Leadership Lessons I Learned At The Helm Of One Of The Nation’s Oldest Disability Organizations

By Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability

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I was raised by my mother and my grandparents in the stable, residential enclave of first generation Jews and Italians in Boro Park and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My grandparents came from the pogroms of Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century, emigrating to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the 1920’a when America opened her borders to all who were looking for a better life.

From my grandfather I heard stories of about not having enough to eat, and the oppressive regime of the czar and the Bolsheviks. After fighting in WWI, he came over believing that the streets in America were paved with gold, a perception not tempered by time. He often said in response to a question about whether we could go to a movie or have ice cream “Of course. This is a free country.” That made him a very happy man.

My grandfather, a furrier who owned his own business, instilled in me a deep appreciation for the privilege of not only living in a land of plenty, but living in a democracy where people can speak their minds, work hard and reap the rewards. He also taught me the importance of treating all people fairly and of compassion for those less fortunate than we; because one day, we could be down on our luck like they were.

He saw the humor in most things and was a keen practical joker. He found ultimate satisfaction in inviting guests to share in his daily aperitif of herring and “schnapps,” an ounce of bar scotch that he’d previously poured into a Chivas Regal bottle. He delighted in watching them sigh with delight at this very special — and expensive — drink.

My mother, the second most important influence in my life, divorced my father in 1957 (when I was four and she was twenty five), when divorce among nice Jewish women was unheard of. Something of a renegade, she raised me on her own while obtaining a degree from Brooklyn Law School. One of only three women in the class of 1968, she graduated first in the class and served on Law Review. We were dirt poor. Schooled by her parents and as a role model for me, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and became quite successful in her own law practice.


I began considering in earnest the values that would drive me for decades in 1968, the year I turned 16. It was a year that many historians would describe as one that transformed our nation. Pope Paul began the year by praying for peace, but it was a year replete with war: not only in faraway jungles, but also on city streets and college campuses, at party conventions, on motel balconies, and hotel kitchens.

David Waters of USA Today described 1968 as a year of unrelenting life and death struggle of civil rights and human rights, hearts and minds, bodies and souls…waged in the counterculture explosion of protest, irreverence, generational mistrust, iconoclasm, rebellion and all various forms of radical experimentation…polarizing the nation on questions of basic American values. (Those words ring true once again today as our deeply divided country struggles to bridge over cultural, political and class fault lines.)

In April of that year, Martin Luther King, apostle of the civil rights movement, was assassinated on his motel balcony. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy, icon of my generation, was murdered as he pledged to end the Vietnam War, during his victory speech in the Democratic primary in Los Angeles.

Later that summer, millions of Americans cringed at TV images of Chicago police attacking unarmed protestors near the Democratic National Convention. The Kerner Commission, a Lyndon Johnson-appointed panel investigating the causes of race riots in US cities, warned, “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” (The Kerner Commission’s report heavily influenced my own decision to enter the civil rights movement and later, the anti poverty field.) Simon and Garfunkel looked for America. The Beatles sang about a Revolution.

Closer to home, my mother became the first General Counsel of the National Organization for Women (NOW), working side by side with Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Robin Morgan and other early feminists for the doomed Equal Rights Amendment. On a visit home from my first year in college in 1970, my mother questioned me about whether, in the political rallies I was beginning to join, women made the coffee and typed the speeches, or stood shoulder to shoulder with men. I realized we did not. That was my induction into being a feminist.

But for me, more important than feminism, was a sense that I needed to play my part in a movement for social justice, equal opportunity and democracy that could create real, lasting change. My hero, Bobby Kennedy, embodied that movement. On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, Kennedy gave one of the most powerful and prescient speeches of that era from the back of a pickup truck in Indianapolis. He said, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred….not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer.” His call to action: “to dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”

Those remarks from Bobby Kennedy didn’t just soothe a nation — they crystalized in me the values that would drive me until today, 50 years later. The words also embodied the idealism of my generation: optimism that if we worked at it, change would come. Only four decades later, I thought of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as I sat in a meeting with disability activists opposite America’s first Black President.


By the time I entered college in 1969,. the Vietnam War was escalating and the school I attended, SUNY Stony Brook, was a scene of active antiwar protest. I have a clear memory of the night we all sat around the TV as lottery numbers were announced, signaling which of my classmates would be going off to a war we all believed was senseless.

As I took my place beside other anti-war protesters, it was clear that whatever would be my chosen career; I’d use my voice to promote equal opportunity. From my college coursework, I had developed a deep appreciation for our elegant system of government, with its checks and balances, and mechanisms for every citizen to participate in the political process. While many in my generation determined to work outside “the system,” I was convinced that our democratic system offered many opportunities to make change from within.


I left college with a desire not only to make the world a better place; but also to explore the country and live outside New York. My chosen community was 3,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest town of Eugene, Oregon, with its mixture of loggers, the University of Oregon, hippies, and progressive political activists.

In Eugene, I married my interest in social change with a longtime desire to be an entrepreneur, by opening a neighborhood restaurant designed to be a gathering place where folks could talk about current events and local politics. Five years later, I joined with neighborhood activists to form a community development corporation to build housing and commercial areas for the area’s poorest citizens. And with a small group of colleagues, I formed a Political Action Committee, “Voters for Livable Neighborhoods.” We backed political candidates who supported our values, and when they failed to deliver, we backed and delivered votes to new candidates.


As I turned 30 and it was time to pursue a career in earnest, I pursued a Master’s Degree in Public Policy (MPP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It would offer not only a couple of years to take stock and decide “what next,” it would be a chance to learn tested approaches to achieving the best outcomes for the most people.

Like the Business School directly across the Charles River, the Kennedy School used the case method of teaching and taught the same economic principles of pareto optimal, constrained optimization, econometrics, and cost/benefit analysis. Only the problems we solved were not business problems; they were sociopolitical challenges, with returns measured not in profits or shareholder value, but in public benefits. Same tools, different endgame.

The Kennedy School provided a framework for solving public problems that was anchored in scale and impact. Compass North for any dilemma at the Kennedy School, and for most of the decisions I confront as a public leader is the answer to the question: For a given investment, what will make the most difference to the largest number of people? We also learned the importance of durable change, i.e., not only to think about change today, but also to ask, “what decision will result in the most lasting change?” At Harvard, I learned the importance of establishing institutions that not only do great work, but that will stand the test of time.

Reflective Practice: My Best Career Advice for Aspiring Leaders in Public Service

The most important lesson I learned at the Kennedy School, and one I’d impart to any aspiring leader in public service, was taught by a professor in public leadership, psychiatrist Ronnie Heifetz, who borrowed themes from Don Schon and Ellen Schall, both of whom wrote about the importance of Reflective Practice.

Professor Heifetz (Adaptive Leadership) teaches something I later learned again from Doug Conant: Any leader, but especially one in public life, is always under a microscope. People are always watching your every move. So you must always see yourself in your role and ask: How are people seeing my actions, what meaning are they making from those actions? Heifetz called this going to the balcony.

The stresses of managing in public life can bring out the worst in people: it is inevitable that leaders will be attacked, sometimes assassinated, because the changes we’re making invariably represent loss to some members of a community. Confronting discrimination. Reforming public education. Ending programs that aren’t working.

Going to the balcony is important to help you see patterns, distinguish between yourself and your role, in Heiftetz words, “externalize conflicts and give those conflicts back to their rightful owners.” Going to the balcony also helps with the crucial process of tuning into your operating environment, staying alive to opportunities and threats, knowing what’s coming next and anticipating developments that might require a quick pivot in strategy. In recent years the pace of change in the disability field is beginning to accelerate rapidly, with an increasing recognition that disability is a normal part of the human condition, something that most of us will experience in our lifetimes. As recognition of this reality grows, pivoting to new employment strategies has been a constant. Going to the balcony is essential.

At the same time, Ellen Schall (“Managing in the Swamp”) emphasizes the importance of working side by side with your people in the “swampy,” places where the work gets done. The swamp is the metaphor for the messy problems that resist rational analysis, which is easier in the high ground of the balcony, where solutions are often technical, and relatively simple. Schall points out, and it’s been my experience, that many of the problems that draw us to public service and test our leadership once we’re there are “swamp” problems. There are no clear rules. A leader must help her organization make meaning from the mess, understand challenges in execution and help people manage their roles.

I have found that as a leader, I am often required to traverse between the swamp and the balcony, to be present in complex, multidimensional experiences in the swamp, while also going to the high ground of the balcony. This is what Don Schon and Ellen Schall refer to as Reflective practice.

As Schall describes it, reflective practice enables a leader to understand how to (1) understand oneself as both an individual and as a socially embedded being; (2) understand systems as mutually related and continually changing; (3) take the perspective of another; and (4) engage in dialogue. Reflective practice, described in this way, is the foundation that holds up my leadership model.


In 1985 with my MPP degree in hand, I returned to the anti-poverty field, working In Boston and later in New York, for the nation’s largest community development bank, the Ford Foundation-created Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

LISC pooled investment dollars from individuals, banks, insurance companies and real estate syndicates, to invest in the housing, commercial development, and job creating projects of community-owned development corporations. We referred to our work as “corrective capitalism” because we used the principles of free enterprise and profit motivation to create opportunities for poor residents working to revitalize their own communities. At LISC, the principles of scale and impact came alive for me. In the eleven years I was there, we grew from a small nonprofit with $10 million in assets and fourteen staff, to a $3 billion investment bank with 38 field offices and 500 staff. By then we’d created hundreds of thousands of housing units and a like number of businesses in communities ravaged by disinvestment, arson, race riots and crime during the 1960’s and 70’s. Only by working at scale, would we stimulate the additional private investment needed to turn these communities around.

It was at LISC that I met its founder, Mike Sviridoff, who subsequently became my longtime mentor.

Mike was a giant in the field of urban renewal and the War on Poverty, who began his career in the labor movement. He was an architect and administrator of successful anti poverty programs in New Haven and New York; he then served as the head of National Affairs for the Ford Foundation. While at Ford, he created many social policy institutions that endure to this day in the fields of workforce development, criminal justice, affordable housing and education. In 1980 he founded LISC.

Mike was not only the most artful social innovator of our time. He generously mentored a series of professionals in public service, teaching us the difficult balance between big dreams and extreme pragmatism. In his obit in the NY Times in 2000, he was described as a “Practical Dreamer.” I hope my epitaph will say the same thing.

Like Bobby Kennedy, Mike was an eternal optimist. He was a cheerleader, but also had extremely high standards for quality work and intellectual honesty. He reinforced for all of us that he mentored, the importance of passion, which to him meant finding something about which you’re passionate, not wasting your time on anything else; and perseverance — working incredibly hard, for an incredibly long time, until you succeed. Along the way we must celebrate every success, no matter how small. As Mike saw it, social change is incremental at best, a marathon.

Passion means having a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. Perseverance means holding steadfast to that goal over time, even when progress is halting, even when you screw up, which must happen in service of taking risks and social innovation.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has brought the concept of grit back into the academic spotlight in recent years, to explain that blend of passion and perseverance. For Mike, those things were far more important than technical skills, intelligence, raw talent, or even luck.

He also taught us the importance of appreciating the gifts we’re given, and believing that, with those gifts, comes responsibility. For Mike, that underscored the importance of character — defined as honesty, compassion, keeping promises, and having strong interpersonal relationships with others.

Other things I learned from Mike:

— Humor is the constant that allows us to carry on even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Mike taught us about humor as a leveler that evidences a leader’s humility and humanity. It brings people together and helps them feel good about the work. Mike’s regular poker games with other “greats” in public life in New York, including his two most well known mentees, Vernon Jordan and Frank Thomas, President of the Ford Foundation, were fabled far and wide. The cigar smoke was cut with sharp humor and great food.

— Time is often your friend, especially when something is unclear. Instead of despairing over a murky problem with no easy solution, or feeling pressured to act, sit with the discomfort, as it invariably leads you to a new way of thinking. Often when faced with a difficult dilemma and asking myself “what would Mike do,” I find myself saying “Nothing, at the moment.” The answer usually comes in a day or so.

— Like leadership in the for profit sector, nonprofit leaders must use their radar to see around corners, find what’s missing and listen not only to what people are, but also aren’t, saying. We need to predict the next social movements and develop programs to fill in the gaps. One of my greatest joys professionally has been piloting new practices built on new cultural waves, as with NOD’s Wounded Warrior Careers demonstration as veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were beginning to capture the public imagination (2007); Bridges to Business — NOD’s pioneering working on the “demand” side of the labor force equation (2010); and, before it was de rigueur, investing in the organizational capacity of youth (Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 1996) and community development organizations (LISC, 1987).

— Hire to your weaknesses; hire people who are smarter than you; and give them room — Seek out such talents, give them the tools to succeed, and publicly credit their successes. Mike was not the smartest guy in the room. But he looked like he was, because he wasn’t afraid to hire people of superior intellect, give them room and cheer them on.

1992: The End of the Days of Innocence

As I neared my forties, I married and started a family. My first son Jacob was born with hydrocephalus in 1992, and spent his first year in the hospital undergoing a series of life or death brain surgeries, with additional medical complications and surgeries in the ensuing years. I have written elsewhere about the trials of being Jacob’s mother and the “CEO of Jacob, Inc,” with trips to the hospital, a multitude of specialists, therapies, health insurance claims and the education establishment, and struggling to create a “normal” life for Jacob’s younger brother, Matthew.

In my family we think of 1992 as the End of our Days of Innocence, when we learned that life sometimes tests our stamina by dealing us seemingly unspeakable challenges. My experiences as Jacob’s mother have brought a deeper sense of humility, perspective on what’s important, the ability to be authentic, and possessing of self-knowledge. All of these are crucial for effective leadership

The NOD Years: 2006-Present

My work with NOD, first as a consultant and beginning in 2009 as President, has involved turning around an organization that was in trouble after the unexpected death of its founder and leader for 25 years. Most people expected NOD to wind itself down at that point, but a dedicated board believed there was important work to do and asked me to step in as leader.

I agreed to try, working for year behind the scenes with the founder’s widow, Gay, serving as unpaid Acting President; and Charley Dey, NOD’s Vice Chair and my partner in building NOD’s employment program, as another behind-the-scenes advisor. With our guidance and her courage, Gay took the steps to get out of an expensive office lease in Washington DC; relocate NOD’s headquarters to New York; let go many of the 21 Washington DC based staff; and end or spin off programs with important political constituencies but little impact.

After becoming President, working with a small but dedicated team in New York, we worked with the board to rebuild the organization’s balance sheet and rebrand the organization with a focus on employment. And in the last few years, we transitioned out the founding board and recruited a new one of C-level executives, well suited to NOD’s employment mission — which, like all strong social endeavors, has evolved over time..

Everything I’d learned over the preceding decades has come into play as NOD’s leader. Then again, none of it prepared me for the challenges of turning around a nonprofit organization closely identified with a strong and charismatic founding executive and board, in a field with few champions, where progress has been haltingly slow.

Many people have been vital to the NOD chapter of my career, but none has been as important as Doug Conant — a board director, donor, and trusted advisor on everything from board dynamics to marketing to leadership.

Doug and I speak on the phone for 30 minutes every six weeks. With Doug’s help, I solve more complicated dilemmas in that time than in days and weeks in other venues.

Without Doug, NOD would not have made it this far; nor would I have carried on in my job. Doug’s principles of leadership have been key to maintaining my focus, sense of humor; and equanimity.

And so in this final chapter of reflections on the forces that have shaped me as a leader, I want to focus on what Doug has taught, modeled, and given me in the five years since we began working together.

Doug practices many of the principles that Mike Sviridoff did: How to bring out the best in people and guide them to “reach high, dream deep, work hard and have fun.” He has taught me the importance of authenticity, clarity of vision and taking calculated risks without fear of failure.

Before I met Doug, it had not occurred to me that leadership is a craft like any other, one that must be learned, codified and practiced with intentionality. He teaches us that not only must leaders have a clear and compelling vision, but they must also have and communicate a code, a set of beliefs about one’s purpose and why one chooses to lead. And when working with people, to declare yourself to take the mystery out of your relationships with your team.

As an extraordinarily successful businessman, Doug’s compass north is not merely the short-term interests of his shareholders, although those are critical. In taking the longer-term view of business success, Doug teaches the importance of higher purpose and societal value of leadership success in any sector.

As a man of deep faith, trust is at the epicenter of Doug’s leadership model, and more than anyone I’ve ever known, he walks the talk.

A short story illustrates the point: When Doug was just getting to know NOD, he promised he’d help us raise the money we needed to get the organization back on its feet. As many business leaders in our field have done, Doug underestimated how challenging and unpopular of an idea he was championing — promoting the contributions of people with disabilities in the workforce. It was not the simple act and noble mission of helping marginalized people find work. He found himself up against long and deeply held misconceptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.

It’s hard to know exactly what would have happened had he become discouraged and stopped there, as others before him (and since), have done. But at a pivotal board meeting five years ago, Doug held his hand up and pledged a $1 million personal gift from himself and his wife Leigh. He didn’t have to. But that is the kind of leader Doug is. He honored his pledge out of his own pocket.

That early vote of confidence when success was far from assured, accomplished exactly what Doug intended: it primed the pump for additional investments that were key to NOD’s turnaround. That $1 million remains on our balance sheet today. That is the way Doug operates. His sense of timing is impeccable. He operates with honor and follows through.

Doug knows that brining out the best in people means understanding them as people, where they come from, how they want to be treated, and why they’re here. His mantra about being “tough on standards and tender with people” has guided all of my people decisions; and his emphasis on declaring yourself, to take the mystery out of relationships, has saved, cumulatively, years of guesswork among the most important members of my team.

Empathy is a word Doug frequently uses to describe a leader’s more essential trait. He ends every conversation with four words that help me power on, no matter what the challenge: I have your back. What an uncanny intuition about people, the loneliness of leadership, and how to offer help.

Other important things I’ve learned about leadership from Doug include the following:

Plans vs planning: Doug agrees with General Dwight Eisenhower in stressing that that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. When my first strategic plan for NOD did not work out according to projections, I approached the board with great trepidation and engaged in a long discussion with Directors about what went wrong and why. As he often does, after allowing everyone to voice their opinions, Doug came in at the end, in his measured but intelligent way, and reminded us, “the one thing we know about plans is that our first one will likely fail.” He showed us how the process of planning gave us the critical ingredients for success: a roster of accomplishments to build on, intel about our market, the ability to learn from our mistakes, and the tools to pivot when needed.

Find the win/win by taking the long view. Doug knows of the importance of always taking the high road. He consistently helps me solve seemingly intractable problems by setting aside immediate concerns, seeing the big picture, taking the long view and finding the winning solution.

Difficult Conversations: He will always advocate for having the difficult conversation rather than avoiding it. And using it to understand people and situations better.

Innovation: Doug argues the importance of taking action to stimulate the forces of innovation, not just trying to BE that force.

— The importance of self care: do what’s necessary to stay in the present, stay positive, nurture yourself. I have always tended to work even harder when faced with adversity. Doug always reminds me that sometimes, a leader needs to do just the opposite: step back, give yourself a break, feed the soul, and come back to a problem with renewed vigor and perspective.

While I’ve only known Doug Conant for just over five years, there is no way I could ever have written this retrospective about the life events and influences that have shaped my leadership. That self-awareness is Doug’s ultimate gift to all in his orbit.

About The Author:

Carol Glazer is President of the National Organization on Disability, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization representing all of America’s 57 million people with disabilities. In her ten years as President, Carol has transformed NOD into the country’s premier resource on disability inclusion through its Disability Employment Tracker, its Corporate Leadership Council and its professional advisory services helping companies with talent acquisition. Last year Carol and her team the launched the Look Closer awareness campaign, powered by nine major brand name companies. In its first six months Look Closer garnered 75 million media impressions, with social media following growing daily. Working side by side with NOD’s Chairman, Tom Ridge, former Governor of Pennsylvania and our country’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, Carol has united the country’s fourteen largest disability organizations of all political persuasions, around the issue of disability employment. Carol is a speaker and subject matter expert on issues regarding the employment of people with disabilities and has addressed audiences at national conferences, corporate forums and higher education institutions, among others. Some of Carol’s commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, TIME, the Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, where she maintains a blog on disability employment-related matters. Carol has also appeared on nationally syndicated television and radio broadcasts, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, National Public Radio (NPR), Disability Matters with Joyce Bender on VoiceAmerica, The Business of Giving with Denver Frederick on AM 970, and Connections on WXXI News. From 1998 to 2006, Carol advised foundations, universities, and nonprofits fighting poverty in inner-city communities, having served as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation between 1996 to 1999. From 1985 through 1996, Carol served as Senior Vice President for National Programs at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the nation’s largest community development intermediary. At LISC, Carol held various positions related to LISC’s growth from a nonprofit with 30 staff members and $20 million in assets, to a 500+ staff, $3 billion bank for inner city housing, economic development and quality of life projects. Carol holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and in 2012, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Allegheny College for her work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. She has two children, one of whom was born with hydrocephalus and has physical and intellectual disabilities.

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