Tips From The Top: One On One With Rev. James J. Maher, President of Niagara University

I spoke to Rev. James J. Maher, President of Niagara University, about his journey and best advi

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jim: I spent more than 10 years as Chairman of the Board of a soup kitchen and social service program in Bushwick, Brooklyn, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City – St. John’s Bread & Life. I ran 11 NYC marathons as part of the Run Against Hunger team (starting in 1994), in support of the organization. It was an amazing experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Jim: I became a Vincentian priest in 1984 and held positions at a number of Vincentian colleges and universities in the U.S. One of my earlier jobs, at St. John’s University, was as a campus minister assigned to the university’s basketball team and other teams within the athletic department. It was my job to travel with the student athletes and provide guidance. It was a great way to learn about students, to spend time with them away from a formal setting and really get to know them. Those years laid the groundwork for my current job as president of a university where it really helps to have listened to students in their milieu where they were free to express themselves.

Learning from mistakes was also important.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jim: Above all, I believe a leader must have the courage of his or her convictions, to stand tall in the face of adversity or disagreement and to realize that one person can’t be “liked” by everyone. Leaders take the heat for their teams, become the face of their organizations and do not let themselves become rattled by those who may disagree with them.

Leaders must also have humility, drive, a commitment to excellence, and take the time to invest in relationships.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Jim: Listen to people. Really listen. Don’t just give lip service to people’s opinions. Then, it’s your job to do what is best for the institution you represent. This should not be completely based on the opinions of others, but you must take them into consideration and then use your own judgement to come to a conclusion that answers to your organization’s mission.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jim: To invest in relationships/people.

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jim: If we keep the golden rule in mind as we live our everyday lives, we will pay it forward without even thinking about it. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it. I would hope to act with compassion without thinking of personal gain.”

Life balance is also important to keep the important things in life in perspective. Doing so, helps to make us the best we can be, which makes paying it forward possible.

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Jim: I’m a huge sports fan. The leadership qualities shown by athletes and coaches are great examples of how we can all apply the notion of teamwork and being one part of a whole. I have found that young people who engage in team sports learn those great lessons early on.

I also enjoy reading, spending time with friends, and working out.

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