Each year about 65 high school students from around the state come to Jackson to participate in a Youth Leadership Workshop sponsored by the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi (EPAMS). These future leaders learn about state government, hear from elected officials, and sharpen their leadership skills. During the annual event, Michael Callahan, CEO of the EPAMS, gets an opportunity to share his thoughts on leadership and encourage the students to be engaged citizens. Callahan is certainly an established leader, and he has developed a national reputation in the utility industry. He grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and earned a football scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi where he played left guard during the Brett Favre era. Callahan joked that his real claim to fame is that he wore the towel that Favre used to wipe his hands on at the line of scrimmage. A scholar as well as an athlete, he went on to graduate from Mississippi College School of Law and went to work for the District Attorney’s office in Hattiesburg after graduation. His experience also included private law practice and serving as chief of staff for the Public Service Commission.
In 1999, he ran and won the public service commissioner’s seat for South Mississippi and became the youngest elected commissioner in the state at the age of 31. Callahan was re-elected in 2003, and in 2005, he resigned to accept his current position with the EPAMS. The EPAMS serves the state’s 26 electric power associations that deliver electricity to more than 751,000 meters and 1.8 million Mississippians. Callahan and his team of more than 20 employees serve as advocates for these associations and provide a variety of services to support them. I was curious to learn what leadership lessons he had distilled to share with the Youth Leadership Program participants. He shared that he focuses on three main themes: attitude, integrity, and prioritization.
Callahan shared that he believes leadership is all about influence and that “nobody wants to follow a sourpuss.” He said a positive attitude and “can do” spirit are critical for a leader. Integrity is also a core trait of leaders, and he encourages students to live “integrated” lives where their actions match their words. Callahan emphasized, “Leaders have to live by a higher standard and expect more of themselves.” We also discussed at length the importance of prioritization. He noted, “What you find out is that everything comes with a price. If you are working on your business then you are not spending time with family. You have to make decisions in life which come with consequences. The greatest commodity in life is time – we have to understand how to make good decisions on how we use it.”
Callahan shared an example of this in his own life. Back in 2003, he was considering a run for state attorney general; however, for personal reasons it was not a good time to run because of the impact it would have on his young family. These are the type of hard decisions we have to make in life, but true leaders understand what is important and act on their convictions. Callahan also stresses to the students that leadership is not a right, but a privilege that comes with great sacrifice. He noted, “Leadership is not an easy task and is not for everyone. It takes a special person to be a leader, one who is not afraid to be out in front, making decisions and taking responsibility for their actions.”
I was excited to learn about the Youth Leadership Program and the impact it is having on our state. There have already been several students that have gone on to become elected officials. I am sure that we will continue to see future leaders emerge that have benefited from this innovative program. As we discussed these leadership principles it was evident that these ideas are not just applicable for our youth, but for all of us. We all would benefit from staying positive in our attitude, walking in integrity, and learning to better prioritize our time. I know I could.