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In this interview from The Business of Giving, Lindsay Levin, the Founding Partner of Leaders’ Quest, and the author of Invisible Giants: Changing the World One Step at a Time, discusses how Leaders’ Quest helps build a sustainable, more inclusive world in collaboration with leaders. She shares the philosophy behind Compassion X and tells us remarkable stories of people she has met and the impressive impact they’ve delivered through their work.
The following is a conversation between Lindsay Levin, Founding Partner of Leaders’ Quest and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Denver: If you go on to the internet and look for courses in leadership, you will not be disappointed. There are plenty to choose from… whether you want to take them online or in person. But you won’t see too many reviews from those who have taken them that describe their course as “life-changing” or “transformative” the way you will for Leaders’ Quest. It’s a great pleasure for me to have with us this evening the Founding Partner of Leaders’ Quest, Lindsay Levin. Good evening, Lindsay, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Lindsay: Good evening. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Denver: So, tell us about Leaders’ Quest, founded in 2001. What is its purpose? And what makes it so exceptional?
Lindsay: Thank you. Sure! Leaders’ Quest is really about bridging divides. Our work is about connecting people from very different walks of life, different industries, different sectors, different countries… and having people learn from one another.
Denver: Well, I want to go on a Quest, okay? So, who am I going to go with? Where across the world are you going to take me? How long does it last? And what will I do when I’m there?
Lindsay: Sure, we do–broadly speaking–two kinds of Quests. The first sort of program you might join us for will typically be one week long. It could take place anywhere. It could be here in the US; it could be in the Middle East; it could be somewhere in Africa, Asia, Latin America. For example, our next program is in Kenya. The program after that is in Cuba. The one after that is in Israel, Palestine, and the West Bank.
You would be with a real mixed group of leaders from different walks of life–people from big corporations, entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, people leading nonprofits. It would be a very deliberate mix of people from different countries. And in the course of five or six days with us, you would go out and visit with all kinds of leaders and organizations in whichever country we’re visiting. We would deliberately mix in time spent with businesses, innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists and technologists. Time is spent visiting various communities–grassroots, slums, townships, villages–where people are driving change from the bottom up.
Denver: So I would observe, listen and watch other people make change. How is that going to help transform me?
Lindsay: Well, one of the ways I think about our work is that you can feel like you’re looking through a window. You’re looking out at something else, and you discover that it’s not really a window–it’s actually a mirror! In the course of having these different visits and different kinds of conversations, it’s very mutual. You’re learning, you’re sharing, you’re asking questions, you’re pursuing the things that really interest you. And in the course of that, what typically happens is you start to think about your own life. You start to think about your own way of leading, your own way of relating to people. And you start to notice different things about how you do what you do.
Denver: It sounds, Lindsay, a little bit like another organization called Roots of Empathy. It teaches children empathy. In Lesson One, a baby is brought into the classroom on a blanket by his mother. And you observe what the baby is trying to do– the frustrations of reaching a rattle, looking for his mother. As a result, the kids begin to talk among themselves. And changes begin in their behavior– as it relates to bullying, inclusiveness, being kind. In watching somebody else try to make change, you begin to reflect back inward on yourself. It sounds similar to the experience you attempt to provide…Correct?
Lindsay: Right! Exactly! And one of the reasons I started this was I believe we don’t spend enough time engaging with and getting to know people we may think of as “other,” or different from ourselves. So, in my view and experience, once you’ve met people from a different country, a different part of your own town, a different neighborhood–and once you’ve actually talked to them about the things that matter to them–it’s impossible to go back to seeing them as “other.” You form a connection that changes the way that you look at relationships and life.
Denver: Another thing that I think is distinctive–and you just touched on it–is the sense of self-awareness. I think we spend so much time looking at our external environment–trying to win, get profits…
Denver: You really can’t be a great leader unless you are self-aware, correct?
Lindsay: I agree. Self awareness — the ability to cooperate and collaborate. The world, on one hand, is very competitive. But it also needs partnership. It also needs collaboration. And I think today, we need that far, far more than we ever did in the past.
Those are some of the things that we try to show people… that the world isn’t just newspaper headlines or what you watch on the internet. The world is full of people trying to do great things every day.
Denver: You started this 15 years ago.. as I mentioned… back in 2001. Since you began, what we look for and need in a leader has certainly changed dramatically. What are the big differences you have observed? And how are they reflected in the way you design and develop Leaders’ Quest?
Lindsay: Right. I think the world is changing very fast. That’s not going to slow down–be it technology, scale, the numbers of people on the planet, how we’re all mixed up together — the world is changing very fast. So one of the challenges for leaders is to actually be at peace with that! To be able to work with vast change, to cope with ambiguity, to cope with uncertainty… And I think for that, you need to be very, very rooted in what you stand for. You need to understand your own values, what’s important to you. To have a sense of optimism… see possibility… and work with hope. Those are some of the things that we try to show people… that the world isn’t just newspaper headlines or what you watch on the internet. The world is full of people trying to do great things every day. And if you connect in with that–and if you build relationships with those kinds of people–you deliver very different outcomes.
Lindsay: I think we’re still at an early stage on that journey. I think it’s a very important transition. I think it takes years, not months or weeks. In that sense, I think we’re at an early stage. But I do think that there’s a real acceleration in people realizing that there are some things wrong with the way we do things. Our economic system actually needs to change. Businesses’ role in the world– whether we like it or not– is changing. So what a lot of company leaders are doing… and we spent a lot of time with people working on this
… is figuring out how to respond to that.
How do you put purpose in the core of your business…not as something that you do on Sundays, not as something that you do as a CSR project? How do you make whatever it is you do, the products you create, the services that you provide…how do you make sure that you’re doing that with a sense of social purpose, as well as for financial return? And I also think that in the up and coming generation…people deeply care about being part of something purposeful. I think everybody does.
We all want to do something meaningful in our lives. And it can get a little buried in the hurry, in the mad dash, and in the pressures of day-to-day life. But in my experience, as soon as you dig a little bit, you find people who really want to do something meaningful… and will give their all, if given the opportunity to do that.
Denver: You are the author of an exceptionally well-received book entitled “Invisible Giants: Changing the World One Step at a Time.” Let’s start with: What is an “Invisible Giant?”
Lindsay: Well, “Invisible Giants” was my way of talking about the fact that there are many, many, many millions of people doing great things in the world. And when we think about leaders that we admire, we usually come up with a very short list of the most wonderful, famous characters that have populated our past. But in my experience everyday, you can go out and find people in a corner store, in a small business here or a small business there, out in the community… You find people doing good work. And many of them actually end up delivering change on real scale, but are typically unsung heroes. So I wanted to celebrate the idea that people who are sometimes less visible–especially by the way in far flung corners of the world….different parts of Africa or in Asia, or towns somewhere in the middle of America–are doing really good work and are giants in their own field. They have a great deal to share, and others can learn from them.
Denver: Well, that is inspiring! I think we sometimes get so overwhelmed with the barrage of bad news that we are constantly fed.
Denver: There are some troubled places and things in the world, but I think the media doesn’t help. You can very easily develop a sense of hopelessness and say to yourself, “Well, what difference can I make?” So give us an example– to give us hope and inspire us– of one of these invisible giants…
Lindsay: There are a lot examples. But let me pick a man called Naidoo, an Indian gentleman who I met early on in my work. I met him in the city of Bangalore, and he was working at that time with mentally disabled people. These people had all kinds of mental problems and were from very, very poor communities. No access to medication; no access to doctors typically.
And he created an amazing network of.. barefoot doctors…local people who had some basic training to take care.. in different ways… of people with mental disabilities. Not the same care as full medical care obviously. But it was an extraordinary network that spread throughout India. And the first time I met Naidoo, I just remember walking into a room… and this wonderful man.. is physically disabled himself. His smile lit up. He was just a man of such goodness… his smile really shone out. So I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from watching the incredible tenderness, compassion and joy with which he engages with people. So he was one of many, many people.
Denver: That’s a great example. And we don’t pay enough attention to mental illness in this part of the world. So I can imagine in that part of the world, it’s never addressed… or rarely discussed.
Lindsay: No,, very tough for people in villages who were in families that don’t know what to do. They end up literally chaining people up. So, it’s really terrible. So a great deal to be learned from those kinds of examples.
I guess one of my reflections for those of us who spend time visiting China– or wish to visit China– is to actually take the time and trouble to get to know people. As with everyone–under the surface–we do all care about the same things as human beings.
Denver: Well, you have a lot of interesting observations in your book. One I thought was particularly interesting was a quote by Lin Lin. She said, “India is like an injured person lying on the floor. All the wounds are visible and open to the air, and blood is flowing into the ground. But here in China, all our wounds are on the inside.” Now you have spent, Lindsay, an awful lot of time in both of those countries. What was Lin Lin saying there?
Lindsay: Yeah, Lin Lin is a Chinese colleague who I’ve worked with around the world… including in China… but also in India. And she was so struck by what everybody’s struck by in India–which is it’s very vibrant, very colorful, very expressive. The problems of the country you can see absolutely from the moment you set foot off of the plane.
Denver: It’s a bit chaotic.
Lindsay: It is chaotic. And it’s wonderful as well! It’s got tremendous charm, but huge challenges, and they’re really in your face. You can witness all of that and people talk–it’s a very vibrant democracy. People are talking about sharing their ideas all the time. China feels more closed; it’s harder for foreigners to understand. In my experience there, it really warrants building relationships. As you get to know people there, they do open up. They’ve got a wonderful sense of humor. They care deeply about the same things that we care about. But it’s had a really tough history. It’s still got a pretty closed political system in many ways. And Lin Lin was really talking about that.
Denver: Yeah, they’re very guarded and very tight.
Lindsay: Exactly, exactly. And she was really talking about that. I guess one of my reflections for those of us who spend time visiting China– or wish to visit China– is to actually take the time and trouble to get to know people. As with everyone–under the surface–we do all care about the same things as human beings.
Denver: You also were blown away by the amount of building that was going on, and the number of people who were moving.
Lindsay: Right. China is in the middle of an incredible transition. It’s the biggest-ever migration from rural life to urban life. Very, very ambitious. Difficult! There are many downsides to it, and there are some upsides too. The scale of change is incredible. One of the things that it certainly has made me think–just in looking at the thousands and thousands and thousands of buildings under construction–is, frankly, the price on the earth. We have so many of us on this planet today. How we successfully live together–and plan and grow together– is deeply challenging. And by the way, the Chinese know that. They are smart people–very thoughtful about the problems that they’re having to navigate.
Denver: The people you run into…so many of them are in difficult situations, and their lives are so hard. They have so little money and so few possessions that they must really be enduring miserable lives……or so we assume! But in your travels–from what you’ve observed–that’s not necessarily the case, is it?
Lindsay: No.I think we often look in on a situation and make assumptions. In my experience, the assumptions are usually wrong. So, I might presume that the solution to problem A is to do one thing. But I’m usually wrong in that assumption. So, it’s really very much about asking the people themselves. People are in all kinds of what we might perceive to be poor communities… I spent a lot of time in slums in different parts of Africa and India… Yeah, life is tough. Resources are short; getting education for your kids is tough; access to any kind of healthcare is tough; access to clean water is tough. But people still have a tremendous sense of community, a tremendous sense of personal agency.
Some of the most impressive change makers are living in those kinds of tough circumstances. And certainly, I think there’s a great deal that can be learned by everyone, for example, here in the west about work that’s going on in the east of the planet… or down south of the planet.
Denver: Yes, they’re underestimated. I think somebody was on the show once and said, “Try living on a $1.25 a day, and you’ll find out how innovative you’ll become.”
Lindsay: Right. The entrepreneurship and innovation in slum communities is really extraordinary. And in fact, one of the things that we do with some of the business leaders that we work with is to help them learn from that kind of innovation at the bottom of the pyramid. Because the products and services that will serve the poorest 3 or 4 billion people on the planet are full of ingenuity. And in fact– in my view–that is where some of the most exciting, interesting markets and opportunities… opportunities to contribute and to grow businesses is going to come from.
Denver: And I think one sees even in this country, we’re beginning to finally get a trickle of reverse innovation.
Denver: Companies like GE are bringing some of those innovations back here, and we never would have done that 10 or 20 years ago…
Lindsay: Well, I want to give a plug to Detroit actually as you raised GE, because we’re just in the middle of creating our first Quest in Detroit. We’re going to be bringing business leaders from around the world to visit Detroit and learn from what’s happening there. Part of it is– the large companies and older companies– are really driving change. A real renaissance is going on there. And at the same time, there’s tremendous stuff happening in communities at a grassroots level. So, I’m very excited by what Detroit has to share with the rest of the world, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent there.
I think of compassion as being the bridge between the smartness and the wisdom. Compassion is really the ability to look at another person and to imagine myself in that person’s shoes, to recognize that we are all part of the same whole. Actually, ultimately, my well-being is completely tied up with your well-being and the well-being of future generations.
Denver: I know you did. You noted before that the world is changing at an accelerated rate. I think a lot of other people have noted that as well. But you have introduced this idea that compassion needs to change at the same accelerated rate. You referred to it as “Compassion X.” What is Compassion X?
Lindsay: Well, Compassion X is really the idea that we are doing a lot of smart things on this planet. We’ve got tremendous technology. We can do all kinds of things that were unimaginable 10, 15, 20 years ago. And at the same time, we’re discovering more and more about the Earth… and indeed about the universe.
So, there is a fantastic rate of change driven by human cleverness–if you like–human smartness. But at the same time, we actually need to be wise. We need to invest in being thoughtful; we need to invest in how we relate to one another, how we grow as human beings– what I would call, wisdom. We need to spend time on wisdom. I think of compassion as being the bridge between the smartness and the wisdom. Compassion is really the ability to look at another person and imagine myself in that person’s shoes, to recognize that we are all part of the same whole. Actually, ultimately, my well-being is completely tied up with your well-being and the well-being of future generations.
When I started Leaders’ Quest, the idea was: if we go and meet each other, we’re changed by that experience.
Denver: With Compassion X, there are three steps you talked about: One is the work we need to do on the inside– that’s a lifetime journey–and the third step is connecting the dots and bringing it all together. But let me focus on the second step: “meeting in the middle” because to tell you the truth, Lindsay, that seems to be the one we’re having so much trouble with right now.
I know you don’t need to agree with someone, but you need to at least listen and respect a different point of view. Boy, that’s not going on, particularly in this political season. What insights can you provide there?
Lindsay: Yeah. I totally agree. That challenge of not being driven by–the easy game– going to the extreme and being polarized… and demonizing one another… and assuming that somebody is your enemy because you don’t agree with him or her–there’s far too much of that going on.
In my own belief, I deeply believe in the goodness of people. The majority–by far the majority of us–want to lead a decent life, want to be good to our neighbors, care about the future, care about the next generation, and so on. But it all gets lost in the intensity of life. So the “meeting in the middle” for me is about those of us who can really show you an example of that. It’s about the ability to listen, the ability to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes. When I started Leaders’ Quest, the idea was: if we go and meet each other, we’re changed by that experience. One of the things you can do is get out and meet your neighbors. Go and connect with people on the other side of town. Yesterday, I spent time out in Brownsville, in Brooklyn–meeting with some fantastic people about projects they are running there. And this is just a few stops on the subway…and a different part of New York… where there are great things going on.
Denver: And you were also with the Chair of the International Steering Committee of OneVoice where you were trying to achieve that “meeting in the middle” between some people on the Israeli and on the Palestinian side.Tell us about that experience?
Lindsay: You know, people are sometime offended when I say this: but for me, it’s no different–the differences between all kinds of other people. It’s driven by fear. It’s driven by history. It’s driven by good people who care about their own communities and families and have a certain narrative…but have ended up really pushed apart. So the work behind OneVoice was to say: we want to engage with the majority of Palestinian people who actually want to live decently, side by side with the neighbors. And we want to engage with the majority of Israeli people who also want to live decently, side by side with their neighbors. For that, you have to believe in people. You have to be willing to spend time together. And my experience was of finding lots of fantastic people on both sides of that divide. And if anything, one of the abiding memories is of a deep emotion and passion and care. People are very sad that their populations are in this much pain. So, I learned a lot from that experience and a lot that I brought back into work with other kinds of communities around the world.
Denver: I think you provided some wonderful insights about all the positive things that are happening in that part of the world– which we never hear anything about.
Lindsay: Right. As with most things, we don’t hear enough about the good stuff. And I think it pushes us into a worse and worse negative spiral.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about your website, where people would go to find it, and what they will find when they go there.
Lindsay: Right. Well, so we’re at http://www.leadersquest.org. You’ll find a lot of stories. You’ll find blogs, case studies, testimonials. We do a wide range of work. You’ll be able to navigate through that. Lots of images… and I very much hope to meet some of you there.
Denver: Well, some pretty inspiring stuff on the site, I will testify to. Well, Lindsay Levin, the Founding Partner and Founder of Leaders’ Quest… Thanks so much for being on the show this evening. The book again is “Invisible Giants: Changing The World One Step At A Time.” It really reads very much like a fiction book. It has very descriptive writing and is a very enjoyable read. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Lindsay: Thank you very much! I’ve been thrilled to be here.
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