By James Collins
Students from the Spring 2010 "Integrative Leadership: From Theory to Practice" course, taught by Professors Jay Kiedrowski and Paul Vaaler, will post their reflections on integrative leadership throughout the course of the semester on the Time to Lead blog.
Rotary International is an association of individual Rotary Clubs that come together to form an international association of clubs that work individually on projects of local interest and collectively on projects of international scope. Paul Harris, a Chicago lawyer, founded Rotary International in 1905. Rotary originally began as an organization of business people dedicated to their mutual benefit, as well as for the benefit of the communities in which they form; however, Rotary quickly became more and more involved in working collectively for the good of both local communities and communities around the world. Since Rotary is composed primarily of business and other community leaders, it is afforded a certain level of organizational prestige and benefits to which other, more grassroots organizations might not have access. Rotary, and its members, is well respected as leaders in industry, government, and civil society, a factor that makes coalition building both easy and productive.
Rotary International is an organization that is close to my heart. I am the fourth generation of my family to be affiliated with Rotary--my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are or were Rotarians, and I spent a year in high school as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in south central France. I remain involved as the Rotary Youth Exchange orientation coordinator for southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, working with the district youth exchange chairwoman to welcome foreign students as they begin their exchange years in the United States and prepare American students as they embark on their youth exchange experiences. Rotary is a fantastic organization with which I am proud to be affiliated.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rotary International began exploring how it could make a difference in the world. Rotary's leaders chose to work together to rid the world of polio by 2000--an ambitious goal that would save countless children's lives and literally limbs. When examining Rotary's Polio Plus initiative, it is interesting to note that nonprofit associations have not always had a positive profile. Multinational corporations and states have not always been friendly toward advocacy and other civil society groups and their transformation from outsiders to allies is an interesting one that has taken quite a bit of effort from concerned, engaged citizens willing to take a stand and make a difference. Rotary has shown persistence in their willingness to keep after policymakers and industry to include them in policy debates.
As Rotary began this effort to combat polio, it quickly became obvious that its powers would combine to make a tangible difference. Countries that had at one time experienced high rates of childhood polio were soon certified polio-free by the World Health Organization. In contemplating this accomplishment, I cannot help but think of the difference between the concept of professional citizens and citizen activists. I would define a professional citizen as someone who, using socially and politically acceptable methods, engages others to attack a social problem. In many ways Rotary International acted as a professional citizen. Rotary acted within the established bounds, did not take accusatory stances, and did not 'rock the boat.' This approach is different than many other civil society groups trying to make a difference in the world (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Green Peace) who at times work outside of standard areas, using alternative and at times, aggressive methods of advancing their agendas.
Today, through the efforts of Polio Plus, polio has been eradicated in all countries except for Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria. As Rotary continues with their Polio Plus program to finish the job, they use a combination of 'boots on the ground' and access to resources to get the vaccinations to where they need to go. They are dedicated to seeing this project through to the end. Moving forward, other organizations can use the Polio Plus model as a brilliant example how a membership organization took action that significantly changed the world and made it a better place. Using persistent outreach, a worldwide NGO and its members to state were about to get private industry, and international organization actors on board with its initiative and combined forces to eradicate a childhood disease that used to leave millions of children paralyzed. Other organizations will be able to build on this model and use the experience of Rotary as a way of thinking about coalition building and organizing collaborative responses to global problems.
I chose this example of leadership, because it is an example of individual community leaders coming together to form an association of leaders that ultimately makes the world a better place. In class, we were luck enough to have the leaders of this international initiative come and share with us their experiences launching, managing, and sustaining such a grand endeavor. The leaders that spoke about their hard work and even a few instances of luck, but what stuck out the most was their perseverance. These leaders kept going and eventually not only changed their organization, but the world.
I am very interested in understanding how leaders can work together to accomplish more for the greater common good and together pool their resources and talent in a way that allows for everyone to learn and benefit from individual moments of leadership. It is said that leadership is the "process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task." It is getting people mobilized and motivated to accomplish a task---oftentimes in the face of great challenges. I have heard leadership referred to as accepting the challenge in the right place at the right time, with the right resources...but in this case it is interesting because this organization fully chose to contribute its skills and resources for a common rather than shared goal. Leaders working together to accomplish a shared vision and mission is something that I think is pretty special.