Marc Pitman: Welcome to the Concord Leaders podcast. I’m Marc Pitman, CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today it is my tremendous pleasure to have our guest, Darren Tipton. He’s the founder of Project Humanity and serving as the CEO. Darren, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Darren Tipton: Hey, it’s great to be here. Thanks, Marc.
Marc Pitman: You know, as we were chitchatting before the show, leadership can be so many different things and look in so many different ways. What do you enjoy about leadership because you’ve been involved in some aspect of leadership for most of your life?
Darren Tipton: For most of my life. You know, I’ve loved helping people find their place. I love taking people … And in our case we work in Africa’s small villages, a place very far away. It’s a mystical journey so to speak. Then taking them to a village and pointing out needs that are there and saying, “I think you would be great at this.” I guess for me it’s having that sixth sense of leadership and being able to take the right person and put them in the right place and then see this connection between an emotional reaction and their skills and see a life purpose begin to develop. That’s what I love about leadership.
Marc Pitman: Wow! I’m just really curious. What helped you to develop that as a passion?
Darren Tipton: I hate to say I’ve always had that sort of perspective but that has always been something very natural for me. I have had two or three really impactful mentors in my life and I think I observed that in them as well.
Marc Pitman: That’s really good for you because their mentoring is such an important part.
Darren Tipton: Absolutely.
Marc Pitman: In fact when I talk to … Many people I ask I say leaders are only as safe as long as they can be good followers. So have mentors that you’re following is so important. As we like to talk about here on the podcast, we also ask about how leadership doesn’t always look pretty. What was a time that you tried something and it didn’t go the way you expected?
Darren Tipton: Yeah. I have several stories in that regard but there’s one that stands out. We, as I mentioned, work in these small villages. We take groups of volunteers. The short of the story … This is a new location, a new place to work. We thought we had everything covered. We get there and everything falls apart and the perception of the team was not all that positive. It was not our fault, it wasn’t my fault but I took it really personally. When you pour your heart and your life and your soul and you come with your best game you think, and suddenly things don’t go quite like you hoped and people may seem a bit critical and part of it probably necessary on my behalf. It’s one of those times I just felt defeated. I felt like, wow, I did not ask to take this on and get this treatment. In fact, to the point of just saying, “I can’t do this.”
A colleague of mine was with me and I said, “I just want to take this thing called Project Humanity, wrap it in swaddling clothes, lay it in a manger but lay it at the steps of the firehouse with a note that says, please take care of our baby because we can’t.”
Marc Pitman: Wow!
Darren Tipton: It’s one of those times you gave your best. You came what you thought was prepared and it didn’t work. It was such an impactful thing. We were at an impressionable point in our journey, in our story, and then to wake up the next morning and say, “Wait a minute. I’m glad we didn’t take it and lay it at the firehouse steps because there’s still work to be done here.”
Marc Pitman: Well, I think … that’s … I’m just speechless in some ways because that’s such a powerful feeling. I was just talking to another leader in Africa actually just this week about that sense of overwhelming … For him it was self-criticism but also that sense of defeat. Are there certain things that you’ve developed over the years that you can say helped you kind of dig out of that? Or is it just giving it time like you said, about not giving away the baby?
Darren Tipton: Yeah. You know for me … We’re taught our whole lives, don’t give up. Don’t give up. Persevere. You’re going to do this. We’re going to do this or die doing this. There came a couple times in this journey, in our story, that I had to say, “I am d-o-n-e. I am done. I cannot do this anymore.” I think there’s a certain connection that, especially entrepreneurial NGO leaders, that it comes from the heart. I mean, you’re speaking from passion. It’s that middle point of your chest that’s pulling you outward and when that seems to be so overwhelming, it’s taking you on a journey that it’s costs you more than you want to pay, lasted longer than you wanted to stay. You finally just say, “I’m done.” I go to bed and you know, the next morning if it’s giving you your next assignment, if it’s telling you, let’s try this, then it was meant to be.
I guess one of the lessons I’ve learned is when you want to quit, do, because if it calls you out again you know it’s meant to be.
Marc Pitman: Interesting. That’s a really good point.
Darren Tipton: We don’t give each other permission to stop, to quit or even pause. I tell my staff that all the time. Somebody says it’s too hard, can’t do. Don’t, don’t do it anymore. If it’s meant to be, they’ll be back.
Marc Pitman: Wow! I laugh. My wife and I seem to have when we get on the boards we have a special gift of helping nonprofits figure out that they’re at the end of their life cycle. I don’t know if it’s because we both grew up on farm-like places in Maine or something but we know that, yeah, it’s okay to stop. We can honor the past but I love the redemptive hope of, if it’s meant to be or if it’s still calling you in the morning. If there’s still something more that’s coming after you, you’ll pick it up.
Darren Tipton: Can I say one other thing I just thought of when you were saying that about you and your wife? For me, and I think a lot of NGO, especially people that are leading, we talk about leadership. We lead from the heart and we as a culture don’t deal well with emotion especially in the business world. It’s particularly with the NGO culture that so much of what changes culture, alters the story of a village or a town, brings hope, originates in what I call passion. I think part of it too is finding a place that you can be safe in your feelings that you can share either with colleagues or a mastermind group. Nurturing that desire that’s from within because you can pay people to do a j-o-b. You can’t pay people to have that heart.
Marc Pitman: Yeah. That’s so good. How do you when you’re picking out staff or when you’re helping bring staff on board, how do you identify passion? Is it that sixth sense that you’re talking about of leadership or do you have some ways that you can hire to passion?
Darren Tipton: You know, for me and I may be the oddball out. I’m going to admit it. Probably my single most strength is finding the right people, if I can’t hold somebody back, if they’re taking the reins and running with it. I mean, I can tell you when I meet somebody that this person has the potential to do x within conversation. I think the most telling thing for our organization is when someone discovers for example … We took a lady, fell in love with this library project we’re doing. I can’t stop her from what she’s doing. She says the words, “This is the best day of my life.” Why would you say such a thing? Well for her, she connected with a lifelong passion of books and desired to do something in her retirement years. This woman, named Sharon, said those words and I said, “Sharon, I would like you to lead this project.” You would have thought she won the lottery.
It’s also being perceptive to what’s going on around you, my paying attention to her emotions and her connections to what we’re doing. Also, can I direct those emotions and passions in such a way that accomplishes the organizational goals?
Marc Pitman: I love that because you started with the story of feeling so defeated. Sometimes we can develop a toughened heart. One of my mentors always said keep a thick skin and a tender heart. But oftentimes you get that the other way around. Let our heart get just calloused because we just don’t want to hurt anymore. It’s interesting how you’re driving us back to remembering to pay attention to the emotions which is so important because that’s when passion is. That’s great.
Darren Tipton: I think you just said it, Marc. If I had to say what is the one thing I love if I were to speak in front of an audience or some of the speaking that I do. It’s taking people back to the first time they said, yes. When you first said, yes, to whatever you’re doing. You could be … a variety of things. Whenever you first said, yes, what did you say, yes, to? We become entangled in red tape. We become entangled in process. We get worn out, family issues, whatever. But if you can go back to that first day you said, yes, and even write down, “I said, yes, because x.” There is a way to rekindle that passion so that you don’t feel the oddman out. So that you don’t feel worn out, that that desire can rejuvenate. I know it can. If it started in your heart, you can re-birth it.
Marc Pitman: That is so encouraging. Wow! Darren, my heart is truly full right now and all the notes that I’ve taken. From the leadership, finding mentors and having them help shape your leadership to your entrepreneurial passion and putting it on the line, then helping draw that out with others too. I love that, taking back to the first time you say, yes. Usually I end these conversations with, what one tip, one strategy would you suggest listeners do? It could be that but is there something else too that you might suggest they do?
Darren Tipton: I’ll tell you something that has worked for me. It’s easy to compare yourself to this organization, to that organization, to are we reaching our goals. I try to stay away from that. I try to own my own story. It’s hard to know how far you’ve come because you can’t quite see. You don’t have the 50,000-foot view on your own story. Your significance is heralding yourself towards something bigger than you. Be reminded that comparing yourself to others or other organizations can be very detrimental. Now, learning from them is a great thing. The other thing I thought of when you were asking the question is, say thank you. As people who are recipients of good will and there is a sacred trust that we have from our donors and supporters. A thank you goes so long and so far. When I remember to do those little notes and personalized calls, it makes a bigger difference. It’s not just about getting to the goal but it’s about honoring the donor and the supporters.
Marc Pitman: Yes. Wow! This has been such a rich conversation. Darren, where could people find more information about you and about Project Humanity?
Darren Tipton: You can go to our website which is projecthumanity.com or you can e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org
Marc Pitman: Super. Thank you so much. I know people are going to want to listen to this episode again and again. This one as well as all episodes of the Concord Leaders podcast can be found at concordleadershipgroup.com/podcast. Until next time, remember, healthy nonprofits start with healthy leaders.