I met Jim when I emailed Massey University Toastmasters. My line manager had asked me to set up a speaking club at IPU New Zealand. As an experienced Toastmaster, I thought that there would be someone in Palmerston North in a position to help me form a club and hence I emailed Massey University Toastmasters Club. That was when I met a larger than life character by the name of Jim Curtis.
The first thing that struck me about Jim Curtis was his enthusiasm. He was a big man with a big smile and an enormous appetite for Toastmasters. Not just that, once he became involved with setting up the club his determination and abilities were amazing.
My first point about leaders is they are positive and enthusiastic. One of the things that most impressed me about Jim was this, although he clearly had had tough times in his life he was an optimistic positive person. Jim was, after all, very overweight; he had been assaulted and brain injured as a result. Despite all this, his focus was on how he and I could help other people, particularly through Toastmasters. He had other passions, he was a keen member of the New Zealand Labour Party and he was absolutely passionate about trains, while with me he was all about Toastmasters. His love of these things came through whenever we talked. Leaders are enthusiastic. Enthusiasm makes it so much easier to get things done and I have to say enthusiastic people are just fun to be around.
Without Jim, we probably wouldn’t have succeeded in creating a Toastmasters group. He was the one who took my hand, the idea of a club and turned it into what Management Leaders call a BHAG. Maybe you’ve had a BHAG without even knowing it. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal, for us, it was starting IPU Toastmasters. That’s my second point about leaders. Leaders are generally goal-directed. With Jim’s organization and helpful guidance, we organized a Demonstration Meeting. Everyone we knew was asked to come along and we continued with the club building. I think right from the beginning, in March, he planned to charter late that year. He was right. We successfully charted in early December.
One thing that I found challenging about Jims leadership style was how he would play the rules. When we set up the club Jim knew exactly the number of joint members we could have, and exactly the number of transferring members we could have so and he made sure to maximize that. Priyanka attended Massey Toastmasters occasionally, attended club leadership training and learnt about Toastmasters. Despite all this, she did not actually join Toastmasters until we could sign her up to the club as a new member. Jim knew the rules; two joint members, Jim and Colin; two transferring members, Declan and I, these were all we were allowed. Then we had Priyanka, trained and competent as a fifth member right from the beginning. Thus we had a quarter of the required twenty when we began. Jim knew exactly what the rules were and worked them to our benefit.
Last year, our club reached eighteen members just before the end of the Toastmaster’s year. The rules of the Distinguished club program are clear, to receive your award a club must have twenty members. We reached 18 at that point. So Jim organized a Toastmasters friend to join, giving us nineteen. And he asked Connor if he, that is Jim, could pay Connor’s membership, giving us the required twenty members. Connor agreed but it was cheeky as Connor was in Vietnam at the time. Is that turning to the dark side? I don’t know…
Here is a danger for leaders, playing the rules is not always a good thing. What Jim did was a minor transgression but don’t take this lightly. Too many leaders break ethical and actual laws and end up as crooks leading broken organizations. We all know the Eron story. Stretching rules is a tricky leadership skill.
Jim’s enthusiasm, his goal setting and his stretching the rules made me think. Am I a little negative; am I lazy, with disorganized goals; do I give up too easily? These are questions Jim, by his example, forced me to ask myself, maybe they are questions for you.
Jim passed away in December 2017. I miss him but I’m pleased I learned from him. Jim Curtis double DTM and effective Leader.
Jim (on left) receiving his Charter Member certificate for IPU New Zealand toastmasters