Martin Lehfeldt ’57

Among Friends   Spring 2015

Reflections on Ethical Leadership

These alumni are just a few of the many MFS graduates recognized as leaders in their specialties. We asked them to share their personal leadership styles, as well as their thoughts on how to remain ethical in positions of power. Whether they are standing up for civil rights or breaking the glass ceiling, alumni bring the lessons they learned at MFS with them into the workplace.

Martin Lehfeldt
Photography by Mikki Harris ’93. Visit her website to learn more about her work.

Martin Lehfeldt ’57

• B.A. Haverford College
• M.Div. Union Theological Seminary
• Former President, Southeastern Council of Foundations
• Author of Notes from a Non-Profitable Life, Thinking About Things: Selected Columns, and The Sacred Call: A Tribute to Donald L. Hollowell
What was your work like with the Southeastern Council of Foundations?

The Southeastern Council of Foundations is a 10-state, 330-member association of grantmakers. I took over as President in 1998 and ran the organization for 11 years. It involved providing technical assistance to foundations, organizing legal seminars, taking people to D.C. to lobby for their interests, and leading many meetings about the proper role of philanthropy.

What advice would you give to someone pursuing a similar leadership position?

A lot of people think they need to start high up on the ladder, but I think a willingness to do the grunt work of an organization has enormous benefits. You learn humility you’re going to need if you go into the nonprofit sector: how to make your own coffee, type your own letters, move your own furniture. And if you feel that’s beneath you, you’re never going to go very far.

I also believe you should look for opportunities to go into unfamiliar and uncharted territories. That’s going to mean something different for everybody: working in a soup kitchen in Camden, or traveling to the Middle East to learn about Israeli-Palestinian relations. I’ve learned the most when I have been the outsider and newcomer. That was certainly the case when I came south to work at a historically African-American college, and here I am, 40 years later, still passionate about encouraging diversity in education.

Martin LehfeldtWould you say your main priority as a leader has been giving back to the people you lead?

To say “yes” would sound arrogant, but I am a big proponent of what has been called servant leadership. When I decided not to go into the ministry, I ended up coming south to promote African-American higher education, and I did that for many years. Eventually I formed my own consulting firm with a variety of clients, but most of them tended to be struggling organizations that didn’t have much money but were on the side of the “good and true and beautiful.” I was willing to charge a lot less than the going rate in order to help them.

How do you stay involved with nonprofit work now that you’re retired?

For many years now, I’ve been on the board of the only historically black Presbyterian seminary in the country. I chair a development committee that supports the homeless, I work on several church committees, and I am president of my college class. I’ve also been working with a colleague on writing a history of philanthropy in the South. If I were to generalize, I’d say that I spend most of my time building bridges – trying to connect good people with good causes.

What do you feel differentiates a truly ethical leader?

Ethical leadership to me consists of being guided by empathy when making a major decision: thinking through who’s going to be left out, who’s not going to benefit, and who’s going to be hurt by your decision. You try to look at the world through a lens that permits you to see opportunities that will benefit many people, rather than just a few.

I’ve been struck by the fact that so many folks look around them and see a world of scarcity. I think there’s great abundance that we need to tap into, particularly in assisting the most neglected people. I think good leaders are willing to tap into that abundance, and they are willing to have the courage to promote change.

Can you give an example of a time you needed that kind of courage?

Courage may be too strong a word, but I mentioned the seminary that I’m involved with: Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. It began in Charlotte, NC as part of a freedman’s school after the Civil War. Then it was part of a theological consortium for the past 45 years here in Atlanta. Recently, my colleagues and I decided that the church needs a new model of theological education. We pulled out of the consortium and are now re-inventing ourselves with a new community-oriented mission and a very non-traditional curriculum. It was a pretty gutsy change that initially upset a lot of people, but I think history will show that we made the right move.

Do you feel Quaker education impacted the way you make leadership decisions?

Moorestown Friends validated a great deal of my own upbringing; my father was a Lutheran minister in Camden who was very involved in social justice issues. He was an avowed pacifist. My Friends education, combined with the education I received at home, worked to shape my character.

Looking back, Chester Reagan and Cully Miller tapped me to do some things that in a way constituted real leadership training. Cully made it possible for me to go down to Washington, D.C. by myself – that was a big deal! That weekend exposed me to the world of policymaking and national affairs. It was an incredibly memorable experience for me. Then I was the first exchange student from MFS to go to Nuremberg, thanks to Chester Reagan, and that had a huge impact on my life. He was also the first person who exposed me to a sense of environmental stewardship. I used to go on bird walks with him at dawn through the backyards of Moorestown.

I remember Chester Reagan speaking in assemblies, and in my blurred memory it seems he always spoke from the same text: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Every time I hear that – Micah 6:8 – I flash back to Chester Reagan expounding on it. It was a remarkable privilege to attend Moorestown Friends.