Build Bridges, Not Moats: What is Influence, Anyway?

The Rutland Herald recently featured three community leaders — Lyle Jepson, Paul Costello and Will Notte — who not only possess influence but energize their engagement for the greater good. Nonprofit leaders refer to this as “building bridges, not moats.” Exemplary leaders from various backgrounds do this with humility and courage, rather than focusing on building influence “platforms.”

In a commentary citing CEDRR’s accomplishments since he became director last year, Jepson championed his team as well as acknowledging remaining challenges. An editorial saluting Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, was as much a tribute to the man, as to his two decades of leadership. Rutland former alderman and current state representative Notte’s op-ed last Thursday was assertive but humble, urging rational action about a topic that has perpetuated moats for far too long.

An admired CEDRR board member told me recently he does not consider himself influential, nor does he think others see him that way. Considering his monumental contributions here, he is a prime example of a humble leader who cares more about his community than about personal gain.

During the past 20 years that I have been advising nonprofits and other social advocates (eight as a management professor), the most inspiring leaders have been authentic altruists, i.e., “servant leaders.” Because servant leaders are masters at collaboration and energizing engagement, their organizations have far-reaching societal benefit. Volunteers and donors, even those with limited time or funds, rally to support them. Because they have demonstrated their ability to create true societal value, major philanthropists donate large sums of money to them.

Self-aggrandizing types, on the other hand, tout their causes on social media platforms that are more about their personal agendas, while tabulating “followers” as if those were actual indicators of influence and impact. With few credentials, some of them anoint themselves as experts — on influence, isolation, happiness and community. They poach material from renowned scientists who have decades of published academic research and clinical experience on those topics. They potentially threaten the funding of respected organizations whose beneficial impact donors trust and support.

Authentic altruists often energize their engagement as volunteers, such as retired businessmen Alvin Wakefield and Robert Harnish, each of whom has contributed to Vermont for more than four decades. Late last year, they began work on a comprehensive Declaration of Inclusion that condemns discrimination of any type, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age or disability. (Retired Rutland attorney Norman Cohen and I joined them in February, also as volunteers.)

Al, Bob and Norm are the ones who work the phones, crank out the emails, and Zoom at all hours across the state. So far, the group has secured a statewide proclamation of diversity, equity and inclusion from Gov. Phil Scott, and similar declarations from nearly two dozen towns and municipalities, including Rutland City.

Al, Bob and Norm do not claim to be experts on diversity, equity and inclusion, nor are they paid consultants or funded advocates. They do it all without a website, or sanctimonious blogs, or GoFundMe demands, or directions for large donations, or boasts about their influence. They are proud and concerned Vermonters who love this state and work to facilitate solutions.

Likewise, Alis Headlam, whose new book documenting the growth of Project VISION is one every Vermonter should read, as should leaders across the U.S. seeking to build bridges and banish moats. Project VISION itself is an extraordinary case study on energized engagement for the greater good. The Rutland region’s annual Gift of Life marathon is another, with Steve Costello its undisputed ambassador advocating a critical community need.

Management professors teach that authentic influence and energized community engagement, such as these Rutlanders demonstrate, cannot be taught, nor can they be sustained by slick platforms. Rather than build bridges, such platforms perpetuate moats. They could divert resources from respected community organizations that secure and protect access to food, shelter, safety and education for those who need them most. It is those essential organizations that deserve all the promotion, accolades, support — and influence — we can muster.

Liz DiMarco Weinmann lives in Rutland.

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Liz DiMarco Weinmann

Founder | Creator | Owner: B.E.A.M.-Impact Generator©