By Una Murphy:
Images: Kevin Cooper, Photoline NUJ
What can a former depressed, homeless, long haired drug dealer tell you about leadership?
Paul Schmitz, now sporting a sharp hair cut, beard and natty smart bow tie, has the ear of US President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle.
He is no longer a rebellious kid selling drugs to feed his addiction but the Chief Executive of Leading Inside Out and author of ‘Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up’.
Mr Schmitz had come to Belfast to speak about building leadership ‘muscle’.
It is not good enough, he said, to look into communities and see a glass half empty needing to be filled. It is important to build relationships with individuals within communities and work together.
“Leaders have to ask themselves who is a at the table and who is not” he told more than 300 people who work for community foundations – organisations who manage funds donated by individuals and organisations, building endowment and act as the link between donors and local needs.
It is his second time speaking in Northern Ireland in recent months. He had top slot at the CO3 (Chief Executives of the Third Sector) conference a few months ago. He had returned to address local people and those from Britain, Europe, Canada and the USA at the UK Community Foundations conference which discussed leading change on social issues affecting local communities.
What was his verdict following a tour of Belfast? “I was surprised at the level of conflict which still existed as well as the 40 foot ‘peace’ walls”, he told VIEWdigital community media. “It seems like you have come a long way but still have a long way to go and I would also say that about race in the United States.
“Sometimes people mix up personal achievement (like President Obama becoming the first black president in the USA)) and the system being fixed” he added.
Mr Schmitz said police brutality against black people and the racism directed against President Obama showed how the USA still had a road to travel to become a more equal society.
“The presidential campaign among the right is mostly backward looking on how to cut government, keep immigrants out and engage in more global conflict”, Mr Schmitz said. “I would like a more forward looking debate on how to create a greater society and ‘A More Perfect Union’ (a phrase in the preamble to the United States Constitution) and to get the conversation on the pubic square back to our hopes and dreams.”
So what can Mr Schmitz tell us about leadership? Quite a lot it seems. No better place than Belfast to get his message out, one might think, given Northern Ireland’s ongoing political leadership difficulties.