The Way, Broadly: Reflections on The Pathway with Ambassador Don Gips

Drawing lessons from the second episode of The Pathway — our new conversation series with global leaders — member of The Room and Director of Research and Investment Strategy at AVR Asset Management, Mike O’Brien, captured his reflections on Fred Swaniker’s one-on-one with Don Gips, CEO of the Skoll Foundation and former US Ambassador to South Africa. Building on the set of First Principles he developed from the premiere episode, Mike has created a flywheel model for leadership based on key concepts from Don’s story.

Mike O’Brien

In the inaugural episode of The Pathway, we learned from Fred Swaniker and Masai Ujiri how focusing on the First Principles of Kindness, Curiosity and Discipline help lay the groundwork for finding our mission as leaders and changemakers. Masai left us with the insightful suggestion to find our life’s mission through “listening, learning and seeing where our voices are needed.”

Mike O’Brien’s First Principles for Success Pyramid

In the second episode, Fred sat down with Don Gips, who demonstrated how these simple (but not easy) concepts have the potential to create a flywheel, enabling the trajectory of the world’s greatest leaders.

“Not everyone’s going to be on the stage. I have found in my career that the role of supporting leaders can be equally powerful.”

Don shared incredible stories about President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton, which provided us with a masterclass in collaborating to amplify impact. Throughout his career, he has focused on building teams of people who can create a better tomorrow and then “getting out of the way to let others drive the work.”

The crux of his leadership philosophy was conveyed when he noted: “Not everyone’s going to be on the stage. I have found in my career that the role of supporting leaders can be equally powerful.”

A Touch of Forrest Gump

While listening to the conversation, I became envious of how, again and again, Don was able to find himself ‘present at the creation.’ He effortlessly appeared to be in the right place, with the right people, at the right time.

He was there for the founding of the AmeriCorp program in the United States, he worked for Vice President Al Gore and even became friends with President Barack Obama back in 2004 when President Obama was still an Illinois State Senator. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and is now CEO of the Skoll Foundation, where he leads the organization’s work investing in, connecting, and celebrating social entrepreneurs.

The serendipity in his story directly correlates with his openness to building relationships with people.

Sure, he’s been lucky throughout his career, but as discussed in my prior article, luck comes about when preparation meets opportunity. The serendipity in his story directly correlates with his openness to building relationships with people. A combination of kindness and curiosity continually create optionality in his life. He realized early on the tremendous satisfaction of assisting other people to pursue their own paths — and this became his superpower. He stated in the interview: “It’s one of the greatest joys of my life to help people and watch them go on to do amazing things and it has rebounded to me in unexpected ways.”

Being kind and curious created the opportunity, and beyond this, Don had the discipline and the willingness to step outside of his comfort zone whenever a new door opened for him. He found his unique way of adding value (mentoring and building teams) which allowed him to experience success. The initial success attracted more people into his circle whom he then worked with to help uncover their own paths. Continually repeating this process both enriched his personal life and increased the probability of future professional success for everyone involved in the journey.

Whether personally or professionally, growth does not occur at a constant pace. Through discipline, if we put in the work, it starts slowly and builds momentum over time.

A Flywheel Enabling Others to Do Good

Whether personally or professionally, growth does not occur at a constant pace. Through discipline, if we put in the work, it starts slowly and builds momentum over time. This is due to a positive feedback loop which gets created, leading to a flywheel spinning faster and faster.

Don’s flywheel started spinning based on his 3 biggest leadership lessons:

  1. Know Yourself
  2. Recognize everybody has a different leadership style based on their individual strengths and weaknesses
  3. Build a team based on diversity, surrounding yourself with others whose strengths complement your own

Over the course of his career, Don was able to continually build successful teams based on these lessons. Each successful team helped grow his rolodex, which enabled his career flywheel to spin faster.

What started out with an old high school rival recommending him for a project at McKinsey led to an opportunity to work with Vice President Al Gore. What started out as a project helping an individual run for a Senate seat in Colorado led to a relationship with a future US President. What started out as a relationship with a man running for US President led to an Ambassadorship in South Africa. This of course led to him meeting Fred Swaniker and eventually all of us in The Room, virtually. (Yes, the last role also led to him becoming CEO of the Skoll Foundation, but I would like to believe his membership in The Room as a Mentor and Pathfinder is just as important.)

By empowering others through kindness, curiosity and discipline, Don has been able to attract more people into his flywheel and help numerous individuals launch their own flywheels. He sees his current role supporting great change leaders as the fulfillment of his life’s work, with each step of his journey having helped him grow his network and gain a new skill set.

What Will Enable Your Flywheel to Spin?

By the end of the conversation, I was no longer jealous of Don’s ‘Forrest Gump’ serendipity. My mind was instead spinning trying to pinpoint the unique skills I bring to the table every day. What are my individual strengths and weaknesses? What value do I bring to each of the various teams I am a member of, and how do I support their diversity? Do I already have a unique flywheel I have started to spin? If so, what causes it to spin and how can I enable it to spin faster?

And what about you?

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