Interview with Jeff Leinaweaver: "A Place of Awe"
Jeff joined POD as a senior organizational development consultant in May, replacing Linda Callecod, who has retired.

What about your background most surprises people?

Gosh, there’s a lot. I used to play violin professionally, I’ve been a voiceover artist and I’ve been a professional storyteller for many years. I also worked as a journalist in Japan and at the UN in Geneva for the Associated Press and was employee number 800 at Amazon.

That is a lot! How did those things bring you to the work you do now?

I really believe in the power of developing potential and growing people.  For me, the role of  storytelling as a mindful practice is a big part of developing potential and growing people and organizations. It’s having the power to author our own stories as well as using narrative to draw out certain ideas or themes in ways that inspire and create new meaning. It’s about stories of making the impossible possible versus stories that become belief systems that do harm, limit growth, constrain the possible, become fake news, etcetera.

Living and working in Japan as a reporter, I learned a number of things about the culture, story and people, as well as about the cross-cultural experience, which can be wonderful and of course also can be a minefield. When I left Japan, I had an opportunity to begin working at Amazon when it was very small and leveraged my international work to then turn around and help launch Amazon Japan. This is how I began doing a lot of international HR work, which started me on the road I am on now.

When I became a dad, I was in my doctorate program, studying Human Development and Organizational Systems. I was looking at the role of story and how we construct self, social identities and social groups through the intersection of culture and story, and how both individuals and groups sit in the tension of being authored by others versus authoring oneself. I was really curious about that, but having been doing corporate work, expat coaching and other cross-cultural coaching, once I had a kid I realized that I didn’t want to contribute to optimizing bad systems through stories, as belief systems, that didn’t serve the greater good. 

I looked at my career, and kind of like a reversible coat, I took a lot of what I’d been working on with organizational development, coaching, consulting, training and communication and brought it into the world of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, permaculture design, stakeholder engagement and the like.

You were adjunct faculty at the Jackson School for a number of years. What do you like about the UW, and what are you most excited about being back here?

What I love about the UW is it’s such a remarkable place, a place where so much is possible. When I was an adjunct, I spent a lot of my time teaching sustainability in business, and I always came at it from the scholar-practitioner perspective. I can do the scholar, I’m published, but it wasn’t connecting beyond academia, so I began approaching things from a practitioner’s point of view as much as possible, to really heighten the engagement. I also discovered I really enjoyed teaching undergraduates because they’re still of the mind that the whole world is possible. The undergraduate population wants big ideas to inspire them while simultaneously learning practical ways to approach the world and their careers. I like that, and this was a good challenge to meet.

There’s that sense of potential that you have here at the UW, that sense that we’re all  contributing to something that’s greater than, that’s bigger than, something higher. To me that’s the part of the “higher” education. People want to feel part of that “bigger than” and connect their own individual fate and destiny story to something’s that greater, that’s not just an organization.

The UW is a place of awe, that allows for the awe to still be a part of the experience of this institution. I want to be a part of that. Allowing for the awe, helping to keep the UW a safe place for it.

Say more about that, what work you see yourself doing to contribute to that.

I’ve done a lot of work with global sustainability and corporate social responsibility programs where the focus is on reinventing and optimizing the organization. The UW is a different type of institution, yet higher education is going through its own era where the taken-for-granted, traditional educational model is being challenged; leaders are being called to reinvent the model. So, I think in doing organizational and leadership work, in general, there’s always a need to ensure we’re influencing people and systems that reinforce new ways of work and help to reinvent versus contributing to bad organizational habits or outmoded ways of doing things. People want to work in organizations that grow and nurture rather than defeat and cannibalize.

I think at a professional level, when people get higher up in the organization, leaders get caught up in the minutia, kind of lost in the organizational shadow, and they forget that the awe is still there. They get trapped in little things, they worry — understandably — about resources, they get caught up in the day to day. When we do the dance of scarcity and become territorial, we see ourselves as competitors, or feel helpless or overburdened, and we don’t make the best decisions for our organizations and our people.

In my experience, If we can get everyone situated around the awe, they would get along better, and then we can really be there for the “bigger than.” We need to ask ourselves, “What are we making together?” So, I think that’s something I can do, helping to keep leaders focused on the big ideas, on the reasons we’re really here, and asking “What are we making?” at an organizational and institutional level and “What is my part?” in this system. I have a lot of HR and OD expertise in my toolbox, and I’ve seen how coaching, training, facilitation and partnering with leaders can shift organizations to that place where they’re working optimally together, telling new stories of what’s possible, and creating environments where people feel good about coming to work and have a real desire to contribute to the “bigger than.”

The world of work is changing so much, and the pace of change will continue to accelerate. But sometimes we need to slow down, to talk to each, to tell the important stories, and to ask the big questions, to sit in the awe. Universities are — or should be — safe spaces for the bigger questions, civil discourse, social justice, environmental activism, researching the “awe” and so on, and I think that’s especially true of the UW. I want to help facilitate that kind of environment, whether that’s through coaching a leader, conducting a storytelling retreat for a team or digging in and helping a unit with a strategic shift for the future. I’m looking forward to it.

View Jeff's consultant profile.

Spring 2019 | Return to Issue Home