It is difficult to find positive examples of leadership vision, courage, and commitment because (a) the negative examples are so often in our face and (b) those leaders who follow this course are too busy doing what they do to worry about whether or not they are recognized as outstanding leaders. As a result, often this recognition is posthumous as a reflection on the life the leader has led and the contributions they have made to their constituency and to other leaders around them.
Such is the case with Eleanor Josaitis, co-founder of Detroit based Focus:HOPE who died on August 9, 2011 at the age of 79. There are many stories that can be found that chronicle the life and contribution of Josaitis, but my purpose is to focus on her embodiment of the traits that we desperately need to find in leaders today. The last 43 years of her life were dedicated unwaveringly to the mission of her organization. As the Focus:HOPE website says, she was a national advocate for the nutrition of children and seniors, a proponent of job training for women and minorities and a “passionate Detroiter who strove to revitalize the city and its neighborhoods.”
Vision: Most people credit the partner of Josaitis, Father William T. Cunningham, as the visionary behind Focus:HOPE. While that may be true for the organization itself, it is clear that to Josaitis, the organization was a means to fulfill her own view of what the future should hold. Watching a 1963 television program about the Nuremberg trials, a bulletin flashed on the screen about the harsh police treatment of the civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama. She called this her “TV moment” as it began the development of a vision of peace that she followed from that point onward.
Courage: While many people wanted peace in Detroit after the 1967 riots, Josaitis took immediate and strong action by moving with her husband and children downtown in 1968. In that same year, Josaitis along with Cunningham, formed the “Focus: Summer Hope” organization for the purpose of advocating and maintaining peace a year after the infamous riots. As that summer passed relatively quietly, the organization became Focus:HOPE and began a food distribution program. That beginning has turned into an organization that feeds nearly 45,000 people monthly and has expanded to include job training programs in the areas of information technology and machining. Through a fire bombing in the 1970s to a massively destructive tornado in the 1990s, Josaitis was never intimidated enough to waver from her goal.
Commitment: There are a lot of leaders with vision and perhaps the courage to start action toward achieving that vision. However, over time, the original focus is sometimes obscured by the fact that maintaining focus is hard. It’s very hard when faced with adversity and it’s not uncommon for leaders to start to backtrack or look for easier ways of doing things. This was not the case with Josaitis nor with Focus:HOPE. The mission of the organization that was established in 1968 is still the mission today.
And Josaitis never allowed distractions to distract her from the vision that she and others held. I spoke with Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and driver behind the revitalization effort known as “Detroit 2.0” who noted, "A leader is someone who not only sees a problem, but one who has the strength and passion to become part of the solution. Eleanor was an example of one who jumps in with both feet and ignores the noise created by the naysayers to truly make a difference in others' lives."
Please note, Eleanor Josaitis wasn’t the CEO of a multi-national company, nor was she the head of a nation-wide civic service organization. She didn’t try to be everything to everybody and she did not try to succeed in her quest alone. She was simply a woman who chose to be a leader in a community where she felt she could make a difference and through that choice, touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. She was the kind of leader we could all strive to be if we were able to define our vision and work unwaveringly to achieve it. Eleanor Josaitis will be greatly missed, not only as a pillar of strength in Detroit, but as a role model for the rest of us.