Published on October 22, 2013 on WVGazette.com
The title of Jon Gensler’s keynote address at this weekend’s Create West Virginia conference in Richwood speaks to a core problem with changing things in these hills:
“Reprogramming Appalachia Through a Different Approach to Leadership.”
If one thing’s clear to the Huntington native it’s that the current system isn’t working.
“As long as I’ve read histories of Appalachia, we’ve often expected our authority figures to guide us and tell us what to do. It’s clear that’s not working, and it’s not working today,” Gensler said in a phone interview from his Brooklyn home.
Gensler is all about exploring ways to improve upon leadership. He is a consultant with Cambridge Leadership Associates and has had a few significant leadership roles of his own. Prior to joining CLA, he served as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army, deploying to the Middle East twice as a combat troop platoon leader, earning a Bronze Star medal for a tour leading a mortar platoon.
He holds an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a B.S. in Russian and German languages from the United States Military Academy at West Point. His post-military work has also focused on leading sales and business development efforts for clean energy technology companies in the private sector.
“One of the reasons I’m so intrigued by the whole Create West Virginia phenomenon is asking the people of West Virginia to take responsibility on behalf of their communities and families in a way that’s different than what we’ve seen in the last 150 years of our history,” Gensler said.
“It’s not going up to the Governor’s Mansion asking them to tell us what to do. It’s not going to the state Legislature and asking them for a set of policies.
“It’s looking at our neighbors and saying we’re going to have to do this — you’re going to do it with the state and with the county — but they can’t do it without you.”
Gensler draws a distinction between leadership and authority.
“Leadership is an activity, which is a choice each of us make every day, whether we want to exercise leadership. You wake up every day and you decide is this going to be a day of leadership or not. And I don’t pretend that’s an easy choice.”
Often, you are asking people to look at their values, their adversaries and to accept new possibilities.
“It’s asking people who have been let down by authority or failed in their efforts to make change to try again, to not give up.”
This may also mean better engaging the opposition to one’s views “and finding a solution that both people can live with — not necessarily a win-win solution, but something that’s going to serve the purpose,” Gensler said.
“The reason I’m going to this conference, I’m hoping people will walk away realizing people will have to do something different, to show up different in their daily lives, to engage with authority differently.
“People from every aspect of the state need to be involved, from coal miners to tree huggers. The people who are willing to sit down and work for a better future for West Virginia and not knowing what that future is and not coming in with an ulterior agenda about what they want — those are the people I want to find.”
His address will not just be a pep talk, he said.
“I plan on angering a few people. I’m probably going to leave a few people disheveled and frustrated — that’s the only way people change,” Gensler said.
“We’re not going to solve the problems of Appalachia at a three-day conference. This is a step on the path. Hopefully, we make a step, make a big step. That’s the most we can hope for — mobilize other people so they want to do this work in the state.”
The challenges to change are not small ones.
“We’re up against an entrenched culture of authority — a very authoritarian culture,” Gensler said. “It’s not just the people in power. I honestly believe the people in power believe they are doing good. The tools they have are incapable to the task — they are no longer good enough.
“And that’s the root of the problem — the knowledge they have isn’t up to the task of solving our problems. We have to learn new ways of solving them — the world has changed.
“Continuing to do the thing we’ve done in the past is no longer good enough — from a governmental standpoint, from a business standpoint. The only thing we know is it’s not good enough, that we have to do something different.”