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In Chapter 13 of Why It Matters, I share an example in which I had to deal with adversity. A second experience with adversity relates to my candidacy to become Georgia Tech’s president.

While serving as Georgia Tech’s engineering dean, several universities approached me about becoming a candidate for president. I declined all of them.

A friend, who was a university president, contacted me and asked if I had any interest in the Georgia Tech presidency. When I said I did, he advised me to contact several university presidents I knew and request their support. He said he would also nominate me. I did as he recommended and, anticipating I might not be selected, I nominated several people for the position because I wanted to ensure whoever was selected would be a strong president.

As the search for Georgia Tech’s presidency advanced, I received a telephone call from the executive handling the search for the University of Georgia System. He said the search committee met, reduced the set of candidates, and I was included among the finalists to be interviewed. The list would be released to the media later that evening.

I said I was very pleased to be included. Then he told me members of the search committee felt I should be included because of my long-time service on the faculty, not the strength of my candidacy. Because I was the only internal finalist, he said external finalists would withdraw from the search when they learned that I was a finalist, and if I really cared for Georgia Tech, I should withdraw from the search.

I was stunned. I could hardly breathe. After what must have seemed like several minutes of silence, I finally muttered, “Okay. I’ll withdraw.” Then, he said it was obvious that I wasn’t all that interested in the position because I nominated several people for the position. My response was that if I wasn’t selected then I wanted to ensure that the person who was selected would be someone I respected. (As it turned out, someone I nominated, Wayne Clough, was selected and he did a terrific job.)

If that wasn’t enough, to land one more blow below the belt, the search executive said he’d never seen so many positive letters of recommendation for a nominee, so he called one of the people who nominated me and asked if I requested his support. Learning I had, he said it reflected negatively on me. Thankfully, he ended the call at that point.

After telling Mary Lib what happened, I went to bed feeling very discouraged. The following morning, I received a telephone call from the chair of the search committee. He wanted to know why I had withdrawn. When I told him what the search executive told me, he said it was a lie. He said I was the committee’s first choice and that he was going to contact the chancellor of the University of Georgia System to tell him what transpired. I said he shouldn’t do so, because I was confident the search executive was carrying out the wishes of the chancellor, who didn’t want an internal candidate to be Georgia Tech’s president. If I were forced on him, it would not be good for the university.

Fortunately, someone I nominated for Georgia Tech’s presidency was selected. I gave him my full support and continued to decline invitations to be a candidate for president at other universities—until my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Arkansas, came calling. But that’s another story!

In reflecting on what happened at Georgia Tech, I realize the darkest cloud can have a silver lining. If things had gone differently, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to return to my alma mater, be its chancellor, be closer to my parents during the final years of their lives, meet and work with so many wonderful people, develop and teach the leadership class, and share my experiences (as well as those of the leaders who met with my students) in Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership.

When asked if I could “do over” anything in my career what would I change, my response is always the same: I wouldn’t change anything that would result in a career change because everything that has happened has brought me to this point in life. I cannot imagine having a better life than I’ve had. Not being selected to be Georgia Tech’s president was a blessing in disguise.

Sometimes answers to prayers aren’t what you want, but what you need.

Next: Let Me Tell You a Story—Part VI