The Spirit of Leading

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by Garland McWatters

We want to feel safe in the care of our leaders. We want to believe our well-being is their utmost priority.
Simply put, a leader is someone who helps us get places we cannot, or will not, go by ourselves.

We expect those who seek to lead us to answer three questions for us:
1. Where are we going and why?
2. How are we going to get there?
3. Will we be ok?

We expect leaders to demonstrate a spirit of leading that inspires and comforts. Leader wannabes must promise us value and deliver on the promise, or we will seek out another who will.

A new spirit of leading needed

So, when I watch what is passing for leadership in the market place, I sometimes get that empty churning in the pit of my stomach.

I’m suspicious of motives, and I sense I’m not alone. Confidence in the leadership of our political and business institutions is on the skids. Clearly, it is time to infuse a new spirit of leading throughout our workplaces and communities.

This column is dedicated to offering examples of what that spirit of leading looks like. I will showcase individuals of all ages and walks of life who are demonstrating it through the lives they live at home, at work, and in the community.

Why spirit matters

Leaders step up because they cannot hold back when action is called for. They are driven by a spirit of service to make things better for all concerned or to right an injustice against the defenseless.

The spirit of leading is a pure, positive, and powerful energy that moves us toward noble and aspirational common goals. It transcends ideologies. It is fiber and glue that binds communities into wholesome cultures where all can thrive.

It is an antibiotic salve that heals, soothes, and protects when the self-serving and malicious try to lie, cheat, and intimidate their way to personal advantage.

The Spirit of Leading in action

I’ve recently encountered several examples of this spirit of leading, some in my contact with ion Oklahoma magazine. Here are two.

Whitley and Ranya O’Connor saw an opportunity to help the unemployed homeless population of Oklahoma City to earn an income that could take them off the streets as a panhandler.

They started publishing The Curbside Chronicle in 2013. In their partnership with the Homeless Alliance they have helped homeless people regain skills and confidence to get back into more traditional employment and obtain housing.

Whitley first got the idea while a student at Vanderbilt. He observed the homeless selling a local street newspaper and began talking to them about their experience.

“They were talking about getting into housing, overcoming addictions, things of that nature, and I started to think I’m from Oklahoma City. Why don’t we have a program like this?”

Whitley reached out to Debby Hampton, chief executive officer of the Central Oklahoma United Way. She put him in contact with the Homeless Alliance and encouraged him to develop his business plan. A college friend introduced him to Ranya Forgotson, who had experience working with homeless populations. They co-founded The Curbside Chronicle and married soon after.

When Whitley reflected on the experience of getting the project started, he admitted it was difficult but worth the struggle.

“When you have an innovative rewarding idea that could change the community and benefit others, it’s almost a sin to hold it to yourself and not go after it,” he said.

Ranya, the Chronicle’s full-time publisher, said they plan to begin publishing every month starting in July. Currently, the Chronicle comes out every other month.

Kristi Leonard, past president of the Junior League of Oklahoma City (2014-15), took a more conventional path to leadership.

Kristi left a professional position in the private sector to start her family. When possible, she joined the Junior League of Oklahoma City to keep her skills sharp. Eventually she took on board positions and was tapped to be president in 2014.

Kristi explained her work with the Junior League opened her eyes to the level of poverty in Oklahoma County. “It’s gut wrenching when you know that some of these kids are not eating except for their schools lunches. Their parents can’t afford to feed them. It’s not for lack of effort. Their parents, some of them, are working two or three jobs at minimum wage.”

That passion led her to lay the groundwork for the urban gardens project in her presidential year. The first phase included urban gardens at three schools.

“So many of our children live in what’s called a food desert,” Kristi explains. “They are not close to accessible food within walking distance of their house. The idea is to make these urban gardens close to the schools, teach the kids how to garden, what is healthy. Let them get their hands dirty, plant the seeds, see it grow, then they get to taste the fruits of their labor.”

Kristi credits the coaching and mentoring from many successful professional women for her success and cultivating her spirit of leading.

NextGen Under 30 Oklahoma

We need great leaders of all ideologies demonstrating a spirit of leadership that unifies and heals. Ion Oklahoma magazine is leading the way to recognize and champion a generation of emerging leaders in Oklahoma who are already making a difference.

Learn more about how you can be involved in this exciting movement in your own community. Go to

I also host The Spirit of Leading podcast where you can hear interviews with many of these young leaders as well as others from all walks of life who are making a difference. Podcasts with the O’Connors and Kristi Leonard are available now. Go to

Garland McWatters, of INPowered2 LEAD, teaches and writes about leadership and developing INPowering workplaces. He hosts The Spirit of Leading podcast. McWatters, of Tulsa, is traveling throughout Oklahoma promoting NextGen Under 30-Oklahoma. He can be reached at

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