I am a total Frodo freak. A Gandalf geek! Anyone who knows me, knows that I can’t talk for more than 5 minutes without something popping up from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was 19 when I first read it, and for the next 19 years I read all 3 books, every year! I can still quote what comes after any sentence in any chapter! I once even had an entire conversation in Elvish with a board member – which proves, well, surely it proves something – in Middle Earth!
Why bring up my Tolkien obsession? Because of Bilbo. He warned that the first step out my door is a very dangerous one. It can lead you anywhere. Dragons and trolls. Gollum and Sauron. Galadriel and Treebeard. Anywhere! And that is one way to look at what happened to me over the past 40 years.
When Marcia and our two daughters (older one was 2!) stepped out of our Midwest world in Madison, Wisconsin in 1981 and into a Mideast world in Beirut, Lebanon, the plans I had for myself were about to change forever. The tsunami of the invasion of Lebanon broke over our heads in 1982. I evacuated the three of them in June. And then volunteered for 3 months in a pop-up primary-aid clinic in West Beirut. I also bonded with some now life-long Lebanese friends in those life-threatening circumstances.
And I came to know, for a brief moment in time, a young Palestinian refugee woman who lost her life in a massacre in a refugee camp at the end of that summer invasion. Knowing her as a patient in the clinic, observing her fear and finally seeing her deeply undeserved fate, completely upended my life.
It was this young woman who symbolizes for me the “Last” in our Questscope motto – Putting the Last, First. I wanted to live my life so that more people who might be “last,” would have a shot to be “first,” because of me.
So, the “dangerous” journey Bilbo foretold began. Making an impact in the world is not a one-person-show. Putting together varieties of gifts and strengths is vital. Accountability demands a structure for it. Building competent staff requires good training. Attracting funding makes all other things “go.” The list of challenges is long. In 1988, we officially registered Questscope as a non-profit charity, mandated for social development in the Middle East, and we hit the ground running in 1990 in Jordan.
Now, Questscope is in a time of major leadership transition. My 40-year self-assignment as Director of Questscope 1.0 has come to an end. Questscope has a new CEO who will lead us forward to QS 2.0.
Transitioning to a new leader is probably the most vulnerable time in the life of any organization. We are fortunate to have grown a CEO from inside Questscope – apparently a “best practice” that increases potential of success under new leadership. Transitioning is also a time for deep reflection about what the world is like outside the organization and how Questscope can be ready for positive impact in that world.
For me, I spent years reflecting deeply on qualities I would look for in my successor. The same qualities that I wanted in myself – and for Questscope to foster in others. I settled on 3 characteristics and identified them in the life of our next leader, Muthanna Khriesat.
I would like my successor to be a humble learner. A leader who it would be a delight for me to be humble in front of, to follow whole-heartedly. Twenty-three years ago, Muthanna had volunteered for data-entry work with Questscope while completing his BS in computer science at the top technology university in Amman, Jordan. He was a relentless geek, capturing data about disadvantaged youth in our programs and interviewing them to validate the reliability of our evidence of effectiveness. His pursuit of truth through data led him to remarkable insights about youth and our effectiveness with them.
Muthanna was radically transformed by what he learned. He saw their potential, but he also saw the lack of opportunity, support, and guidance that stymied that potential. And he realized that they could have been on a better trajectory in life if someone had given to them the support and opportunities that he had been given. What a delight to give over leadership in Questscope to someone who was transformed by relentlessly learning from those who are the most-least and the most-last.
I also wanted a genuinely spiritual leader that everyone – our board, staff, volunteers and partners – would respect and feel respected by. For me, a key quality of spiritual leadership is being aware that what I see of a person is not all the reality of that person. There is always something more, something not visible, that if I knew it, would change my whole understanding of what is going on, in and around that person. In short, spirituality means suspending judgement and giving people space and grace to be seen more fully. Muthanna gives space to people. And he gives grace to let them try, again.
The third characteristic I desired for in my successor was the ability to be wrong – to make mistakes and own up to them. Which requires forgiveness - asking it from others and offering it to others. Muthanna has an extremely incisive ability to grasp what is going on and take action – absolutely necessary for leading people in an organization. It also led the two of us into some “hot spots” not comfortable for either of us, to say the least. But the heat was handled by transparent talk and forgiveness (on both sides!) for hard attitudes and rough words at times. It is not difficult to follow someone who has forgiven and been forgiven.
The new CEO of Questscope has a clear understanding of his strengths and of his challenges. He is not afraid of others with more knowledge and experience, and he is not shy to ask questions. He is not a Western person. He comes from another world of language and culture that greatly enriches the ability of Questscope to put the last, first. And he reflects the background of almost all of our staff and 100% of our client/beneficiaries.
Questscope is an organization not afraid of newness, seeing opportunity in the face of challenge, discovering strength in the face of apparent weakness, and finding peace in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. It is a tall order for the next CEO to fill. But it was a tall order for the first CEO to fill!
Questscope was born and grew up in the Middle East, in some of the most volatile circumstances of the 21st century world. Our new CEO was too! It is a delight to transition leadership to such a person as Muthanna – and a delight to follow him.
Bilbo still gets the last word. I am still on that dangerous journey outside my front door! I will continue with Questscope as Chief Vision Officer – scouting out opportunities for us to be even more “cutting edge” as we put the last, first. After 40 years, could it get better than this?!
The best is yet to come! Stick with us!