th anniversary of the first game Phog Allen coached. It will stand for generations of students as a symbol of the impact one person can have in this world.

Phog Allen was an example of determination, of commitment of will, of persistence. That is what it takes to be an exemplar. We have that opportunity. It requires us to be thoughtful and intentional about our commitments, to act upon those intentions, and to persist in spite of our own nature or obstacles we encounter along the way. In doing so we reveal our character.

These words of philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard are apt:

"So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, Thou that giveth both the beginning and the completion, may Thou early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may Thou give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing."

Suggested readings:

Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989.

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Being, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.

Hillman, James, Emotion, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1960.

Kierkegaard, Soren, Purity of Heart, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1938.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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