Start Local: The Long Run Interview with Luke Wilson

Long Run Consulting is focused on supporting and promoting the generation of executive leaders that is stepping to the forefront in the not-for-profit sector in CanadaThose who answer the call to leadership during this season of disruption must be comfortable with change—and be prepared to change themselves. Luke Wilson, CEO of A Rocha Canada is one of those leaders who possesses a “growth mindset“—”the attitude and belief that we can all improve our skills, abilities and emotional intelligence with time, effort and energy”. Luke served in various leadership roles with A Rocha Canada over the course of ten years before assuming the position of CEO in January 2019. A Rocha is an international Christian organization which, inspired by God’s love, engages in scientific research, environmental education, community-based conservation projects and sustainable agriculture. Ed Wilson spoke with Luke about his leadership journey and his commitment to the vision and values of A Rocha a few weeks ago. The dialogue recorded below is an edited and condensed version of a longer conversation.

Ed: Luke, one of the things that I’m very interested in is the formation of a leader.  I’m curious to know how you began to take steps in that direction.

Luke: I think I always had a deep love and affection for people. Partly because of the way my parents modelled it. I watched my parents mobilize a community of believers and start a church. They took risks to bring together the people of God and made sacrifices because of their desire to serve and be hospitable and bring people towards a vision. So I got to know diverse people and I had a deep care for the well-being of people.  Some of the first steps would have been saying “Yes” to the risks in life, speaking in front of people at a young age, being part of theatrical productions in school, speaking up for somebody who was hurting or needed somebody to come alongside them or needed an advocate to say “No, this isn’t right.” I think those were early steps towards leadership. And then, in terms of work, I was part of a Christian camp community growing up and enjoyed the camp counsellor role.  That was a form of leading, guiding, mentoring, coaching, teaching, getting a chance to practice that in a safe, communal context.  In some ways, it wasn’t anything intentional, it was more just being willing and courageous to take risks. 

Ed: Luke, I know that your father was a leader in the manufacturing and environmental technology sectors.  I’m sure that as a young person there were opportunities open to you.  Why is it that you chose to invest your life in the nonprofit sector rather than business or industry or technology? 

Luke: I started off down a route that was more closely aligned with my family of origin.  I went from high school to Wilfrid Laurier in the business program and I ended up getting mono in that first year. My grades didn’t make the B+ average [required to continue] as a result, and so I was faced with a choice to repeat some of the schooling to get through to second year or to do something else.  I look back and I can’t help but say God redirected my path to St. Stephen’s University, a tiny, liberal arts university,  pursuing history but also getting a break from the intensity of the southern Ontario working culture. I found myself in a beautiful intentional community at St. Stephen’s, one where I got to explore the world.  We got to travel to Europe for one semester and to Southeast Asia for another semester. I think that educational experience and those trips opened my world view to new opportunities and new ways to express who I was.  From that point, I started to explore what I would do next. I did have a bit of a bent towards a building and design mindset and sustainability was a buzz word at that time in my academic career. I thought, “Maybe I’ll pursue architecture.”  I had this environmental ethic, partly because of the jobs that my father and grandfather had, but I also had a deep love and appreciation for the wonder of God’s creation. And so I thought that maybe sustainable building and architecture was the way to go, and I started that in 2008. In 2009 when the financial crisis hit the firm that I was working for, I was the lowest ranking staff and got laid off and had to think about what I was going to do next.  And the business theme came back into frame. I knew that Trinity Western had a nonprofit MBA stream, and with my social service background and business background I thought maybe this is the way I should go. At the same time, my uncle Rod [Wilson] said, “You know, we’ve been having conversations about your passion for environmental work and your faith and what your future vocation will be.  There’s this place called ‘A Rocha’ that I think you’d be really interested in.”  And so I ended up going out for lunch at A Rocha and discovered that these were my people. I was hooked very quickly.  So I ended up starting at A Rocha and very quickly after that starting a MBA program at Trinity Western in nonprofit management. I felt that this was the place I was supposed to be.

“I find myself in a really sweet spot where I have the opportunity and privilege to bring together my interest and passion in the environment and my deep commitment to faith and my upbringing around business ideas and principles and concepts.”

Ed: How do you today see your family of origin story and your own personal passions coming together in your leadership at A Rocha Canada?  Are there lessons that you are able to apply from your experience of observing your father’s leadership roles and other aspects of business and entrepreneurship that you’ve explored along the way that you bring to your leadership at A Rocha?

Luke: I think that the language of business was normalized since I was a child.  So the functional areas, marketing, communications, finance, legal, compliance, risk management, technology—all of that was common parlance in my upbringing.  Even thinking about strategy and leading people and managing teams, the vocabulary was normal.  One of the things that I bring into my current experience and worklife is a natural affinity for being able to press into business ideas and concepts and management and leadership. I think that’s partly what I bring into a charitable context.  And back to my upbringing.  It was normal to see my dad on work calls and hear the way he would engage people, both [to] hear their concerns and guide them forward where they were stuck. Even the whole world of strategic planning and visioning, I was introduced to that early.  I find myself in a really sweet spot where I have the opportunity and privilege to bring together my interest and passion in the environment and my deep commitment to faith and my upbringing around business ideas and principles and concepts.

Ed: It’s a great feeling to be in your sweet spot. You talked earlier about how when you discovered A Rocha Canada you felt as if you found your people.  How do you today as a person, along with your family, live out the values of A Rocha Canada?

Luke: Well, we’re on a learning journey like everybody else, to live out the values of hope for God’s creation. I think one of the first ways we try and live that out is practicing gratitude on a daily basis.  Thanking God for our food is more than just a rote, everyday behaviour, it’s an opportunity for a connection to the land that God has created and the abundance [that] comes from the land. It also ties into practices of prayer and meditation—so, on a daily basis, surrendering my own desires and need for control and recognizing that God is at work in his creation every day.  I can see that in the way that the birds migrate and the leaves on the trees that come back every year, in the air that I breathe. My practices of prayer and meditation are my way of reminding myself that God is at the centre of the story and not me.  And I think from that place we can practice conservation values with a rooted and grounded understanding of the story of God’s love for creation.  And so, do we think about our practices of travel and consuming?  Yes, we do. And we think that those are part of living out the values of A Rocha but even before that, it’s how we centre ourselves on God’s story.  And then, biking to work has a different meaning [for me] than just because it’s good for the environment.  It’s actually about my relationship with God.  That’s not to say that those who have to drive to work have a bad relationship with God but it’s one of the ways in which I am able to practice a commitment to God and his creation.  And then, I think [of] a few other practices: we’ve explored what we eat as a major factor that contributes our impact on the world.  How far away does our food come from?  How much do we really need to eat?  How much meat do we need to eat? We’ve evaluated those things, not out of a posture of guilt but out of this posture of care and commitment to the flourishing and wellbeing of all things.  And then finally, I think, as part of the rhythm and spiritual disciplines that connect it to living out our values, trying to practice Sabbath—taking a day in the week where we are trying to consume less and we are trying to practice delight and see the wonder in God’s creation and be reminded that he’s at the centre, and rest, and stop.  I think that those practices are much more significant in informing the way that we behave than just a checklist of the things that you could do to make the world a better place.  It comes out of our faith and our commitment to God.  And we don’t do everything that you could do, because we are human and yet we’re OK with that, because we’re trying to be faithful with what we currently know and what we have.

Ed: What I’m hearing you say is that you live out of an elevated yet humble consciousness of your place in relationship to God and his world, as opposed to trying to conform to a checklist of best practices.

Luke: That’s true.

“… we encourage people to start local and look at their own back yard, neighbourhood watershed, and discover what you haven’t seen there—because that discovery facilitates connection and love.”

Ed: With that in mind, what is the message of A Rocha Canada for Canadians who feel obligated to be good citizens of the world in terms of their care for the world that we live in?  I rigorously recycle every scrap of paper and yet I’m dismayed to find that only 15% of the recycling stream is diverted from landfill sites.   What do you have to say to someone like me who claims to care about the environment yet feels somewhat helpless to effect any meaningful change?

Luke: Well, first of all, we understand the overwhelmed-ness that can come from the scale and size of the challenge and therefore we encourage people to start local and look at their own back yard, neighbourhood watershed, and discover what you haven’t seen there—because that discovery facilitates connection and love. As you form those bonds of connection and love, not only do you gain an awareness of the way that you can act and be in that place, you become more grounded–literally grounded—and I think that grounding and connection to place makes it possible to have a framework that’s more manageable—a community-scale framework. Listen to the voices in that community, whether [they are] Indigenous, or different ethnicities, or different socio-economic groups, to learn what’s going on in your place.  That’s the model that we would promote and practice for conservation. We also acknowledge that there are bigger and broader conservation issues going on—biodiversity loss, climate change, the stability or instability of our food system—those are all big and important issues, but we find that it’s most important to connect with your local place so that you can frame those issues.

Ed: That’s very helpful. Final question, Luke.  A few words of advice from you for young men and young women who are aspiring for a role in leadership.  What would you say to the young Luke Wilson that you might meet one day?  You see in him something that you recognize of yourself twenty years ago.

Luke: Well, I’ll say this.  I have a deep commitment to ongoing learning. I think that in leadership there is no shortage of opportunities for learning and growth. So what I would advise someone who is younger and looking at growing in their leadership—I would focus attention on learning how to learn and how you learn. That would be one point of advice.  Second, as a person who isn’t the strongest on process—just speaking to my own experience—I’ve come to learn in executive leadership roles how critical [it is to have] people who are good on process around you. So I think the wisdom there is what you’ve heard before—know what your strengths are and know how to find good people who can complement your strengths because the content of leadership is what looks attractive on the outside but the process of leadership is actually what makes or breaks a high achieving organization or team. Learning and process would be my two points of advice for those who are aspiring to executive leadership.

Ed: Listening to you, Luke, I wonder if you would agree with me that it is the process vs. the content of leadership that builds trust in those who you are leading.  How you arrive at a decision, how you implement a decision, how you communicate a decision—these are all matters of process and those are items that contribute to the building of trust—which is essential if [you’re going to have people following you].  And trust– there must be some bond unless it’s simply an economic transaction, but that’s not a high-performing relationship.

Luke: I think you’ve summed it up really well.

Interview © 2021 Long Run Consulting. Photo used by permission Luke Wilson.

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