Leadership Lessons from Garbage and Non-Profits

Sometimes I learn the most when I step outside my own little bubble of life and work.

In the spirit of looking outside the ‘corporate bubble’ for leadership lessons, I interviewed Al Heerema, who led several trips our family has taken to Honduras. Al serves as Board Chairman for All God’s Children (AGC Ltd) a non-profit organization that cares for needy children in Honduras. Before his current role, he and his partners built a wildly successful garbage business from scratch.

A few powerful lessons from Al’s story:

#1 – Leadership development happens across all arenas of life.

When I asked Al what prepared him to lead AGC Ltd, he cited his business, volunteer, and faith practices and experiences. “In building a business from 1 to 80 people, I learned to deal with people and solve problems. I also learned more about myself – that I am invigorated by chaos versus wanting to run away from it.”

He learned to work cross-culturally in a non-profit school in downtown Chicago. And he saw amazing things happen in both settings that increased his faith.

Wherever we are – in a corporate job, volunteering for a non-profit organization, at home, etc. – we can develop and demonstrate leadership. And what we learn in one arena, we can apply in other arenas.

#2 – Cause and connection trump compensation as a motivator.

We know this, but we tend to forget it. Al found this while working with the staff of the non-profit school:

“There was fantastic mutual appreciation and connection – even though we brought very different skills and cultures to the table. I filled vending machines, cleaned, did tax deposits and payroll, and raised funds – for a great cause. These people I worked with were saints. What a privilege! Can you imagine going to work with people who make $9k a year, and you can’t slap the smile off their faces!?

People connecting with each other and with a cause that is greater than themselves is powerfully motivating and engaging. It also yields a broader and more meaningful ROI than a purely monetary view could ever provide…

#3 – Return on Investment (ROI) is more than a financial measure.

Al loved the garbage business. But when he began to realize how compelled he was and how fulfilled he was to help meet the real and desperate needs of others he met through the non-profits where he volunteered, he looked at the ROI – so to speak.

For Al, it wasn’t about choosing between for-profit vs. not-for-profit, or greed vs. altruism. It was about paying attention to the needs around him and the nudges of his heart and mind. He stepped towards them instead of avoiding them. He decided where to invest himself – his time, energy and resources – at that given time so he would get the greatest return on his life and work.

Al found that doing what he was called to do has been food for the soul.

And this has made all the difference to him and to the lives of countless others, including me.

(Photo appeared in post by Aaron Meyer in The Everyday Language Learner)

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults who helps leaders and teams achieve results that matter. You can reach him at jbaker@www.people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.