By Laurie Paolicelli
It’s not news, of course, that our long and divisive election cycle happened to take place amid a devastating pandemic, compounding our difficulties and intensifying our tragedies. Many of those you talk to, no matter their political allegiance, seek a spirit of peace and unity; they seek a path we can travel together, into our shared futures.
Recently, longtime friend and colleague – and Tar Heel – Reverend William H. Gattis shared his perspective on ways to come together, heal and serve the common good. I met Bill when I arrived in Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Irene Gattis, were renting their Chapel Hill home which became our first home for many years.
Gattis has 50 years of service as clergy in the North Carolina Conference (NCC) of the United Methodist Church. He served churches in rural settings, small towns, suburbs, and at the University Methodist Church in Chapel Hill for 18 years. A certified Coach, a district superintendent, the Executive Director of the Academy for Leadership Excellence for 50 years, and an alum of UNC-CH and Duke Divinity School, Bill has a unique and valuable perch from which to view where we find ourselves now.
Bill is focused on bringing today’s youth to the table, because they’re an essential part of the conversation.
“Youth often expresses an idealism and passion for what can be,” Bill has observed, “what’s purposeful. Youth may not have been tainted yet and led to be cynical from dead ends and the unyielding, ‘we’ve always done it this way.’”
Gattis cited Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist, who has millions and millions of young followers. How can we as community leaders, working in isolation or at jobs that don’t come with a room full of Greta Thurnbergs, learn from youthful idealism?
“Mentoring is often an untapped strategy for growing leadership,” he says. “I once heard a Four-Star General say the military is always mentoring two levels down. Identify youth and county vocations, offices, and leaders where a new generation of leaders may be needed. Education credit to students might be granted where appropriate. It always goes back to Rule #1: be sure to invite youth into the conversation. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement are Millennials and it’s so important to include them in our conversations so that we might tap and embrace that human resource for the vision and hope of humanity.”
The pandemic and subsequent isolation has robbed many of us, regardless of age, of that hope, that feeling of joy.
Where does he find joy?
“The events of life rarely produce sustained happiness,” he says. “It’s in relationships that I find my greater self and purposefulness. Actually, in those times when for whatever reason my joy seems to wane, I’m carried on the wings of those I love and who love me.”
Bill leads with joy.
“Leaders inspire joy from their own wellspring of joy. Joy is the fuel of resilience. Without resilience leaders are not able to deal with failure. Great leadership expects failure.”
In her book Presidents: The Historical Biographies, Doris Kearns Goodwin identifies five qualities of leadership: humility, empathy, character, communication, and self-confidence.
Bill would add one more trait: curiosity. If leaders are curious (not only empathetic) about those they serve and lead, Bill believes it will inspire joy, participation, engagement and even commitment from others.
As our new President Joe Biden recently said, our impact as a nation “… will not come from the example of our power but the power of our example.”
Modeling great leadership will reflect not only the joy of the leader but deepen the joy of those being served. And as a leader, Gattis also brings a sense of humor.
Bob Ward, longtime businessman, banker, and board member on numerous business and civic association boards including the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau remembers this story:
“Bill and his wife, Irene, were flying to New York. Sitting across the aisle from them was Duke Basketball player Bobby Hurley. Of course Bill struck up a conversation and told Bobby Hurley that he was a Carolina graduate and a Duke Divinity School graduate. Hurley said that he must have split allegiances. Bill said “Guess again, Bobby!”
“One year when Carolina beat Duke and the crowd gathered on Franklin Street. someone got in the church and rang the church bell. When Bill was asked about it he said, “It’s always appropriate to ring the church bell when you defeat the devil!”
The Reverend Bill H. Gattis is an inspiration, a light to follow and, when necessary – and when isn’t it necessary? – always ready to make you smile.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.