Sharing the wisdom of our mentors: An interview with Dr. Les Lenkowsky

Lately, I’ve been focused on learning from and leading together with my YNPN peers in our local Twin Cities context. If there is anything I’ve learned in the last few years, however, it’s to keep the bigger picture in mind.

I called up my graduate school advisor and one of my all-time favorite teachers, Dr. Les Lenkowsky of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, to hear some of his take-aways from a long, full career in the social sector. Mentors provide some of the best advice and perspective on what really matters and how to stretch to do our most meaningful work. In this post, I share some of my favorite tidbits from that conversation.

Dr. Lenkowksy has had a long and diverse career in civil service with stints in academia, philanthropy, journalism and government, including serving as the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service under President George W. Bush. He currently writes for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and teaches courses in civil society and nonprofit management at Indiana University.

Sarah: When you decide a topic to write about or teach to students, what is the most important question that you ask yourself? How do you evaluate how relevant an issue or topic is for "big change”?

Dr. Lenkowsky: What will get my students or my readers really thinking in an important way? I assign and write about things I don’t necessarily agree with – that are provocative. I write things to have a debate.

I do the same thing in the classroom. I want to get my students who come in wanting to change the world—who are idealists—to really start thinking hard about what does it take to change the world?  What does your idealism mean? How do you translate that into what I like to call practical idealism? How do you learn the lessons of history? Idealists tend to think they’ve come across things for the first time. Sometimes that will be right, but often times they’re going down a street others have to one degree or another been down before, so what can we learn from that?

What one piece of advice would you share with young professionals?

This comes directly from my mentor: the occupational temptation you face is what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance. That, in fact, the world doesn’t change too rapidly, and sometimes when we think we’ve changed the world, we’ll have all sorts of unwanted consequences. That there are a variety of ethical issues. Who gives you the right to change the world, anyway? I think in the social sector, and certainly in philanthropy, a certain healthy dose of humility is required. The biggest problem I see is that people approach the field without humility, though they may develop it after a while.

How did you settle on teaching and writing as your two current avenues for affecting change in the United States?

I was always writing and teaching. The model of the Public Intellectual put forth by Pat Moynihan and Irving Crystal and others really influenced me. It’s an ethical commitment that it’s the duty of a person who’s interested in ideas to share those ideas with the public. I’ve been writing since I was a graduate student. I’ve always felt this was a responsibility I had to do this.

I really like the term Public Intellectual, but I don’t think it’s a term that’s thrown around much these days. However, it sounds to me similar to the term we frequently use today: Thought Leader. Why do you use a different term?

I object to word “leader” in Thought Leader. It gets back to my humility point in some ways. “I’m a thought-leader” implies that you have a great idea and people should listen to you and pay attention. And, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think I can share my ideas with a wider public and maybe some will be convinced, but it’s not the leadership I’m focused on. The great thing about a free society is that people have lots of different ideas, and that the debate is a lively one. I think it’s the process of debate that’s important.

Any parting thoughts for young professionals?

You’re young! You’re full of hope and optimism. Go for it. But also pay attention, listen, learn.

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