David Whitesock

Social Entrepreneur | 2015 Bush Fellow

Today, a Fellow

Oftentimes it is stated that our formative years encapsulate birth through our mid to late twenties. I've come to believe that we should have formative years all along our entire life and up to the very day we die. This, therefore, is the art of living. We form, reform, grow, progress, etc. We should always be building upon each day lived, giving us new or stronger foundations for days and years ahead.

A formative period of time that stands out today is the 140 days I spent in the Tripp County jail in Winner, SD from September 2005 to January 2006. This period was very clearly a moment of demarcation in my life. Everything before this time was marred by the effects of addiction on my life. Everything after ... well, that was yet to be written.

I received a number of books from family and friends while in jail. One of those books was "American Soldier" by General Tommy Franks. This book, is in many respects, a treatise on leadership through a military lens. Growing up in a military family, I was able to relate to the unique relationship individuals have with the military as an organization. Yet, I was not really sure how to process the book's overall message about leadership. Quite frankly, I never thought of myself as a leader. All my life, I was barely even a follower -- so I thought.

During my radio career, I assumed leadership roles but could not have articulated what leadership meant at the time. Nonetheless, I had experienced leadership in a very intuitive way, and it was through that lens that I processed "American Soldier."

Today, the Bush Foundation is announcing that I am one of 23 Bush Fellows. A Bush Fellowship "is both a recognition of extraordinary achievement and a bet on extraordinary potential." In other words, the Bush Foundation, which serves to improve lives in communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the 23 Native Nations in that region, seeks to improve and increase leadership capacity. Through a rigorous process, more than 600 impressive individuals -- already leaders in their own right -- were pared down to 23 and bestowed this honor to engage in self-improvement to become better leaders.

The process was enlightening and humbling. The honor is a privilege.

During the process, I revisited Tommy Franks' book. I was looking for notes in the margins or recollection of insights gained from reading that book while incarcerated. Within the 600 pages only two small paper bookmarks were found. On one is written in fading lead pencil: "Loyalty and Leadership". That notation corresponds to a short paragraph that reads:

During my months in combat, I’d come to understand that a soldier owes loyalty to his unit and to his boss. A leader must be able to count on the complete support of his subordinates. As Eric Antila climbed into that jeep and assumed full responsibility for my actions during the Battle of the Y Bridge, however, I realized that loyalty not only flows up the chain of command: It flows down as well.
— Tommy Franks, American Soldier (p.106)

On the other piece of paper is written: "Managing people". That notation corresponds to two short paragraphs that read:

“Soldiers have a lot of moving parts,” I began. “They require regular maintenance. They are human beings, not machines. They will do amazing things if they know you care about them.” I remembered the devotion of Lee Alley’s men, the respect we all had for Lt. Colonel Antila.
— Tommy Franks, American Soldier (p. 127)
“If a trooper comes to you with a problem, remember this: It’s your problem, and it’s my problem. We’re not going to lose good soldiers because we don’t give a rat’s ass about them as people.”
— Tommy Franks, American Soldier (p. 127)

I suppose a dissertation could be written on why I seemed to have chosen these three quotes out of 600 pages of text. Nothing else in the book was marked, highlighted, underlined, dog-eared, etc. It is fitting, however, that the concept of loyalty being a two-way street and that leadership requires valuing people as people were what resonated with me at that time.

When I was fired from my position at Leighton Broadcasting in 2004, despite my betrayal in the company's trusty in me, I felt they were betraying my loyalty at a time when I was most needing their support. I did not feel like my problem was their problem. In fact, they got rid of their problem ... me.

These leadership values of loyalty, trust, dignity and respect are values my colleagues hold dear at Face It TOGETHER. Those values embody our culture. In fact, what we call the Employer Initiative is based on the very notion expressed by Gen. Franks: "If a[n employee] comes to you with a problem (i.e., addiction), remember this: It's your problem, and it's my problem. We're not going to lose good [employees] because we don't give a rat's ass about them as people."

The military being top-down organization has a much more difficult time with these concepts, which is why Gen. Franks wrote the book. In a flat organization like the one I work in, these concepts are hardwired into our culture, but it does not mean we do not need to work to master those values. We must practice them every day.

Leadership is something I was never directly taught. But apparently it has been part of my experience for a long time and very present at formative moments in my life.

Now, for the next two years with the tremendous support of the Bush Foundation, I get to directly explore leadership, hone those skills, and find my style. The Fellowship will allow me to share my story throughout the region and to explore the way we use data in the pursuit of social impact.

Today, I have been named a Bush Fellow. I am forever grateful for what that will mean for those around me tomorrow.