hugh-obrian-suzanneMany were saddened on Labor Day by the death of Hugh O’Brian, the actor who played Wyatt Earp in the 1950s TV show. However, I knew him a different way. When I was a sophomore in high school in rural Texas, I was selected to attend the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) seminar in Dallas. Before that seminar, I never really thought about myself as a leader. With a dream to make a difference in the world, I always felt like the “oddball” in my high school. The weekend-long seminar allowed me to meet like-minded “changemakers” and inspired me to pursue my dreams. Later, when I graduated from college, I came back to Dallas and eventually chaired the seminar for two years. During that time, I was lucky enough to meet Hugh and thank him for my experience. We also discussed my new love at the time – social entrepreneurship – and, over drinks, we talked about how HOBY started and evolved. We call it scaling now, but Hugh, like all good cowboys, viewed HOBY’s evolution as blazing new trails. It is a great lesson for all of us as we consider why and how to scale our ideas.

His idea first started with a problem. He worried that leaders were losing touch with the people who mattered most. He believed we needed a new brand of leader – the servant leader. In 1958, he visited his mentor, Albert Schweitzer, for nine days at his clinic in Africa to help develop his ideas about the tenets of servant leadership. At the end of the experience, Schweitzer asked him, “What are you going to do with this?” Hugh went back to Los Angeles and decided to focus on teaching teenagers about servant leadership through weekend-long immersion experiences.

With a possible solution in mind, Hugh, and eventually his team at the Foundation, worked on how to best execute the seminars. This was a stroke of true genius. While Hugh felt strongly that there were core elements needed as part of every weekend (e.g., speakers, team-building activities, volunteerism), he didn’t want to “own” the seminars. Instead, he wanted local leaders of volunteers to build their own leadership skills and learn to develop the right agenda and experience for their communities. He also felt that joint ownership would lead to a better product and greater buy-in. And, he was right. The seminar has now spread to 70 locations in all 50 states and 19 countries. To date, it has served more than 470,000 young people.

HOBY has been measuring its impact and the progress of its alumni since the very beginning. The organization has worked with local leaders to continuously improve its seminars and can highlight well-known alumni, such as Mike Huckabee and PayPal entrepreneur Rod D. Martin, who are living the values of HOBY.

Finally, HOBY continued to pivot and grow as new needs emerged. It now offers shorter, less selective one-day sessions (Community Leadership Workshop) as well as international tours and experiences.

Hugh was a real cowboy – fearless in his pursuit of new ideas and always giving credit to the team. He will be missed, but will live on in countless HOBY participants and alumni who are making a difference in their communities. If you were influenced by Hugh, please share your memories with us.

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