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Personal Lessons Learned (retrospective)

It has been 41 years since my father died. He was a small man, taking after his mother, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in an extraordinary amount of home spun wisdom, which for the most part was wasted on me. Like many of that generation his formal education was short lived with most of what he knew coming from paying attention to life. His “higher” education came from North Africa and Italy during World War II and years spent focusing on responsibility to his family and community. It is only now that I am at an age where remembering what my father told me seems to be easier then recalling the code for the garage door opener. It is in this frame of reference that my leadership journey began.

I grew up on a small farm in rural America where the closest neighbours were five miles away. About the time I started school we got electricity for the animals and later for the house. We never had running water, indoor plumbing, or a telephone. It seemed like normal life, as it still does for so many people around the globe. As a high school and undergraduate student, I volunteered at nearby Native Communities to help with everything from building fences to building houses. I had many friends in the Sioux Nation. It was there that a lifelong connection was born. The natural affinity for people, that I considered to be like me, who don’t have access to ‘normal’ things, became my life’s driver.

The five decades I’ve spent in leadership in social impact initiatives have been more serendipitous than strategic. After my undergraduate degree and a short decade in education I returned to school where I was asked to take the position of manager of fine arts organizations for a university where I led the team that arranged tours for student artists and musicians along with the artist in residence program. While at university, as a means of supplementing my income, I responded to a job listing for an associate position with a local community development corporation (social impact group). Upon arriving for the interview, the recruiter apologized for what turned out to be a job posting error. The organization was not looking for an associate-level staff member; it was looking for a new deputy director. The recruiter invited me to stay and interview for the position anyway. Impressed with my leadership and organizational experience working for the university, the position was offered and accepted on the spot. My business career in social impact had begun.

Harbingers of a Vanishing World - Paul Bond

As my worldview expanded it influence my thought which circled around why there were two worlds. The first, struggling to gain access at basic human needs, and the second, seemingly oblivious of the first, only moved by crisis, guilt, or charity to offer succour. Their benevolence succeeded in providing a strategy of immediate assistance that became the accepted model for most access “intervention”. Over the past four decades we have seen hundreds of billions of dollars thrown at this intervention with tepid results. This symptomatic approach does provide critical and vital help but left the question of why people cannot achieve normal access to what is ordinary in the second world. This is a system problem. Thus Klein’s first axiom: Changing the world is more about changing systems than addressing symptoms.

Axiom number one led me to think about how to change systems. The more I thought the more I wanted to know, and there began a journey of discovery not yet complete. Seeking the best and the brightest brought are down many roads all with their own lessons. Some had mind altering ramifications with the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Program heading the list. After graduate school my passion was for how the system worked. Through academics, experiences, relationships, and inquiry the simple truth of the importance of place, people, and perseverance was the blinding flash of the obvious which produced the second Klein axiom. People are important. By changing local economic, political, and social systems a new global stability evolves.

The third big internalization was about the size and the scope of this lack of access. It was and is evident everywhere and does not seem to be retreating. As decades pass the problem is doggedly perseverant. Rising incidents of inequalities and societies in a growing state of disequilibrium remain evident and recurring. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana) I was forced to confront the concept of the silent witness that does little more than report and commiserate. Hillel the Elder is attributed with this paraphrased saying, “If not me who? If not now when?” Hence the third Klein axiom: You cannot do everything but you can do something.

As my father would say, “None of us are as smart as all of us.” Over the past four decades I have learned that people are people no matter where they live. They all want pretty much the same thing. I have also learned that there are bunches of people around the world that are just like me. They share the same axioms and the same passion. I am honoured and humbled to be among such an excellent cohort.

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