September, 2012

What Harvard Taught Me About M.O.M.’s

Several years ago, I attended a two-week community development seminar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  It was an extraordinary experience, walking to class across the Harvard campus, watching and hearing the rowers on the Charles River, meeting with my study group to review that day’s ‘case’ and then spending the day in class as probably the smartest people I ever met dissected the case to illustrate critical points in community development.  The case study is a principal means of instruction at Harvard.  It’s very engaging and incredibly effective.  Having a real story used to illustrate abstract principles makes all the difference. 

One of the abstract principles we addressed frequently was leadership.  What constitutes leadership?  How does one become a leader?  How do leaders affrect communities?

It came down to this in the view of our speaker.  Great community change resulted from the single minded, tireless efforts of a M.O.M.  Of course, all of us actual Moms in the audience quickly nodded in agreement but the speaker wasn’t talking about us.  He was recalling Peter Drucker’s statement in Adventures of a Bystander, “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.”

One writer described M.O.M.’s this way:  “A good champion is passionate about their cause or change.  He or she is a staunch, zealous fanatic.  A great champion is emotional, irrational, irreverent, impatient, and unreasonable.  He or she wants the change – no matter how big – to happen this week, this month, or certainly by the end of this quarter.  To an impassioned change champion (M.O.M.), the sky is often falling and the situation is desperately urgent.” (Jim Clemmer, Nurturing Change Champions, ManagerWise, 2001)

What’s making me think about M.O.M.’s?  Frankly, it was the death of Joan Lawrence, director of Our Space and the person who was probably, nearly single-handedly responsible for the development of the peer specialist movement in Milwaukee and was the prime mover behind the Crisis Resource Center.  Relentless, intense, undeterred, and unwilling to negotiate much of the time, Joan made enemies and turned a lot of people off.  But she changed the landscape of mental health services in Milwaukee for the better in a big way.  Joan really was the epitome of a M.O.M.

I know a couple of other M.O.M.’s.  Married to one of them – Howard Snyder.  Howard’s single-minded focus on the need to keep and improve the public library on Villard Avenue resulted in our granddaughter having an amazingly cheery, friendly, well-resourced, and NEW library on that same street.  She sits next to dozens of young people, families, and older adults as they swarm into the library on Saturday mornings.  It’s amazing.  Before the library, he zeroed in rehabbing an abandoned firestation, started NOVA (Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy), an MPS partnership school, in collaboration with area industrialists, and moved his nonprofit into the massive DRS Naval Controls Division plant in order to build a workforce alliance that would employ neighborhood people in defense jobs.  When he turns his sights on something, we know that’s going to be IT for focus for the next several years.

Terri Strodthoff, founder of the Alma Center, would go on the M.O.M. list.  A bigger believer in the capacity of men involved in domestic violence would be impossible to find.  Rich Oulahan, prime mover of Esperanza Unida into a model of worker training that continues today, is another one on the list;  his death left a huge legacy for Milwaukee’s southside and the whole community.

There is something so different about M.O.M.’s.  Often hard to tolerate, their intensity can drive some people away from their cause.  But their single-minded devotion and relentlessness gets results that organizations absorbed in strategic planning and rational decision-making can’t achieve.  M.O.M.’s are willing to be unreasonable and undeterred in pursuit of a dream for the community. That is precious and rare and we need to appreciate M.O.M.’s when we have one in our midst.

And that’s what Harvard taught me about M.O.M.’s.


Who Should Do the Talking?


It’s a tough one, all right.  The person in charge, the executive director or program director, has great content knowledge but is a lousy public speaker.  He or she knows every detail of the operation but couldn’t inspire a flea to jump on a furry dog.  But because status has its privileges, many talented public speakers, more junior in rank, must step aside, all the while trying to hide their involuntary wincing and eye-rolling every time the boss winds up to give another ‘great speech.’

Sorting out the difference between knowing stuff and being able to present it well confounds a lot of organizations.  Sometimes I sit at meetings, knowing that a person who is the soul and inspiration of a point of view is sitting quietly in the audience while his or her boss talks.  If I wasn’t the extremely well-mannered person I am, I’d want to stand up and say, “Hey, why don’t you let So and So talk?  That’s how you could really sell this idea.”

Who is the best person to sell an organization’s ideas to supporters and funders?  Is it always the person in charge or is it sometimes the person not in charge but with tremendous talent and ability to inspire and engage an audience?

It’s tough for the person in charge to delegate the public speaking role to someone junior to him/her.  To do this requires, first, a level of objectivity about one’s own talents and shortcomings that is very rare, and second, the willingness to trust someone else with the organization’s message.  But if the organization has a true commitment to insuring that each staff person has the opportunity to do what he/she does well then it makes sense to distribute the public speaking roles and really think critically about who is best able to connect to which audience.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some executive directors who are so smart, so compelling, and so connected to their constituencies that they probably ought not be replaced by other staff members.  Yet even these folks need to take a hard, honest look at all their organization’s talent and make sure that talent really gets used to maximum advantage.

That’s being smart.