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January 30, 2017 Community Connections 

From Guyana to Storrs, caring is key to building great communities

Ted Carroll

I am in the community-building business. I am driven by a desire to create places where people can trust and support one another in ways that allow each person to learn, grow and contribute to a common purpose.

A big goal, to be sure, but one I have found possible to reach provided I remember to start small. If strong, healthy community is what I want, I better start with strong, healthy relationships with people, one at a time. And that can begin with a short elevator ride with a stranger.

Really, what can you exchange with someone in the time it takes to go from your third floor office to the ground floor lobby? On a cold afternoon last week, I decided to take a short walk. As I buttoned my jacket, my elevator mate told me how beautiful it was outside.

Detecting what I thought was a Jamaican accent, I questioned him: “You like the cold?” “Sure,” he said, “I used to live in Montreal.” Now, I'm really intrigued. How did this black man from another part of the world find his way to Canada and come to like the cold?

Over the next 30 minutes, I learned that my new friend, Charles, was actually born in Guyana, left as a teenage boy in search of a better life, moved in with relatives in Montreal and then some 20 years ago came to Hartford. He now works for the property-management company that takes care of our Laurel Street offices. In fact, he had re-painted our office door the previous week, but I hadn't really noticed him. This time, fortunately, I did. And we proceeded to have a great conversation about villages, cultures, the downsides of too much wealth, the need to return home, the joys of grandchildren and other profound truths.

Among the many stories Charles shared during our short conversation was about how in his village in Guyana everyone would support one another. “If someone was building a new home, everyone would instinctively jump in to help. We all knew and cared about one another.” That sense of community is one of the reasons why Charles intends to return to Guyana after he retires.

While most of us are not willing to give up the benefits of a modern, more affluent society, there is something inside us that yearns to feel connected with others around a sense of shared purpose. I suspect it's the reason why retirement from work can be so challenging for many people. It's been well documented that war veterans often have a similar struggle. Sebastian Junger points out in his recently published book, “Tribe” that what former combatants miss “presumably isn't danger or loss, but the unity that these things often engender.”

Effective leaders tap into our human desire to belong and to contribute to something greater than ourselves. And when leaders do that well, they can inspire ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. Geno Auriemma has no All-Americans on his current UConn women's basketball team, but his squad is undefeated this season and has continued the program's record-breaking winning streak dating back to Nov. 2014.

There are many keys to Auriemma's success, of course, but one thing his players have always understood is that he cares. Not just about winning, but about them.

Jennifer Rizzotti, captain of the UConn women's basketball team that won the first national championship in 1995, once told a Leadership Greater Hartford audience how well Coach Auriemma knew his players. “And he told me that if I'm going to be leading this team,” said Rizzotti, “I better know and care about them as well.”

Effective leaders know that, to engage the talents and energies of others around a collective cause, they must first pay attention to the needs, aspirations and ideas of individual members of the group. This can be done in a variety of ways and in multiple settings. It can even start by talking to strangers in elevators.

Ted Carroll is the president of Leadership Greater Hartford.

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