Friday, August 10, 2012

Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit--Geoffrey Canada--Changing The Odds

Waiting to hear more about leadership that can make a difference in the world through Operation Christmas Child at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit--

Q & A with Geoffrey Canada

--You often use the word contamination to describe your work in Harlem.  Could you define that?
There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness.  Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.  They are contaminated with negative values and principles.  We need to counteract this with positive in enough children to make a tipping point.

What you have to do is change the neighborhoods.  You have to go block by block with a strategy for change.  Started with one block in Harlem and then went on and by the third block people began to believe change might be possible.

--So you start with parents during pregnancy and go all the way up?
When you raise a child there is no time that you can't be a good parent.  So you need to start from birth to offer support.

--In addition to the education what else do you offer?
People in my business are okay with education but not on board with medical and other support services.  What decent person would withhold services from children if they can be provided?  This should not be thought of as exceptional.

--We've got many leaders listening around the world.  What is this tipping point?
We think in our communities a culture begins to take place that works against any positive change taking place.  The culture gives negative messages working against the positive messages in education.  The culture needs to be changed so 65-75% of the culture has the same positive values and they can be reinforced in the child.

--You've used the phrase 'against all odds' to describe your life.  What's that about?
He came from the South Bronx where the odds were against you getting out of the neighborhood alive.  Places where young people are considered extraordinary for surviving should be changed to make their odds of success the same as those for all children.

My mother was determined that I would read and be highly educated.  My grandmother decided she was gonna save my soul.  At age 6 or 7 she talked with me about God and she passed away before she knew she had saved my soul.  That woman saved my soul.

--You and your team launched this experiment in Harlem.  What success did you see right away?
Here's one of the problems.  Failure when noone knows who you are can be dealt with quietly.  But when you make a bold vision it's harder to deal with.  We invested time and money and the schools showed poor results in data.   One of the most difficult things is to work really hard and fail publicly.  What you want to do is scale down the vision and not take a chance again.  Admitting failure and promising to try twice as hard to succeed was difficult but we had to do it.

--You had to make some staffing changes. Do you regret not doing that sooner?
It was a mistake.  I wanted to give them another chance.  We sometimes forget who we're actually working for.  We think we're working for the staff instead of the kids.  The kids didn't get a second chance.  The idea I could wait and hope people would get batter was wrong and something I learned the hard way.

--Many of our listeners have faced situations with key donors.  You had donor pressure to change your school philosophy. How did you handle that?
I did not get into this business to make money.  There's a line where the money detracts but it's hard to see how getting money is going to hurt you.  When those who give the money try to assert control you have to stick to your values.  If I had begun to water down the vision it would have destroyed my program.  Sometimes not taking the money is the smartest thing to do.

--How has your leadership style changed?
My compassion has grown as I've understood how complicated this is.  I also feel a stronger sense of urgency.  I think we've lost our way and can't afford to lose another generation.  I don't think we have time to wait.  So I've become more impatient with failure and I believe you have to build an organization that can tackle the tough things and keep moving.  When we want to get something done (like put a rover on Mars) we can do it.  We need to focus on this as our core mission.

--Who will succeed you?
Corporations need to have a succession plan.  I was stuck with this idea of how the work would be carried on.  This institution belongs to the students and they need to have leaders who will have an even better opportunity for success than I.

--You've been pursuing this for a long time.  Surely there must have been times you wanted to quit. What would you say about staying the course?
Through most of my career no one knew who I was.  In those dark times I believe we are only a moment in a path toward what I expect to be victory.  I know that my family came to America as slaves and for hundreds of years they were waiting for things to get better but they kept fighting.  When I think of role models I think of those who got no credit but never gave up.  If you can use that as a way of seeing your struggle, there's something about fighting for the right cause that gives satisfaction.

--How does faith play a role in your life?
Many in his family are ordained.  I grew up in the 60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn't making a difference in the world around him. It looked like a big con job.  My grandmother taught me a profound lesson about faith.  She said, "It's easy to have faith when everything is going great but the real test of faith is when you're faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God." I said I need to step back and look again at this.  I've never lost this sense that we can test it but in the end if you have faith it will pull you through anything.

--What are you last comments?
The thing I worry about it that people are watching us all the time.  This issue of our moral compass is crucial.  You need to be on top of your game.  Why do people wait until they get to be leaders and then decide to fall into moral failure?  Every time a leader falls into failure it hurts all leaders by making people lose trust.

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