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Ken Saxon: Growing Leadership for our Community, and Nurturing It for the Future 

August 2015

“If we don’t refresh the face of civil society, we won’t have a civil society!” — Desmond Tutu

The Millennial generation gets a bum rap.

I help run leadership development programs for a nonprofit organization called Leading From Within, which is investing in our region’s next generation of social-sector leaders. Two of our three programs primarily serve younger leaders — our Emerging Leaders program for social-sector professionals and our Katherine Harvey Fellows program for emerging community leaders from the private sector and other professional backgrounds.

Given that most of these young leaders are Millennials (born in the 1980s and ’90s), many voices in the media say I should be anything but hopeful. I’ve read this generation described as self-absorbed, entitled, distracted without attention span, narcissistic and difficult to motivate without holding their hands and giving them a prize.

Yet this is not at all what I see. In fact, the young adults in our programs give me hope for the future.

In our Katherine Harvey Fellows, I see talented women and men dedicated to their careers and families, and yet they are seeking something more — a way to better understand the community in which they live, and to lend a hand in making it better.

In our Emerging Leaders, I see young people who became so passionate about a social cause that they decided to make their career in it, despite the sacrifice it likely requires in terms of compensation and the things in life money can buy.

Each of these young adults has his or her own personal motivation to serve, but they also put their time and their money where their values are.  Having personally worked with more than 100 such dynamos in Santa Barbara County, I’ve seen them do much to improve our local quality of life, including:

They are starting organizations that are making a difference here locally, like the Adsum Education FoundationYouth Making Change and The Friendship Paddle.

They are raising money for projects and programs that improve our community, like the new downtown Santa Barbara Children’s Library, the South Coast Business & Technology Awards Dinner and the Goleta Education Foundation.

They are collaborating across boundaries — in collective work like the Santa Barbara County Food Action PlanSocial Venture Partners and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness.

And they serve on countless boards, supporting the good works of many of our treasured nonprofit organizations — from Direct Relief and the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara to CALM (Child Abuse Listening & Mediation) and Storyteller Children’s Center.

What gets me extra hopeful is thinking 20 years ahead. I see all these passionate young leaders with 20 more years of experience, connections and wisdom, leading our communities as we face new challenges. I have great faith that their judgment and dedication will see us through.

As these young do-gooders emerge into leadership, what do they need? In our programs, we’ve found they need the encouragement to step up in their leadership, and then intentional development (skills, knowledge and practices), coaching and support from peers and mentors.

I remember being in my 20s, and desperately needing guidance, mentoring and trusted colleagues to support me in overcoming obstacles and growing in my learning. I lacked emotional intelligence and the wisdom that comes with experience, and I didn’t have safe places to talk about the things I didn’t know or the challenges I was up against. And so I often got stuck.

By participating in professional development programs, peer groups, mentoring and graduate school, I was able to learn how to succeed in my field and to grow in my leadership.

But much of the nonprofit sector offers little in the way of investing in emerging leadership. The obstacles include the sense that there’s not enough money and time, a lack of prioritization on people development, and, frankly, a lack of knowledge about how to develop people.

Dedicated young leaders addressing our community’s biggest challenges deserve better than that, and it’s in our interest to invest in them. How can you help “refresh the face of civil society” in Santa Barbara County? Consider:

» Reaching out and inviting a young leader to coffee or lunch, ask them questions, and listen to what they have to say (the simple act of listening is often what they most need)

» Offering to mentor a young professional you admire and want to invest in

» Recruit younger leaders of promise to your board, and then take the time to orient them as to how the board works and how they might contribute, debrief meetings after the fact, and invite their questions

» Inviting a young leader along with you to events or education opportunities that they’d otherwise not have access to

These are great ways to invest in the future of our organizations and our communities. And the fringe benefit is that you may well share the upbeat experience I have engaging with these young leaders.

Their vision will inspire you. Their dedication will impress you. And their passion may well ignite your own, leaving you more hopeful about our future.

— Ken Saxon is board president of Leading From Within and an instructor in its Courage to Lead and Emerging Leaders programs. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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