Life and Career Lessons for Changemakers

Posted on: September 3rd, 2020 by Alex Counts

By Alex Counts

Recently I was honored to be asked to join Arogya World’s Advisory Council, and of course I humbly accepted the appointment.  Working to prevent illness and promote well-being is truly noble work, and doing it as cost-effectively and pragmatically as Arogya does is impressive and worthy of support.

My role to date has been as a consultant who planned a facilitated the first joint retreat of the boards in India and the United States, and providing occasional advice since that historic gathering took place in November 2018.  I also manage the India Philanthropy Alliance that Arogya World actively participates in as one of its 12 members.  As a result, I have gotten to know the organization and many of its leaders over the last few years.

My work in recent times has been focused on distilling lessons I learned about nonprofit leadership during the first 30 years of my career, and sharing them as a college instructor, author, and consultant.  This past March I published When in Doubt, Ask for More: And 213 Other Life and Career Lessons for the Mission-Driven Leader.  In it, I present 214 “nonprofit leadership hacks” in around 3-4 sentences each.  Not a lot of fluff – I just get right down to actionable ideas and tips.

When I think of Arogya World and its supporters and friends, six of those lessons come immediately to mind:

  1. Making time to exercise. As Arogya leaders would be the first to tell anyone who will listen, regular aerobic exercise promotes robust health in myriad ways.  In my case, I observed that it decreased my anxiety significantly.  This was important because my ability to make good decisions was (and remains) severely compromised when I am anxious.  After having neglected exercise for the first five years in a leadership role, and seeing my health deteriorate and anxiety grow as a result, I learned a new habit: exercising six days per week.  In fact, I have been following this routine for almost two decades.  As any of my colleagues would attest, my decision-making in nonprofit leadership roles (such as CEO and board chairperson) has improved markedly as a result.


  1. Taking a deep breath. When crises strike, as they inevitable do in mission-driven organizations and in everyday life, I learned over time to pause and reflect before doing anything in response, unless doing so was absolutely essential and urgent.  Oftentimes what I discovered was that the crisis was less severe or of a different nature than I had initially understood.  Occasionally, taking time out allowed me to realize that it might even be a blessing.  Even if the crisis is not benign, pausing allowed unexpected allies or ideas to emerge to help deal with the situation.  More recently, I have taken the “deep breath” concept a step further by starting a daily meditation practice.


  1. It’s Not All About You. When someone tells you about a painful or traumatic situation they are going through, either professionally or personally, I have learned to resist the temptation to share a similar story from my own life. You may think this would show empathy, but in reality it usually comes across as narcissistic and unhelpful. Instead, listen attentively, signal that you are comfortable with their emoting if they want to, and finally, simply ask, “Is there anything I can do to be helpful to you now?”


  1. Being Approachable. Every leader – whether of a family, a company, or city – needs to work hard to be accessible and approachable to the people they lead.  This quality is especially important in a nonprofit organization. When people are working at demanding jobs that are often underappreciated in our society and that usually pay less than similar employment in the for-profit realm, non-monetary forms of support are particularly important. So make it easy for people to connect with you. Take the initiative to talk with them regularly, individually and in small groups, to get a sense of what the organization looks like through their eyes. And aim to return calls and emails from the people you lead within two or three days (at the most) so that they can get your attention, advice, and decisions without delay.


  1. Overdress for Success. In recent years, dress codes in both work and social settings in the United States and many other countries have become more fluid and, in general, less formal. This can lead to some tricky decision-making for those who want to be viewed as leaders in their organizations. The best rule of thumb is to slightly overdress for every occasion. It’s a way of subtly showing respect for your colleagues, friends, and others you may meet.  In the age of Covid, this means that whenever I am on a video call, I always am shaved and have a shirt with a collar – even though many other people don’t seem to hold themselves to such standards.


  1. Being Proud of What You Want. After learning it from a mentor, I now follow this three-step process in every area of my life and encourage you to try it: (1) Figure out what you want. (2) Become proud of wanting it. (3) Then work for it, which includes unapologetically asking for other people’s help in getting it. Don’t rush through the first step, and don’t underestimate the importance of that second step. Being proud of what you want, especially if some people may see it as frivolous, indulgent, or just plain strange, can be difficult, but it’s important. It is much easier to ask people for help if you are at peace with what you want. (Of course, if what you want is dangerous, unethical, or immoral, even if you can feel proud of it, you may want to rethink it.)


If humanity is to meet the challenges of this era – such as overcoming Covid-19, preventing noncommunicable diseases, combatting climate change, and reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – applying lessons learned by previous generations of changemakers will be critical.  In my new book I have put forward more than 200 of the most valuable insights I have had over the course of my career and hope they can be of benefit to people involved in the noble work of Arogya World.  I have enjoyed hearing from others about which of mine are most meaningful to them, and also about their own tips, techniques, and ideas.  There is so much to do and so little time to waste.