Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from Hawai’i

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Hawai’i, on my annual post-holidays father-daughter trip. And as I spend quality time with my family in Waikiki, I can’t help but look around and find inspiration in the place we are – this incredible island locale – and share the leadership lessons Hawai’i has taught me.

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Strive to reach the summit.

You might remember the story I shared last year of passing a kidney stone while visiting the Wailea Beach Resort. Once the staff at the hotel found out, they immediately were sending me messages, asking how they could help. Here’s an excerpt from one sent by Samuel Spurrier, director of group sales – “Ginger chews? Gatorade? Our chef is also putting together some assorted teas. Wishing you the best and let me know how I can assist in any way.”

They checked up on me, they were concerned about me, and I was beyond impressed, especially with hotel General Manager Angela Vento, with whom I had the honor of having breakfast with during my stay. She’s one of the few female GMs at a major resort in Maui and her leadership style was influenced by Queen Kapi’olani, one of the last reigning and beloved queens in Hawai’i. Queen Kapi’olani was known for her deep commitment to philanthropy, health, and education for the Hawai’ian people, and in 1890 founded the Kapi’olani Maternity Home. She also lived by a famous Hawaiian proverb, Kulia I Ka Nu’u, defined in a book Angela read called “Managing with Aloha” by Rosa Say. The proverb goes:

Kūlia i ka nu‘u is the value of accomplishment and achievement. The literal translation for Kūlia i ka nu‘u is “strive to reach the summit.” Those who have this value continually pursue improvement and personal excellence. For them, the most satisfying competition is with their previous selves: They consider their life and everything within it to be a work in progress, and they enjoy the effort. ‘Hard work’ is good work when it employs the energies of striving and reaching higher.

Lead with humility.

It’s difficult to talk about Hawaiian leadership inspiration without referencing the great Duke Kahanamoku, whose life and achievements serve as a veritable blueprint for leadership excellence. A gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer and champion surfer, “The Duke” was the first to remind his fans that no matter how famous he got, he was always one of them, a citizen of Hawai’i who worked hard for every accolade he received. In June 1925, when a fishing boat capsized in Newport Beach, California during a tremendous swell, a 34-year-old Duke, who happened to be watching from the beach, sprang to action, using his superior swimming skills and surfboard – allegedly weighing more than 200 pounds – to complete a daring rescue. He was able to save eight fishermen and his friends saved four more in an act that was hailed “superhuman.” But when the reporters descended on the beach to ask Duke about his epic rescue, he was nowhere to be found. With characteristic humility, he had left the scene before the media arrived.

Get it done.

Dr. Donnie Thompson, former University of Hawai’i women’s director of athletics, Martin Luther King Jr. Commission chair in Hawai’i and the first woman to serve as Superintendent of Education for the state of Hawai’i, once said: “Anything worth having is worth having now.”

That sense of immediacy and action may have propelled Dr. Thompson to become a pioneering force in women’s athletics throughout Hawai’i. She helped start the University of Hawai’i women’s sports program and in 1961, was the university’s first women’s track and field coach, making history as the first African American to serve as a coach for women in any National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 institution. By 1972, Dr. Thompson was named head of the athletics program. Immediately, she expanded the program from its then-two-sport offerings for women athletes into eight sports and expanded the scholarship program for women to 30 scholarships. Under her leadership, the University of Hawai’i women’s volleyball team won its highest national honors, putting women’s sports (and women athletes in Hawai’i) on the map for good.

So, what’s the message? Sure, it’s fun to travel somewhere beautiful and recharge for your next sprint but the next time you take a trip, you might consider doing a little research into what makes that place special. Chances are, like I did in Hawai’i, you’ll find leadership inspiration to inspire you anew. And speaking of new, here’s wishing you a very happy New Year!

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