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'Driving Change' panel: Good role models helped develop O'Neil's compassion

Steve O'Neil
MinnPost Photo by Sharon Schmickle
Steve O’Neil enables people to help themselves and others.

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on the  examples of leadership profiled in our series, "Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership," a project made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation. Today Lindsay McCabe, executive director of the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, comments on aspects of leadership presented in "Steve O'Neil: a driving force to end homelessness, save taxpayers money." 

Lindsay McCabesmumn.eduLindsay McCabe

Lindsay McCabe saw the sign of a true leader in the criteria for an award given to Steve O’Neil: one who enables people to help themselves and others.

“What you are doing as a leader is inspiring others and sharing with others,” said McCabe, who is the executive director of the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

One of O’Neil’s colleagues expressed the concept this way: “Steve transforms how people see the world, and he does it in a way that he brings people along on the journey.”  

McCabe added, “He has a lot of people on board ... with the incredibly strong community relationships, partnerships and collaborations that you expect from responsible, ethical leaders.”

We tend to think of a leader marching in front of a line of followers. The effective model, though, would not be represented by a single-file line. Instead, its characterization could be a series of intertwined loops in which a leader inspires, energizes and empowers others while also taking encouragement and motivation from them.

Family, others led to a foundation

In O’Neil’s case, some of the loops could represent people who led him over the years to a life of community organizing and service.

“He had good role models,” McCabe said. “They were supported by religion or other causes. ... That’s a critical part of his development as a leader, but also a prelude to advocating for people with his sense of social responsibility.”

One early influence was O’Neil’s family, in which community service was expected. O’Neil learned from a mother who was a social worker and a father who made clear, in a very visceral sense, that not everyone has a job and a home.

“They all kind of led to a foundation for righting wrongs, an awareness of social injustice ... real care and compassion for people other than yourself,” McCabe said.

Another early influence was a teacher, Sister Damien. Other teachers urged students to bring canned goods to help the poor; she prodded them to tackle the reasons people were poor in the first place.

In effect, what she did was challenge the students to make the extra effort to actually know the people they were helping, to touch them in a deeply human way and take meaningful action on their behalf.

It’s a challenge with many facets, not all of them cognitive, McCabe said.

“He has to be persuasive.” McCabe said. “He has to inspire people. He has to listen to people. That, along with a vision, makes a good leader. ... You bring a lot of people into your vision, and it’s a shared vision so that you can accomplish your goals and objectives.”

Courage and permission

The same teacher provided a model of courage by introducing her students to the story of Father Damien, the Belgian missionary priest who, while serving in Hawaii during the 19th Century, voluntarily took up the cause of ministering to people with leprosy and eventually succumbed to the disease himself.

In the profile, O’Neil said the story planted “a great seed” within him.

McCabe prefers the metaphor of a foundation being laid. The story provided one more piece of a solid base for strong and courageous leadership.

Yet another piece came from Prof. Mildred Pratt at Illinois State University Bloomington-Normal. She was a dynamic African-American crusader for civil rights and human rights in housing, employment, education and other spheres of life. O’Neil said that she “was the first person who identified community organizing as a job and a way of life.”

In essence, Pratt gave him permission to pursue his visions and passions.

That sort of permission “can be formative for a young person,” McCabe said. It can reinforce a deep conviction by saying that you not only should help other people, but you actually can. Indeed, you can make it your life’s work.

Finding his style

Further reinforcement came from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, someone O’Neil met early in his community organizing career.

“Most people who knew Paul Wellstone knew that he was a persuasive advocator and he believed in grass-roots action,” McCabe said. “Paul made things happen because he felt in his heart that it was the right thing to do.”

Finally, advocates for the homeless in Washington, D.C., helped O’Neil find a style that fit his nature. In Chicago, he had learned confrontational tactics. In Washington, he met bridge builders while working at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) . To be sure, activists there shook things up in their attempts to convince the Reagan administration to help the homeless. But they did so in a way that was inviting and conciliatory.

After that experience, O’Neil and Angie Miller, his wife, were ready to return to Duluth and co-found a Catholic Worker Movement in the tradition of Dorothy Day.

The transformation to a less confrontational style was a logical step in O’Neil’s development, McCabe said. It may have taken a few years for the passionate young activist see it that way, but the bridge-builder model was a far better fit for O’Neil’s strengths, especially as his faith grew.

“It’s kind of like he landed in the right place at the right time for his development,” McCabe said.

Coming from within

To sum up the various influences, many people helped shape the leader O’Neil represents today.

But McCabe also assigns credit to O’Neil himself. As a young man, he had to take a bold step toward an unconventional career by pursuing his passion for social justice. Where many others might have burned out over the years, he sustained and grew his vision and strategies.

Spirituality certainly is one explanation for the sustained sense of purpose, McCabe agreed. In spirituality there is a search for meaning, for making sense out of life. And many people do find deeply meaningful purpose in a religion that calls for compassion and service to others.

McCabe added, though, that while “the religious part comes from a higher power,” a certain force also “can come from you, internally.”

In other words, O’Neil needed motivation and courage in order to match his life with his spiritual vision.  Leaders who find that match also can find rewards far beyond monetary compensation.

“There is a sense of meaningfulness, an inspirational, intrinsic kind of thing ... knowing that you are making a difference,” McCabe said.

A new track

In recent years, O’Neil has taken his service model on a new track by becoming a St. Louis County commissioner. That creates an opportunity for O’Neil to leverage his impact, McCabe said.  

“As a county commissioner, he still is serving the public, but he has a notable goal of solving the problems through the government,” McCabe said.

In a sense, though, the challenge remains the same.

“He needs to work to get people thinking the same way,” McCabe said. “He must have that gift to persuade people that we are capable of solving the problem of homelessness ... those are the characteristics of leaders.”

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