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Leaders Are Rare

Updated: May 20

By K. Douglas Erdmann, President & CEO, REI HQ


James Rosebush, former deputy assistant to President Ronald Reagan, writes in the Harvard Business Review: “We are experiencing a dearth of leadership in society.” This is true in the for-profit world. This may be even more true in the nonprofit world, where large salaries are not available to recruit these rare leader commodities.


Ann celebrating Lao New Year last month with an administrator and nurse at Children's Hospital

One thing that nonprofits do have to offer, though, is the guaranteed chance to change society for the better. This is what motivated Bill and Ann Munson to lead our work in Laos. The Munsons actually directed our work there years ago but had to return to the U.S. for family reasons. Two years ago, we asked them, as retirees in their 70’s, to return to Laos. 


And for two years they have done a marvelous job, teaching English to doctors, nurses and administrators in hospitals in the capital city, as well as at the country’s only medical school. English is an essential skill for medical professionals these days, as most medical textbooks and international conferences are in English. As the vice dean of the Lao medical school once told me, “You cannot be a good doctor unless you have good English!”


The Munsons have contributed to Laos in other ways beside English teaching and have made many friends there. But their commitment is now up. Where to find their replacement? And not any replacement will do.  We need leaders with skills that developing countries want. We also need them to be fluent in English, and willing to be self-supported since REI does have a central fund from which to pay salaries.


Bill Munson teaching English at Mittaphab Hospital

Recently we were made aware of a couple from the Philippines teaching at a school in Thailand. The husband, a surgeon, and the wife, a pediatrician, were interested in working in Laos. They were already self-supporting their education work. And, being from the Philippines, their English was excellent.


That prompted me to travel to Laos last month to meet Ken and Louvel. A long trip for me, and not an easy one for the them either with a 13-hour overnight bus ride from Thailand to Laos. I also invited James Ong, our new Singapore director, knowing that being Asian himself, he would make a good connection with this couple.


Two questions needed to be answered. One, were they a good fit for REI? Answer: definitely “Yes.” Second, were they a good fit for Laos? And the important question behind that question was, would the Lao medical community be interested in receiving the training that this couple could provide?

Ken & Louvel and their three children

We met with the chief surgeons at the largest hospital in Vientiane, Mittaphab. Yes, they would welcome collaborating with surgeon Ken. We met with the director of the Children’s Hospital. Yes, she thought pediatrician Louvel could be helpful. And finally, we met with the dean and vice dean of the medical school, asking them if they might want Ken and Louvel to teach their students.  “Certainly,” was the answer, “but we would also want them to teach our professors.” Wow, what confirmation that this couple could make a contribution in Laos!


Based upon that confirmation, Ken and Louvel are planning on moving ahead with REI. Their move will need to wait at least a year, though, as they need to wrap up commitments in Thailand before making this big move. During the year Ken plans to travel frequently to Laos to connect further with the doctors that he met there.


(l-r) James Ong, Ken, Doug, Khen, Dr. Mo (key official in Ministry of Health and former REI Exchange Fellow), Ann Munson, Louvel , Ken & Louvel's daughters

Leaders are rare. But time and again, during the five years I have been at REI, I have seen the right person at the right time raise their hand and say “Yes, I will take on this leadership role.” For the next REI leadership role that opens up, perhaps it will be your hand that is raised?

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