Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Leadership, Learning and the Millennial Generation

Jul 2, 2010 10:09 AM ET

The Acacia Group - Socially Responsible Leadership

It was Isaac Newton who said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This article concludes an interview with Greg Van Kirk, a giant in the field of social entrepreneurship and a leader who has contributed immensely to our vision of community development.

Two previous segments of the interview with Greg have run on this blog space, and first time readers are encouraged to read these in order to get the full grasp of Greg’s work and to also watch the brief video that puts a face to the efforts.   If we as The Acacia Group, build something new or orient our approach to international community development in a slightly different way it is because of people like Greg and organizations like Social Entrepreneur Corps who have gone out and charted a course on what successful community programs can look like; programs that are sustainable, and that are locally run and operated.   Greg’s work is also informed by input and leadership by engaged student interns, who in turn benefit from those who have gone before. I asked him about working with this group of learners and contributors.   Greg, in a simplistic way – that is in many ways too limiting, the millennial generation has been described as fitting in between two poles. One, they are quite entitled, they want what they want and when they want it and; two, they are very plugged in to the issues around globalization and the need for full engagement in social responsibility to help others and the planet. What have you observed as you watch these young people engage?   While the bulk of the students who show up would naturally fall into the latter group of seeking to help, there are still vestiges of the former group too, who just want things to go easy. This falls away fairly quickly. The experience of working with local villagers is enhanced for participants who go in with an open hand, and open mind and are prepared to get their hands dirty. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option and the act of “doing” erodes the sense of entitlement very quickly. During the volcano in June, while it did not directly impact our program, it did have an effect on communities close by – we had a team meeting and the response was unequivocal “We are fine, this event has happened to us, now let’s get out there and go help”. These guys are inspirational, they did this independent of direction from our program. These are the leaders of tomorrow who are showing their skills right now.   From a corporate social responsibility perspective (CSR) - it is really quite fascinating. Established leaders in business or the social arena may do “battle” as to the appropriateness of interactions and the place on the continuum of certain efforts. Young leaders see no such dichotomy – there is no best approach – they simply live the concept of do well by doing good. Social is not a bad word, business is not either.   Voluntourism is growing and becoming more popular. Critics are concerned about what can be a transactional and surface level approach to change. What are your thoughts on this?   If it is about sampling of a culture then I would argue that it is not effective for either the participant or the local villager. If it is about true learning and making a true impact then that is another. It should always be about supporting the end needs of the beneficiaries and supporting those organizations that support the beneficiaries. (We had previously established that Greg and SEC are a development organization versus a volunteer organization) One of things we have to guard against is students saying “I will help in this way” i.e. their way. Instead they should be asking “What do you want” – often this is not sexy stuff, but it can create a huge impact.   What does the future hold for Greg Van Kirk?   The connection to Ashoka and the Ashoka Lemolson Fellowship has been huge. While we have been encouraged to develop our model of microconsignment elsewhere, to be done well it takes a lot of time.  You have to create a relationship of trust and integrity. This cannot be transactional and quick. The Fellowship has opened lots of doors to share information with brilliant leaders in the field, and as a result we can share and combine ideas that can have an impact in different places. We don’t always have to use any one program but can constantly adapt and learn based on the application and location.   The truth of the matter is that our model and other Ashoka programs work and can work all over the world. We have an obligation to make this happen. So we work with our own internal leadership team and try to find ways to create replication, working with good partners elsewhere to leverage their connections into an area.   We are also working with the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Centre at Columbia University where we are focused on the creation of centre of excellence for studying and improving microconsignment – we can create obsolescence for ourselves by housing the knowledge at an accessible connection point.   Thoughts on engaging leaders…?   We have unintentionally created a culture of effective leadership – we attract people who are drawn into a certain way of being – we help them shape their thinking, you know, fundamentals – begin with the end in mind – provide servant leadership –don’t manage, don’t tell – learn to trust. Trust your team implicitly- have total faith that even when they make mistakes they are just learning and that they will be fine.   The generosity and openness of Greg’s vision is truly remarkable and allows for a cocreation of programs and services that can have a profound effect on the lives of all who participate. Many thanks go to him for giving us the time for this conversation, for the partnership and for allowing us to stand on his shoulders.   The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.   Greg Van Kirk and SEC  has generously agreed to a partnership with The Acacia Group in the development of effective leadership through work in Guatemala. We are currently offering a unique opportunity for a smaller group to join us in late November 2010 and to learn and help shape our progam. Contact us for more information or to join our upcoming webinar on July 7th at 12:00 noon PDT.   ACACIA7694