In my executive coaching practice, I often analyze with my clients the constant barrage of demands on their time. One of the most influential books to me on this topic is a short work by author Charles Hummel titled Tyranny of the Urgent! For a successful leader, there are always more demands on your time than you can respond. Unfortunately, the tyranny of the urgent can cause us to miss the truly important things we need to be dealing with. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of modern leadership. The key for leaders is to remain focused on what is truly important and to continually remind others to “keep the main thing the main thing.”


Dr. David Shaw

My interview this week, Dr. David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University, has done a great job of keeping perspective on what is truly important and has had a very positive impact on the university and the state.
Shaw grew up on a family farm in rural Oklahoma. While at Cameron University, his life took a turn as he was originally planning to return to the family farm after graduation. However, as a newlywed he realized that the family farm might not adequately support his family, and with the encouragement of one of his professors he decided to pursue post-graduate education in agriculture. Shaw went on to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.

After completing his studies, Shaw took a teaching and research position with Mississippi State and has now been there almost 30 years. Shaw has been involved in cutting-edge research including remote sensing technology. In 1998, the school received a $25-million grant from NASA to further this research, and Shaw was named director of the Remote Sensing Technologies Center. In 2002, he was appointed director of the Geosystems Research Institute, which focused on the spatial technology visualization of complex datasets and computational modeling in agriculture, forestry, water resources, climate, weather and oceanography.  In 2009, Shaw was asked to serve in his current position of vice president for research and economic development where he acts as chief research officer for the university.

One of the key points Shaw emphasizes as a leader is to “never let the urgent take priority over the important.” He believes in creating clarity about what is truly important and making sure team members are aligned around the real priorities. He also believes in finding the best talent and letting them operate in a zone where their passion, talent, and responsibilities intersect.  He understands that when people are allowed to spend most of their time in this zone they will be truly happy and highly productive. As a man of faith, Shaw has drawn inspiration from studying the great (and not so great leaders) in the Bible. In particular, he has been reflecting on the servant leadership that Jesus modeled.

During his time at MSU, the school has proven to be a national leader on many fronts. Dr. Shaw emphasized that there are exciting things happening all over the campus. In particular, he noted the national reputation that the university has developed in agriculture, engineering, and cyber security.  In his role, he also has the opportunity to work with business and political leaders to create opportunities for economic growth in the state.  He shared, “It is part of the DNA to be involved in economic development and be a positive change agent for the state.” Along with many other fine institutions and leaders in the state, Mississippi State and Dr. Shaw are doing many exciting things to advance the state of Mississippi and improve the economic prospects for the future.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, May 23, 2014.]
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