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Laurie Stein Marsh and Columbus Business First

Exploring the Philosophy of Community Leadership Through Laurie’s Penned Monthly Column

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John F. Wolfe legacy: How ‘just John’ made such a difference in Columbus

September 30th, 2016

Countless authors, academics and leadership gurus have attempted to define leadership. These experts describe traits that are essential to the leadership toolbox. However, what if we flipped the question and asked, “What traits do you not want to see in a leader’s toolbox?”

My No. 1 answer would be an over-inflated ego.

Charles de Gaulle once said, “When I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself.” It is that kind of attitude that drives away potential followers and almost always causes a leader to self–destruct.

To be clear, ego is not a dirty word. There are leaders who possess healthy egos born of an acute self-awareness, including their strengths and weaknesses. These leaders articulate a vision and recruit followers who can complement their strengths and help them move mountains to achieve a dream. However, for far too many leaders, an oversized ego leads to their ultimate downfall as they become seduced by the celebrity that accompanies their successes.

In Columbus, we recently lost a leader who wore the mantle of power and influence without a huge ego – John F. Wolfe. Even though glossy magazine covers touting the city’s business and community titans always included the Dispatch Printing Co. CEO’s name, as do the many institutions he passionately supported, it was never about the recognition for him. He was a man who put principles before personality. His love for his hometown is what made him an effective advocate for Columbus.

About a month after John’s death, Angela Pace, community affairs director for WBNS-10TV, told me the story of the time she unexpectedly ran into John F. on a downtown sidewalk. She had only been with the station for a few weeks and politely said, “Hello, Mr. Wolfe.” His response? “It’s John, just John.” I had the same experience when I was introduced to him many years ago and formally called him Mr. Wolfe. He replied, “It’s John, just John.” How ironic that such a short response can speak volumes about the kind of man John was.

State Rep. Mike Curtin said, “John was generous with his time, especially for students and young professionals eager to improve the community. He remembered how civic leaders mentored him, was grateful for it, and wanted to pay it forward. He understood the multiplier effect of civic engagement.”

An example of John’s pay-it-forward mentality was his enthusiastic participation in our curriculum during the Leadership Columbus program day, when our class members meet with various CEOs throughout the city. John always accepted our yearly invitation and looked forward to these conversations. He not only would share his insights, wisdom and perspective, but he listened and asked questions to discover what the up-and-coming leaders thought and cared about.

Leadership Columbus graduate Angela Mingo, director of community relations for Nationwide Children’s Hospital, recalled after her meeting with John, “It was an honor to meet and experience the humanity of John Wolfe, someone who is superhuman in his contributions to the city.”

Almost a year ago, John agreed to serve as one of the champions for the Leadership Columbus 40th anniversary luncheon. John usually deflected the spotlight and did not particularly like to be on stage. But his dedication to our mission to create community leaders outweighed his discomfort with being the center of attention. He spoke extemporaneously and eloquently to the 600 gathered there and expressed his belief that those who are trusted to lead inspire faith and confidence through their integrity, caring, commitment and ability. Furthermore, those who share these qualities without regard for personal gain are true trustees.

I last saw John in November 2015 with the intent of presenting him a gift to thank him for being our “champion” for the anniversary celebration. He downplayed his generosity and quickly turned the table on me to speak of another kind of gift. We talked for nearly an hour and he reminded me that a good steward views the community as a gift from previous generations, but a gift with strings attached. One is obligated to pass the gift to future generations in a better state than that in which it was received.

Many of us grieve John’s passing, and I have talked to many who feel they have no right to grieve as a family member or employee might. But those of us who respect authentic leadership feel a collective loss, and we do have a right to grieve. We have lost a role model who never let his ego get in the way of doing what was best for his community and the common good.

John was an extraordinary leader for many reasons, but mostly he was central to our community’s many successes because he always placed his community above his self-interests. Yes, his name could open many doors; but it was his uncanny intuition and commitment to our city that allowed him to seize the moment when a door could be opened to let the future in.

Mother knows best: Leadership about exercising Golden Rule

July 5th, 2016

Long before he called on Columbus to show some “swagger,” and before the city touted itself as a “smart and open” community, Michael Coleman had a vision for Columbus’ reputation.

During his first term in office that began in 2000, the city’s longest-serving mayor stated he wanted Columbus to become known as friendly, welcoming and inclusive. His goals for the city included reinforcing and embracing Midwestern values such as authenticity. Coleman’s cabinet members and staff walked in lockstep to incorporate those qualities into their messages, because they felt that would lead citizens to believe that Columbus is a great city in which to live, work and raise a family. To be sure, this golden nugget descriptor lives on in the post-Coleman administration – Mayor Andrew Ginther is just as determined to make certain that motto carries on.

What I hear most from civic-minded officials and prospective Leadership Columbus participants and alumni is: I want to make a difference.

But let it be known that true leadership boils down to asking “what difference will I make” – not “will I make a difference?”

We can get bogged down by our perceptions of what it takes to be a community leader. That in turn hinders our ability to view leadership opportunities and prevents us from assuming responsibility when we can, in fact, make a difference.

We all have a leader within us. We just sometimes need to be reminded of the big and small ways we can demonstrate that leadership.

Every minute we are reminded that someone’s behavior expresses their values and beliefs. Our conduct and the manner in which we interact with colleagues, family, even strangers have a powerful influence on the kind of difference we can make. If we are attentive, the leader within us gets the call to seize a moment that may alter another’s life or circumstance in a way that reflects your values and by extension our community’s values.

A close friend recounted this story to me that gets across that point:

He was tired and weary as he took a connecting flight home to Columbus. Once inside the airplane, he grabbed the last seat available. It was in the back next to a young mother and her baby. His presumed he would spend the next few hours sitting next to a crying, agitated toddler.

But to his delight, the baby was happy and played quietly – and, as he put it, behaved better than most adult passengers. As the plane prepared for its landing, my friend asked the young mother if she resided in Columbus.

She was from Charlotte, she replied, but her youngster was participating in a clinical trial at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and that meant a trip to Columbus once a month. It was a lonely and difficult journey, she said, so there were times when her husband and two other daughters accompanied her by car on the trip to Central Ohio.

During one of those early trips, the family visited the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium where her kids were introduced to the polar bear exhibit and discovered that Aurora the polar bear was an expectant mother.

Since that visit, she said, the kids had been following the bears on Facebook and were awaiting the birth of Aurora’s cub. The mother was hoping she’d be able to gather the family for a trip to meet the polar bear family and the cub – Nora.

My friend handed the mother his business card. If her family needed anything, he told her, they should call him. He empathized that visiting an unknown city could be intimidating, especially when facing stressful circumstances such as hers. If he could arrange a visit to the zoo or if the family just needed a break from the hospital for some time together, for example, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask him.

In that moment, he had grabbed the opportunity to be a leader and an ambassador for Columbus. He exhibited the spirit that Coleman hoped would define the city as compassionate, friendly and welcoming.

And as a bonus, his invitation and generosity put a spotlight on two jewels of the Columbus landscape: Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the zoo. Perhaps someday that family will visit Columbus for fun and not because they must for medical reasons.

Our leadership within emerges when we listen for the call and respond to the need.

We usually react to the needs that most closely correspond to our values and ethical standards. Leadership opportunities present themselves in circumstances we seldom can predict, but we intuitively recognize the moment.

This message came together vividly for me during a conversation I was having with my mother. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. In the different rooms of her mind, corners shut down and go dark without warning, as if someone had doused the light. I still tell her my stories, knowing quite well that her ability to understand and respond is limited. But I hope that somewhere a spark may re-ignite the light again as a result of the conversation.

I explained to her the “leadership story” I was writing about my friend on the airplane. She looked at me and with obvious comprehension responded emphatically: “Well, isn’t leadership just about the Golden Rule?”

To be sure, the leader within us is most effective and enduring when we treat people the way we would like to be treated.

Why ‘thank you’ delivers a powerful message for leadership

May 6th, 2016

Before the Leadership Columbus class of 2016 graduates in June, we will ask them to name qualities that define effective leaders. Past responses typically have covered much of what participants witnessed in their months of study: integrity, excellent communication skills, collaborative nature, passion, commitment, determination, ethics, vision, confidence.

But I have begun to wonder why we never hear “gratitude” as an essential trait in the leadership skill-set toolbox. Why no acknowledgement of the immense effect of gratitude, not only as an attribute but as a demonstration of competent leadership?

Long before it became Oprah-like to pen a gratitude list, I discovered the power behind gratitude.

Self-help book author Melody Beattie writes: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. … It turns problems into gifts, failure into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past … and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

If we believe in the power of gratitude, why don’t we respect its influence on us, value its lessons and appreciate the opportunities it offers?

As a child, I had an annual experience I never thought would have a lifelong impact on me. Every year on my birthday I would receive a letter from the Jewish Federation. It stated that in my honor a “tree had been planted in my name in Israel.” This was a gift from my father’s crusty, choleric secretary whose lack of warmth frightened me. Seriously? No Barbie doll, with matching faux patent leather wardrobe case and tiny hangers? What was I going to do with a tree in Israel that in all likelihood I’d never see?

Yet, because I was raised according to Emily Post’s rules of etiquette, I dutifully wrote the woman I’ll call Vivian a note of thanks. My gut wasn’t, however, in tune with Emily Post; it was more harmonized with Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, who argued “this writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”

Little did I know these tiny acts of gratitude instilled in me then would blossom into a practice I’d embrace with enthusiasm in later years.

A few weeks ago, when driving to work, I was looking forward to my day of “desk time” set aside to write thank-you notes to those who contribute their work, wealth and wisdom to our organization. So many times people aren’t aware of the impact they make and don’t expect a thank you for their efforts. Yet a sincere note of thanks can turn someone’s entire day around.

Why must we assume that gratitude is part of the DNA of a leader or good public servant, and that this trait is what leads them to be the bearer of countless expectations along with our hopes and dreams? Do we mistake our leaders’ inclination to give of themselves as ambition and neglect to assign it to the responsibility and gratitude they feel for the lives they’ve been given? If that is the case, we should be ashamed for taking for granted the generosity of spirit that drives and guides those who serve us selflessly.

This year, during our Criminal Justice Day, we studied the Columbus Public Safety Department. Its job is incomprehensible to most of us. With the tragic death of SWAT officer Steve Smith last month, all 55 members of the class of 2016 signed a letter to Chief Kim Jacobs and the Columbus Police Department with the hope that their words would in some small measure convey gratitude for the bravery and courage Smith exhibited on the job before he was killed. How do you express gratitude to someone who gave the most precious gift of all – his life?

During the class’ visit to the police academy before the Smith incident, one officer made this simple request: “If you see an officer, in a coffee shop, or on the street or anywhere, please say ‘thank you.’ You have no idea how much that simple gesture will mean to him or her.”

I reflect on my yearly birthday gifts from Vivian, the curmudgeonly secretary whose presents taught me life lessons far beyond my imagination. “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit,” is the inspirational quote of Canadian pioneer Nelson Henderson.

To Vivian, thank you for the grove of trees that bears my name and has helped me embrace the power of gratitude. It is a leadership lesson that informs the core of our leadership values and impacts the mission and vision of our work.

How nonprofits can throw off the Rodney Dangerfield Effect

April 8th, 2016

Words are powerful. They create reputations for people, places and things. They contribute to stereotyping. Consider the 7-11 rule of first impressions: In the first 7 seconds of meeting someone, you subconsciously form 11 impressions about that person, be they true or false. It enables us to make sense of others by putting them in compartments that help define the person according to our assumptions and, too often, presumptions.

Let’s take this one step further: What happens when you hear the word “nonprofit?”

My initial reaction is to focus on the negative prefix “non,” which conjures the stereotype of understaffed and well-intentioned grassroots activists constantly begging for money from corporations and private donors.

The reality is the entire sector of these “non” entities represented $887.3 billion of our national economy in 2012. The additional truth is nonprofits are burdened with this negative title straight out of the gate, creating an obstacle to their mission-driven performances.

Compounding the problem is the confluence of “non” with “profit” to label the sector. News flash: Nonprofits are required to be self-sustaining, productive, creative and business savvy. Nonprofit 501(c)(3) is a tax code status, not a business plan.

Nonprofit organizations are steeped in the most meaningful, significant and life-changing work imaginable, to improve circumstances for countless people, animals and our environment. History reveals the concept of “nonprofit organizations” as a unified and coherent sector dates back only to the 1970s. It is challenging to assess their scope and scale as they range from informal grassroots organizations to multibillion-dollar foundations, universities, health care complexes and so on.

The preponderance of images that arise in conversations about most nonprofits are ones that receive the “basement perception” – small organizations that many times must fend for themselves. Not only are they viewed as “less than” by their corporate counterparts, they are punished when they dare spend money on marketing, overhead and increasing scale. To those critics, such expenditures are viewed as reckless use of donors’ contributions, even though they may be used to increase the capacity or financial health of the organization.

So, how can we reverse the Rodney Dangerfield Effect for nonprofits and give them the respect they deserve? How can the reputation of the nonprofit sector be rebranded so that we are conducting our work on a level playing field?

For several years I have been a board member for the Capital Area Humane Society. Its mission is “to fight animal cruelty, help animals in need and advocate for their well-being.” More than 92 percent of the group’s funding comes from donations and fees for services such as adoption. Recently, the society acquired $235,000 from the city of Columbus and Franklin County, helping to make a dent in the $700,000 needed to fund the least known and arguably most critical work it does – cruelty investigations. While not mandated, the society steps up to examine allegations of cruelty to animals.

The Capital Area Humane Society responds to 6,000 complaints of animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment in the county. It has five full-time Humane Agents who respond to every call where an animal is reported to be in danger. Many times they discover drugs, weapons or domestic violence as a result of their investigations, so they assist law enforcement, thereby paving the way for more comprehensive investigations.

This work is but one example of the powerful missions of nonprofits – organizations that can move mountains in prevention, treatment, advocacy and direct services for those in need and shine a light on problems that require our focus.

I believe it’s time for a radical change, a new name for the nonprofit sector that should be adopted by the IRS and society as a whole.

So if words are important, let’s return to those that describe the overwhelming responsibilities and significant achievements of nonprofit organizations everywhere. Let’s call them community benefit organizations or CBO’s.

With those words let’s lift ourselves out of the “basement perception” of the work we do. Let’s help others understand that we in the nonprofit world are not add-ons or quaint efforts by well-intentioned people. Rather, let these words show we are vital entities essential to the economic success and quality of life everyone deserves.

How a healthy dose of humility sets a foundation for leadership

March 4th, 2016

How often have you heard this? You are at an awards banquet or even watching the Academy Awards and during the acceptance speech the honored recipient declares: “Thank you, I am truly humbled.” What do they mean? Certainly they must not understand the definitions of humility and humble, because if they did they wouldn’t sound arrogant and narcissistic.

The words human and humble both derive from the Latin humus, meaning earth. To be human and humble is to be down to earth with your feet planted firmly on the ground.

True humility is staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know. Yet many of us misinterpret the desire to be educable as a sign of weakness. The opposite is true – the best leaders are the best learners.

Humility also is the most underrated and unappreciated characteristic when it comes to painting the portrait of a truly effective leader. When asked to identify traits integral to effective leadership styles, humility rarely makes it into the top 10. Instead, dedication, passion, good communication, courage and integrity are qualities that emerge to the forefront. Yes, these are important, but they pale in comparison to humility.

That’s because true humility opens the door for development of the leader in all other requisite leadership areas.

My life journey has become a metaphor for how I integrate humility into personal and professional growth as a community leadership facilitator.


“I learned to GIVE not because I have much, but because I know exactly how it feels to have nothing.” Author unknown


As a recovering alcoholic, humility became the key that unlocked the door to my denial. Humility required me to let go and admit I needed help, and that I had to a lot to learn about my disease. I needed to let go and become teachable.

I will always remember the day I finally embraced the definition of humility. I was standing in line waiting for my allotment of food stamps with the downtrodden and underprivileged. I also was anxiously watching my mailbox, waiting for my welfare check so that I could make ends meet until I was strong and healthy enough to seek employment.

This was not supposed to be how my life turned out. There I stood, an educated young woman from an upper-middle-class home in Shaker Heights, where alcoholism was not even part of my family’s vocabulary. The very idea that I was an alcoholic was so foreign and bizarre to me that I remained steeped in denial, even as my world was crumbling.

Humility instructed me to drop the pretense that all was well so I could ask for the help I needed to save my life. Humility allowed me the freedom to begin a new chapter that would require me to learn new ways of coping. Humility gave me permission to be vulnerable, motivated me to become educated on all the ways I could reclaim my life. Humility became the instrument of my liberation.

Humility forced me to become teachable.

The messy reality is that leaders can and do know a lot, but they cannot do everything perfectly and there is always room for education and growth. The leader who projects perfection and requires it from others will be unapproachable and isolated.

We all know leaders like this. The truth is leadership is relational as much as it is positional. The person at the top also is human and must remain educable. Because leadership places such high expectations on leaders and frowns upon uncertainty, many leaders will not admit their need for more knowledge. Truly humble leaders are able to grasp how much they really don’t know and admit it. Humility brings many voices to the table and invites courageous conversation. This style of leadership offers all team members the opportunity to be noticed and appreciated.

As my personal and professional journeys have intersected, I keep humility top of mind. It allows me to acknowledge my limitations and how much I can learn from others. As a reminder of how far I have come, I have kept an unredeemed and tattered food stamp framed on my wall as a reminder of the perilous and deadly road that I could take if I become complacent and forget the significance of humility.

As a professional, I translate that humility into always being a student of professional growth. Embracing humility demonstrates our commitment to development and allows us to strive for progress, not perfection.

How a healthy dose of humility sets a foundation for leadership

January 22nd, 2016

As the calendar flips to a new year, we find ourselves in a charged atmosphere of leadership analysis. For good reason.

Determining leadership, for example, is critical as the presidential campaign begins. Even in our city, newly elected officials are getting their start in key public roles. Beyond that, Central Ohio’s corporate sector has seen a wave of new CEOs, either coming in from the outside or elevated to their jobs by succession planning.

But how is effective leadership determined? Who is the real deal?

At Leadership Columbus, we employ an exercise that can demonstrate and separate true leaders from those with the trappings of leadership but absent its necessary skills and values. Here’s how it works:

Ten people are asked to stand in front of our class, and within 10 seconds and only allowing for nonverbal communication, they must select an individual to be the group’s “leader.” We repeat that with two more groups, and then ask the entire class to name the selected leaders of each group. Without pause, they identify the people each group named as their leader.

But the responses are most often wrong. The true leader is the one who took charge, pointed to an individual and inspired the rest to agree on their decision. That approach, while subtle, is so natural that the true leader usually is unaware they assumed the decisive leadership role.

Many times it is the people who don’t necessarily identify themselves as leaders that are, in fact, the ones who rise to the occasion. It what we call servant leadership – through service and action, people ascend to leadership positions.

Robert Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and a noted author on the topic, wrote: “The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons, do they while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Lately we have seen a seismic shift in leadership as the old autocratic and hierarchal modes of leadership have yielded to a model based on teamwork and community, on collaboration and inclusion.

Yet when many of us think of leaders in our community, we focus on those who have achieved media or celebrity status by virtue of the jobs they hold or the projects they promote.

There is a void and sense of disquiet among true servant leaders when they are unable to serve others. It’s like an artist who cannot create for whatever reason and will be pained by the inability to perform their craft. Similarly, with servant leadership, if one is prevented from heeding their calling to service, a sense of frustration and anxiety follows.

An example of servant leadership is found in the Northland Community Council whose members became involved in efforts to improve their community along the Morse Road corridor. After many improvements to the area, those singled out as the true initiators for change and progress said they had never considered themselves leaders before and were astonished their efforts led to changes for the better in the neighborhood. That desire to become involved without title or accolade is the epitome of pure servant leadership.

Or consider the actions of Jackie Calderone, an unsung hero whose primary passion is education for youth. She also is known as a presenter, funder, evaluator, arts trustee and artist, but her dedication to youth education through the creation of Transit Arts is a prime example of servant leadership. The program of Central Community House was a labor of love and grew out of a desire to serve a specific population. As a result, Transit Arts has become a highly respected national model.

Pure servant leadership is among the best kind of trusteeship. And none of us should wait until we are asked to serve. Those inner whispers that we often ignore emanate from our core where dreams and passions reside. By acting on those whispers, we receive the highest recognition possible – not a trophy or media accolades, but the knowledge that we are responding to what we truly care about.

At Leadership Columbus, we call it creating “leader-full communities.” It doesn’t stop with the training and development of class members. The goal is for graduates to share the tools so others learn the value and benefit of community trusteeship. There is an expression the sums up the two-way reward system of those who give out of selflessness: “You have to give it away to keep it.” Whenever we are moved to help others or serve a cause, the benefits enrich us individually and collectively.

A Cbus New Year’s resolution

December 18th, 2015

This is the time of year when the media is rife with features that create new slants on old themes for the holidays. We churn through the tired and predictable topics – shopping, decorating, recipes, stress relievers, hangover remedies.

Then comes the New Year’s resolutions storm. The concept is oddly oxymoronic – it is aspirational, yet guilt-producing at the same time. We struggle to improve our lives, but cringe at the determination and dedication required to do so.

In that spirit, we at Leadership Columbus challenge you as a leader to take a broader look at the concept of New Year’s resolutions and how it affects not only your company’s bottom line, but the bottom line of our community.

We must begin by understanding and accepting that 21st century leadership is more than capacity building and bullet points from Shelf Help leadership books. In today’s world, we require more citizen leaders than ever, those who are committed to serving the common good and preparing us for an uncertain future. That’s because what used to be incomprehensible is becoming the norm.

Leadership author Peter Senge suggests we look to Robert Greenleaf’s bookServant Leadership for a sense of the essential guiding philosophy when he writes:

“Most recent books on leadership have been about what leaders do and how they operate. … Greenleaf invites people to consider a domain of leadership grounded in a state of being, not doing. He says that the first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is profoundly limited.”

It is this sense of responsibility – caring and compassion for others, the desire to serve and to give back – that is crucial to new leadership. It is not about ego or resumes, it is not about being recognized with awards. It’s not a me thing.

The new response begins with your strategic plan as a company or organization. I am suggesting a company New Year’s resolution because this is the time when many of us are reviewing goals for the coming year. There is no better time to determine your 2016 efforts for community involvement and commitment.

When you are looking at your annual work plan, does it reflect not just your company’s community commitments, but those things about which you are passionate and your employees care about? Because our community’s challenges are so pervasive and broad, it is important to include the many perspectives and ideas from your team.

If a community is successful, then a company can be successful. The annual plan should include goals that advance the community and subsequently the company. This attention to conflating resolutions that are personal- and workplace-oriented can help attract a talented work force, lifts staff morale and helps integrate your company in the community.

At a recent nonprofit CEO retreat sponsored by American Electric Power, Cardinal Health, Grange Insurance and Safelite Autoglass, CEO George Barrett stated that Cardinal Health employees have a “palpable need to get engaged in something that matters.” I know this to be the case at other sponsoring companies, too, where leadership and workers are encouraged and empowered to be committed and engaged in their communities.

I’ll venture that this sentiment is universally espoused, especially in Columbus, where commitment to philanthropy is one of the region’s trademark characteristics.

The time is now to have the conversations and understand what the members of your team truly care about. This requires innovative dialogue about how you as the employer can support them in their community leadership goals. Listen and learn. Your team’s community engagement will enrich and complement their personal and professional growth.

This company New Year’s resolution is one that everyone is counting on you to keep. And, yes, it does require determination and dedication. But by being attentive to the passions and interests of your company’s employees, you are investing in the human capital that will enrich all of metro Columbus.

This addition to your strategic planning will be a victory for all. Your company benefits by attracting, retaining and developing high-caliber community leaders. Your employees benefit by enjoying corporate support to flex their muscles in community issues that go beyond their job descriptions. Columbus wins by enriching its collective work force and ensuring a pool of talented, committed community leaders at all levels who are inspired and supported to make a difference.

Nonprofits must always ask: What difference do we make?

September 4th, 2015

One of the bravest questions a nonprofit organization can ask is: What would our community look like if we didn’t exist?

If the answer is vague or not that different, there is no reason to stay in business. That is a difficult pill to swallow for staff, boards and loyal constituents who often are inextricably linked to the grassroots efforts and “founders pride” memories that formed during the launch of their nonprofit.

But in today’s world, there is no room for egos or territorial actions among staff and board members.

Courage is a trait we tout as necessary for leaders, and our team decided to ask the tough questions. As Leadership Columbus embarks on its 40th year, our board of trustees asked: What difference do we make? Are our priorities correct and responsive to the needs of our community?

To shed light on the conclusion we reached, it is important to have historical context.

The history of the so-called community leadership movement began as a result of a tragic accident. In 1969, a group of influential community leaders from Atlanta were traveling to Europe when the plane they were in crashed, killing everyone on board. Families were devastated by the loss and the city grappled with a huge leadership void.

Leadership Atlanta was born, triggering a national movement. The mission of such programs across the nation, from Leadership Chillicothe to Leadership New York City, is to create leaders by empowering high-potential citizens with skills to lead.

In Columbus, visionaries such as former City Council President Jerry Hammondand others teamed up with Battelle, Nationwide and Borden to form the Columbus Area Leadership Lab, originally housed on Neil Avenue. In 1993, it became Leadership Columbus so it could be identified as part of the national movement.

Later, the Crane family created an endowment to honor Robert Crane Jr., the late husband of Loann Crane. Robert Crane Jr. was the epitome of community leadership. Loann, in particular, was adamant there should be a generation of leaders poised to step up with the same can-do attitude and generosity of spirit exhibited by her husband. The endowment at the Columbus Foundation helps fund Crane Scholars with tuition assistance to participate in Leadership Columbus.

On a journey to document the impact Leadership Columbus has in the community, we discovered through interviews with graduates, corporate executives and nonprofit administrators that it does make a critical difference among its alumni. The stories of transformation are profound.

Recently, Bob Tannous, managing partner of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, recounted to me his site visit to an impoverished Columbus school in 1995. The Leadership Columbus grad learned students sometimes got their only meals at school because there were no groceries at home. He told me that when he hears Columbus city schools are closed due to inclement weather, he wonders: ”How and what will those kids eat today?”

Tannous has translated his empathy into action for those who are hungry.

There are nonprofit leaders across Columbus who have boldly pushed their egos aside and merged with similar nonprofits to become stronger. Lifecare Alliance is an example, and its CEO, Chuck Gehring, is an alumnus of Leadership Columbus.

We as a nonprofit community must evaluate our efforts often, to renew our missions and be ready to surrender what no longer works. Our world has changed in the last 40 years, and what characterizes appropriate leadership must change as well.

And we are not interested in who gets the credit.

Technology may connect us, but are we really listening?

August 7th, 2015

In this age of smartphones, texting and instant messaging, we are communicating on an exponentially greater scale, with more frequency and intensity than ever before. It’s given us a phrase that has become so commonplace that is it is now cliche: “Can you hear me now?”

We may be able to hear each other (or read email and texts), but are we listening? We might be sitting across from someone speaking, but at times it’s like the mute button has been pushed. This is because no one is asking: Can you listen to me now?

During Leadership Columbus’ Signature Program, we ask class members to name skills, by priority, that they believe are essential in a leader’s toolbox. The lists always are similar, and the descriptors usually include inspirational, dependable, fair-minded, determined, cooperative, ambitious, courageous, caring, loyal, imaginative and trustworthy. Without exception, “excellent communicator” is always on the list.

The term conjures the thought of someone who is an accomplished speaker or presenter. Rarely do we wonder: Is this leader a good listener?

How many times have you been in a conversation where this happens:

You have stopped listening and have begun to formulate your response while the other person still is talking.

You complete a sentence for that individual because you think you know where they are headed.

I have made an effort in recent years to put the brakes on the “response” part of my brain so I can really listen until the speaker has put a period on the end of her sentence. Whether it was a one-on-one conversation or I was in an audience, I found that even if my mind was engaged in the topic, I checked out when it was time to interject my view into the conversation. That prevented the person from fully communicating their message to me. I was basically hearing the audio but not actively listening.

Leaders may be able to speak their message but if they don’t listen, what good is the message? Yes, leaders must be polished speakers, but they also must be exceptional listeners if they hope to connect with others.

This is how communications expert Sonya Hamlin explains it: “Listening requires giving up our favorite human pastime – involvement in ourselves and our own self-interest.”

Cathy Blackford of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio, a Leadership Columbus graduate and past board chair, is someone you want in the front row when you’re giving a speech. She is one of the most active listeners I have witnessed. She is intent on the speaker, her expressions register that she comprehends the message, and her enthusiasm encourages the speaker to continue with confidence.

Indeed, not only do listeners benefit, speakers feel supported to deliver their message. You may disagree with the message but the exchange succeeds because someone has communicated and someone has heard it.

Using electronic devices in many ways has helped trigger a disconnect. Instead of words and feelings, we are responding to snippets, tweets, and posts with emojis to convey emotion.

Anyone recall the game of “telephone?” The final message usually ends up in some iteration of the original statement, sometimes so far off base that it sets the players –usually children – into gales of laughter.

Even when we’re trying our hardest to receive the message accurately, it still can come out distorted.

To be sure, leaders must be skilled at delivering a convincing argument. But they must be excellent listeners as well, encouraging the message and responding with the knowledge they are doing so from a place of true understanding. When those on both sides of a conversation are listening, great progress can be made.

Deshler Hotel time capsule: Power of storytelling

July 10th, 2015

“Once upon a time … .”

Don’t we all fondly remember the days of sitting in a circle, cross-legged on the floor, hands clasped under our chins, elbows resting on our knees and listening intently to a story that transported us to another world, as far as our imaginations could carry us? The tale could be from any time zone: olden days, present or future. But there was an undeniable characteristic common to all those stories that was captivating – the ability to inspire empathy and hope for what may be possible in all of us as individuals and collectively as a community.

The ancient art of storytelling has become increasingly popular in recent years among professionals whose goal is to create optimum learning environments for their students of leadership. This is because what cannot be understood or made relevant from dates and statistics can instead be made meaningful through an emotional connection.

The power of story resides in its ability to connect us to feelings, ideas and purpose that enrich our emotional intelligence and increase our capacity to make choices in leadership roles that correlate directly to actions in the best interests of our citizens. We are inspired to make decisions based on the common good.

In my years in the leadership development field, I have amassed countless books brimming with leadership platitudes by renowned authors. But I have found no skill-building technique or process as effective as storytelling for creating capacity in leaders who must navigate us through the challenges the 21st century has ushered into our lives.

My enlightenment and appreciation for this art originated during a week-long workshop by Christina Baldwin, author of The Storycatcher.

One of my favorite stories is about John G. Deshler, a pioneer and trustee in Columbus who was owner of Deshler Hotel, built in 1914 at the corner of Broad and High streets. The grand hotel was razed in 1969 by Katherine LeVeque to make room for the One Columbus tower.

In the rubble, she discovered a time capsule that contained letters placed by Deshler’s grandmother, Betsy, and his own personal letter to the future citizens of Columbus. His musings of what life must be like when his building would be torn down and his projections of hope for our city and humanity in general are written in a colorful, whimsical and mesmerizing manner.

What I love about this story is that there always is silence in the room as adults listen, captivated by the quotes found in Deshler’s missive. A few examples:

“When I compare conditions that exist in this city today, with those that existed 100 years ago, as shown in my grandmother’s letters, it is simply impossible to realize what conditions will be in your time. I doubt very much if you will really be any happier than we are, or my grandmother was, but you will know so much more and things that will be simple to you, would be wonderful to us.”

“I wonder what your form of government will be for surely it will change from what it is now; whether you will have wars and panics, sickness and poverty as we have! I hope not, and I believe if these things are not entirely eradicated, they will be greatly minimized. I wonder how you will live and what you will talk about; whether you will drink beer and whiskey and smoke tobacco.”

“The building I am now erecting is considered by our best architects, engineers and builders, as being the very best construction that we know of today. No one knows how long it will stand and probably no one ever will know, because it will become obsolete before it becomes insecure. Within 75 years you will tear it down, no doubt, and erect a structure that will be relatively as fitting to Columbus as you know it, as this house is to Columbus as I know it.”

“I hope that you will enjoy building your house as much as I have enjoyed building the one you are destroying.”

There is an almost sacred silence in the room after listening to Deshler. As he wonders about what our “modern life” might be like, we are struck by the realization that although everyday life is very different in 2015 than it was 100 years ago, how very much alike we are – bonded by the identical traits that are common to all individuals and society.

Reading this letter is an invitation to 1914. Deshler’s letter inspires deep reflection. With words he creates a connection and establishes community. This is the art of storytelling.

Listening to Deshler’s story and examining our life in Columbus, the intersection of humanity exists at Broad and High. Deshler expresses his hopes for the city he clearly loved, and his hopes that we as 21st-century trustees carry on his purpose and vision for a healthy, thriving city. He acknowledged change is inevitable as time marches on. In modern times, we must expect and allow for communities and organizations to change from their original story.

Today I have the key to Room 646 of the Deshler Hotel, found on Ebay by a good friend who cherishes history even more than I. I treasure the symbol from the hotel and how it has drawn me into the current storyline and skyline of our great city.

Storytelling, wherever we find these extraordinary chapters of imagination, reality, aspiration and ambition, helps us to make sense of our lives, empowers us and our communities, and enables us to realize our stories that unlock our potential as leaders.

To read the Deshler letter in its entirety, go to leadershipcolumbus.org

Postscript: LeVeque wrote a letter to the future citizens of Columbus. It, along with the letters by John and Betsey Deshler, were put into a cornerstone time capsule at 10 W. Broad St. With her addition, the story of Columbus continues for those who want to discover a treasure trove of history through the lens of authentic Columbus trustees – and specifically the story of a building that became “obsolete before it became insecure.”

It pays to plug into your city no matter where you’re from

May 1st, 2015

I often meet with recent college graduates, who when asked what they want to do almost universally respond: “I want to make a difference.” This statement represents a natural human instinct; we all want to matter, to effect change.

But how do we harness these individuals’ desires and practice effective community leadership that results in everyone feeling as if they have made a difference?

Think about this: Many of us feel a natural affinity and trusteeship for our hometowns. Though we may have moved away years ago, we can trace our identity to the memories of growing up and the emotional experiences that shaped who we were on the streets where we lived and played.

Do you remember the ice cream truck that drove up your street on summer nights, or watching fireworks at the football field of your high school? I recall riding rapid transit to downtown Cleveland for lunch at Higbee’s Silver Grille Restaurant. These small, seemingly insignificant details are the signposts of childhood that teach us how to emotionally connect with our environment and community. They are the memories that fuel our passion for a future career of community building.

Cleveland is devoid of mountains, oceans and year-round 80-degree weather, but it had a hold on me much more significant than geographical markers. Cleveland encompassed all the treasures of my childhood that foreshadowed the perspectives and possibilities for a future wherever I made my home, because I carried within me the ability to love the one I was with, or in this case, love where I live.

The book Love Where You Live by Peter Kageyama excellently captures this concept. The theme is simple: All of us can play a part in creating emotionally engaging places to live because cities are quite simply the repository of our hopes and dreams. We have the power as “co-creators” to build communities that reflect our values and authenticity, and to reflect the light of our very personal hometown memories and shine it forward on the potential of the future.

Kageyama cites an example from Shelbourne Falls, Massachusetts, where a Bridge Dinner is hosted for 400 guests on one of the biggest eyesores in town – the functional but aesthetically displeasing Iron Bridge. By hosting a dinner on a key piece of infrastructure that has served the city well, the residents view the bridge through an entirely new lens. It becomes attached to an emotionally enriching experience, which helps the community appreciate its utility and vital nature.

Participation in community engagement is the glue that keeps us together when we feel a bit disconnected. This phenomenon not only is for relative newcomers but even area natives who have witnessed the evolution of small-town Columbus to the 15th-largest city in the U.S. Though I have adopted Columbus as my true “forever” home, I will always feel the stirrings of the past where it seems most of who I am now was shaped in the 18 years where I grew up.

Tonight, you may not eagerly await the arrival of the ice cream truck, but you may start attending Food Truck Thursday at Columbus Commons. You may not go to the fireworks in your high school, but you may volunteer for the committee that sets the sky afire at Red, White & Boom every Fourth of July. I may not ride a rapid transit downtown, but I can be an advocate for light rail in Columbus.

The point is that we will forever look for those emotionally engaging experiences that keep us connected to our hometowns, so that we will have a similar ownership and significant investment in the health of our current community.

There are all kinds of projects that we can offer to our communities that will help us feel a sense of collaboration, pride and a connection with a city that we helped to build, no matter how small or large our platform of influence. We don’t have to be a power broker to enrich our community; we simply must be passionate co-creators.

This connection to our communities may be the single most important factor in the evolution of a city’s pride and identity. It is our ability to give voice to those who want to make a difference. We are not only erecting architectural gems, building structures that shelter great museum collections or high-tech businesses. We are building the homes that house our emotional attachment to Columbus and to our community.

Empathy crucial to effective community leadership

April 3rd, 2015

The role of a community trustee requires the capacity for understanding at a visceral level – not just a surface acknowledgment – the problems of others.

Many understand the role of a “trustee” as it relates to a nonprofit board, but how many of us truly know what community trusteeship means? Expanding the expression helps leaders embrace the concept that as builders of our community, we build for all of us.

I learned an invaluable lesson of how understanding leads to empathy and acceptance when I began my recovery from alcoholism almost 35 years ago. This disease, a misunderstood and stigmatized illness, is enormously destructive to the patient, family, workplace and community.

After years of hindsight, I can see how essential it is to take the time to really understand another’s plight. Others’ ignorance about my disease, coupled with my own ignorance, only led to shame and denial.

I discovered I was not a “bad person trying to get good,” but a “sick person trying to get well.” Yet, even now I struggle with the gnawing realization that some will read this article and it may lower their opinion of me. We need to acknowledge that all of us can, at any time, be the next one who is ill, homeless, unemployed or hungry. Our common vulnerabilities are the beginning for nurturing the awareness of all of our needs.

Early in sobriety, I serendipitously secured a job at a United Way agency that promoted the awareness and prevention of addiction. I was recruited to join the United Way speakers bureau, which meant delivering deeply personal testimonials about the disease and my road to recovery.

Invariably, audience members would say: “You don’t look at all like an alcoholic,” or “You shattered all my stereotypes.”

This did not surprise me because even though I clearly suffered in the depths of my disease, I refused to accept alcoholism was the name of my disease. It was almost as if being a young, educated, middle-class female from Shaker Heightswith no family history of the illness provided immunity. I presented a face with which they could easily identify, letting them connect to the issue.

Rebuilding my life was difficult when my family attempted to help without investing research into the essential elements of rehabilitation. Without education, they didn’t understand their role in our family’s recovery. Had they gone to support groups for families of alcoholics and been educated about the disease, they would have been able to help me and help themselves.

True comprehension builds the empathy that creates ownership. So often we look at complex community issues and throw money at the problems without asking the difficult questions. To determine why an issue is challenging leads to honest conversations about prevention.

If we continue to think about those afflicted as “them,” and do not realize it is an issue of “us,” we won’t find the empathy needed for solutions.

Indeed, once enlightenment strikes, it cannot be undone. One of Leadership Columbus’ graduates, Cathy Lyttle, vice president of communications and investor relations at Worthington Industries, who was named to our organization’s Hall of Fame in 2004, said during her induction: “After my year in Leadership Columbus, I could never again return to my quiet home in the suburbs and forget what I learned was the true reality for many of our community’s residents.”

To this day, her tireless efforts and commitment to community-building allow Lyttle and many of our graduates to use their skills, abilities and talents to lead with passion and authority.

When we realize we don’t live in isolation from others, we are more likely to achieve solutions for the common good.

Community leadership lessons are not taught from ivory towers where men and women lament the state of society and assume what will make a problem go away. Effective community leadership is practiced when we finally accept the challenge to move from awareness to empathy, and ultimately to creative solutions.

Leadership for change operates best by applying art of inclusion

February 27th, 2015

A small group of citizens can change the world; I never doubted it. When I was hired by Leadership Columbus many years ago, I discovered cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s quote and believed it to represent the fundamental philosophy and core values that inform superior leadership development.

We have countless examples of small-group projects where dreams have built playgrounds, funded gardens, developed recycling programs and even created nonprofits to address unmet needs in Central Ohio.

But what happens when we ask more people with differing ideas to join the conversation? Does that complicate the process or enrich the possibilities? Can we still potentially “change the world,” or do we invite dissension and stalemates?

At first glance, the concept of inclusion seems to challenge Mead’s comment, but the reality is that simultaneous elements of a small band of passionate people, coupled with broader sources of input, must be present for lasting and fundamental change to occur.

Consider downtown Columbus: Until the beginning of the 21st century, plan after plan offering ideas for downtown development proliferated, and even today, notebooks rest on bookshelves gathering dust but are filled with exciting ideas that were never executed and dreams that were never realized.

For one thing, many people held deeply personal investments – financial, professional, emotional – in what could or should happen to the premiere locations downtown. Everyone, from economic developers to retailers to home builders, considered themselves stakeholders in downtown, and they had strong opinions on which plan should be executed so that success would be guaranteed.

In 2000, the new mayor, Michael Coleman, facilitated town hall meetings where voices from various sectors could communicate and listen to others’ ideas. The sessions were led by a neutral outsider – an urban development and consulting firm brought in to assist in conducting the important dialogue. The mayor didn’t want a plan with just pretty pictures. He sought actionable items that citizens could envision accomplishing, and stakeholders began to rally around the central premise that tied it all together – a unifying vision.

What quickly became apparent was that the stumbling block was not which project to choose, but what the land under dispute represented. The ah-ha moment surfaced when Coleman began referring to downtown as everyone’s neighborhood. It was the unifying vision that would and could include all the stakeholders whose unique skills and talents could contribute to the success of the vision.

As a result, all the elements of what comprise a complete neighborhood – an attractive riverfront, downtown housing, a central park, retail, restaurants – were included in the redevelopment plan. The baseball stadium was moved downtown, the Arena District began to form and buildings and businesses started sprouting up.

This vision was the magic. Thanks to powerful inclusion, Columbus can boast a downtown transformed into an urban mecca that is garnering acclaim in national publications. What once was a sea of parking lots and a nondescript muddy river are now a bustling centerpiece with the Scioto Mile Park, Columbus Commons, grocery stores, historic districts with art galleries and boutiques, an NHL franchise and nearly 9,000 people of all ages inhabiting new and refurbished housing in the city’s core.

Years of hard work and frustration gave way to a community that demonstrates what can happen when superior leadership is at work. Who would have thought 15 years ago that we would be one of the final three cities vying for one of the most important national conventions to grace a community? Not only did we not possess the infrastructure, amenities or qualities to flirt with such an idea back then, we didn’t have the swagger or pride to believe we deserved to dream with such grandeur.

Back to Mead and her inspirational quote. Can a small group of committed citizens indeed change the world? The truth is they don’t do it alone. A “small group” of people need to comprise a passionate core of believers who can rally around a true leader’s vision.

But transformational leadership requires the art of inclusion, offering an opportunity for all stakeholders to contribute to the greater good so that success is shared individually and collectively.

How history can shape path of change in Columbus

January 23rd, 2015

Franklinton is a neighborhood associated with change. In 1913, more than 90 people were killed when a devastating flood flowed down its streets and leveled houses. Finding willing investors was difficult due to a history of flooding, and for years the area suffered with poverty.

In the 1990s, U.S. Rep. Deborah Price of Columbus went to Capitol Hill to request federal money to create a flood wall. This vital structure was completed in 2004 and now serves to protect Franklinton, giving investors and insurers the peace of mind needed to create something extraordinary there.

For so long Columbus had struggled to see the value in this part of town. Now, thanks to organizations such as the Franklinton Development Association, artists, restaurateurs and others with ideas have come to see this area as fertile soil. They realize Franklinton is rich with history and culture, which is inspires them to envision possibilities and potential.

What we now acknowledge through our history lesson is that we have a piece of the past that defines what we once were and what we can become.

The history of this city is the solid foundation for change. Such important lessons have educated Columbus trustees, not only why Franklinton was depressed, but also how it could be reborn. Hindsight is the clearest vision, and in the case of community leadership, it is instrumental to fostering imagination and growth.

When I teach trusteeship through Leadership Columbus, I always start with the past, because understanding where one has been and stands in the present is key to guiding us to our preferred future.

We have a responsibility to cultivate Columbus trustees who share the passion and demonstrate the essence of true stewardship. Those who have held our community in trust knew they had limited time – 60 or 70 years – to take Columbus under wing and make sure it flourishes and grows.

We are all familiar with those names in the news. Families like Schottenstein, Lazarus, Wolfe, Galbreath and Wexner, as well as our elected officials – mayors, governors and city council representatives – entrepreneurs such as Dave Thomas, Edgar Ingram and most recently Jeni Britton Bauer, who have invested their talent, time and treasure, whether it be in banking, law, retail or insurance or ice cream. They used their success and influence amassed through their professional endeavors and reinvested in our community. This is the definition of true stewardship.

But you don’t have to be armed with family name and logo to influence the community agenda. Grassroots neighborhood activist Carol Stewart was a founding member of the Franklinton Area Commission when it began nearly 42 years ago. Stewart began the movement, and others joined in, creating the renaissance we now see in a once-depressed area of our city. Through her example, others viewed Franklinton through a lens that allowed them to see beyond the stereotypes and stigmas. When Stewart passed away this year, the gift she gave to the community was celebrated and praised by the neighborhood she loved and government officials such as Mayor Michael Coleman.

Trustees are natural visionaries, not satisfied with the status quo. The examples I mentioned are people who possess excellent communication skills. Not only can they articulate a key vision, but they have humility, a willingness to listen to the past, a desire to be present in the moment and a vision for the future.

What if no one could imagine a Short North reborn, bustling with Gallery Hop every month, when it was stricken with hardship? Fifty years from now when we look back, who will be the names we say wrote that particular chapter of Columbus history and rebirth?

History plants the seed for thinking differently, creatively and courageously. We continue to celebrate our past, and use the past as a launching pad for the future.

We rebuild and we build.

I challenge you to take the time to look back and discover what history has to offer. Always be on a learning curve; you will discover more of what you don’t know than you ever could have imagined.

This community needs more leaders ready to forge a path of change, with the sharpest of hindsight, to mold Columbus into the city of our future.