Leadership Lessons from Hal Conklin

Years ago I got lucky. I was starting an executive leadership role and was the youngest person by 20 years. I felt like I didn’t belong and maybe the people that hired me made a mistake. My first board meeting came quickly and I was to present. I didn’t even know how to create a board report. My learning curve was steep. Then I learned that the chairman of my committee and board member was arriving from California and I was to pick him up from the airport. He was a former mayor, civic leader and activist. I was nervous.

I called a friend who lived in Indianapolis, where I worked. He gave me some good counsel on how to treat a board member, board chair, and protocols. I took notes and picked up a man I hadn’t met, but would soon come to realize would be an integral part in my leadership journey: Hal Conklin.

After picking Hal up at the airport and heading to a restaurant downtown, I was soon at ease. Hal asked tons of questions. He was kind and approachable. He was curious about me, my family and was eager to encourage and help. That set the tone for the next decade of my life of his investments that continue to bear fruit to this day. With Hal’s recent passing, I wanted to share a few things about him that have deeply impacted me and traits I try to emulate.

Humility

When I met Hal, he was on the board at my organization. He later was the chair. I heard stories about him that he was a former mayor of Santa Barbara, active in clean energy movement, a local movie reviewer with his partner and friend, Denny Wayman, mentor to new mayors of cities, etc. Living in Southern California he had relationships with people who were a pretty big deal. However, he never shared those things with me. The first time I traveled to Santa Barbara for a conference, Hal invited me to stay at his house. I wound up staying there several times over the years. A peek inside his home showed many photos of him with heads of state, music icons, and who’s who of Hollywood. Autographed copies of movie posters from academy award winners hung on his wall mixed with photos of his family told a story of living a full life.

When I was sharing time with Hal, he never spent time talking about his resume. He spent time asking questions, listening, and offering wisdom.

Curiosity

Walt Whitman once wrote, “Be curious, not judgemental.” To be as successful as Hal was, you had to know stuff. Hal knew a lot. He had succeeded at some pretty high levels. One thing I remember about Hal was that he was constantly learning. He was consistently curious. I don’t remember Hal ever having an extreme opinion about anything. Even his reviews on movies were informational, but not necessarily persuasive. I would ask him sometimes, “Hal, is this a good movie or a bad one?”. He’d respond by simply sharing the overview of the story and key themes. He wanted me to make up my mind for myself. Hal would lean in certain directions, but I don’t recall him being intensely married to a certain point of view.

Hal was always open to listening to the other person and learning their point of view.

I think one of the reasons Hal focused on mentoring younger leaders was that he could also learn from us. He was always listening, reading and learning. His curiosity assisted him as he negotiated politics, corporations and government. This curiosity married with humility helped him build relationships, listen, and compromise to get significant work accomplished.

Generosity

If you knew Hal, you knew he was generous. From my lens, Hal was generous with his time. Many times in our friendship I knew he was in the midst of important meetings or working on something for one of the many non-profit boards he set on. But as I watched Hal, I saw his generosity leak through his life. When he would give myself and my friends visiting from out of town walking tours of Santa Barbara, it was evident as we walked down State Street that so many people knew and loved Hal. That does not come from being stingy. He gave his time and resources to the city, the state of California and the world through many mission trips and his investments with Eden Reforestation. He gave his time to countless non-profits doing great work in the world. He made time for people like me trying to serve well but needing wisdom. Mostly he gave his time to his family.

Hal wasn’t someone who kept his wisdom and wealth to himself. He freely gave it away. I want to be like that.

Hal and I February 13, 2013 at the LA World Affairs Council Dinner under the Space Shuttle Endeavour

In 2013, I got a call from Hal. I was planning to head to Santa Barbara for a conference for work. Whenever I would firm up my itinerary, I would contact him to see if we could spend some time together. I always had an itinerary with items I needed some help with thinking through. Most every visit, he would give me an entire day of his time. It was like gold to me. This particular call, he asked if I could possibly come in a day early. He had two tickets for a dinner under the wings of the space shuttle in Los Angeles. Buzz Aldrin was the guest speaker. From our conversations, he knew I was a space nerd and he thought maybe I would like to accompany him. It was a dress up event, so I’d have to pack a suit. I gladly did. We drove down from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and chatted the whole time about family, leadership, faith and space. Our table was a stone’s throw from Buzz. It was surreal. I remember calling my wife with joy about the experience probably sounding like a little boy. I thanked Hal over and over for the experience. He knew it was a big deal to me.

Faith

The glue for Hal’s life was his faith. I’ve seen Hal get emotional a few times, but my lens of his life was that things make sense and are pretty simple if you look through the lens of faith. There were many times where I would over-complicate things. Hal could always bring things back to a quieter, simpler, and clearer perspective. I’ve heard Hal speak at events and in private conversations share how his faith informed his life, his family, his investments, and his heart. As I look back the time we shared together, I don’t really recall him being forceful or even wishy-washy with thoughts or advice. Life seemed to be simple for him.

Faith informs action.

For Hal it seemed simple: Listen to the Lord and do what He says. Even if you were not a person of faith, the fruit from his faith was attractive. People knew Hal to be someone kind, generous, compassionate and fair – fruits of the Spirit without preaching. For someone who brokered complex deals in government, corporate and non-profit, he was simple, steady and consistent. All attributes I ascribe towards today.

When Hal was diagnosed with cancer, I had taken a break from social media. I was out of the loop for his battle. My only regret was the week that he passed away, he called me. I was unaware of his situation and I was busy at the moment and punched him to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message. A few days later someone called me to bring me up to speed on his diagnosis and that he was in hospice. He lost his battle days later. I never got a chance to return his call. Tears of a lost opportunity to say goodbye to a friend.

My last visit to Santa Barbara in June of 2019 was fantastic. Of course, I called Hal and asked for some time. We connected briefly. He showed off his new Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. He offered for me to take it for a test drive. I graciously declined but loved his energy showing all the features and the infrastructure in California built-in to support this clean energy.

My last moment with Hal was rich. Later that same trip, he and Haley had graciously agreed to take myself, my dean and fellow colleagues from Michigan State University to a tour of Santa Barbara. I noticed he was slowing down a bit from the last time I had seen him. We walked the city and had dinner by the Santa Barbara Mission where a couple was getting married. It was a cool night. He shared some stories but also asked us lots of questions. Hal – still listening and learning. It was so fun to watch him engage with my colleagues. I remember sitting back and watching it happen with a sense of joy. As we finished and parted company, I gave him a huge hug and told him I loved him. His last words to me were, “Love you too, brother.”

To Hal’s family and close friends, know you have been in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you for your generosity in loaning him out to me from time to time.

And to my brother and friend Hal, I’m sorry I missed that call. I guess we will have to save our next conversation for a later time. But know I’ll be looking forward to it.

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