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David Wilkins Friday Forum Takeaway by Cameron Colby

Posted by: Chamber Investor on Tuesday, July 8, 2014
[caption id="attachment_1130" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Photo provided by Clemson University Mandy Leigh Madigan "][/caption] This  Takeaway from our June 27, 2014 Friday Forum, “Lessons in Leadership: What an ordinary guy learned through extraordinary experiences and special people” with David Wilkins, former United States Ambassador to Canada,  was written by Cameron Colby, Senior Environmental, Health, and Safety Consultant and Director of Marketing at Life and Safety Consultants, Inc. About David Wilkins David H. Wilkins is a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP; he chairs the Public Policy and International Law practice group, which primarily focuses on representing business on both sides of the US-Canadian border. Appropriately so given his four year term as the United States Ambassador to Canada, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005. A lifelong resident of South Carolina, sans four years in Ottawa, Wilkins received his bachelor’s degree from Clemson University which he attended on a tennis scholarship. In case you were wondering, his tennis skills are still intact.  On one segment of Canadian comedic television show ‘Rick Mercer Report’ [similar to the likes of Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’] highlighting the Ambassador’s residence in Ottawa, David successfully schooled host Rick Mercer in a friendly match of one-on-one. David Wilkins is currently serving a lifetime seat on the Clemson Board of Trustees. From Tiger to Gamecock, he earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina and subsequently joined the ranks of the U.S. Army as a First Lieutenant. David Wilkins’ political career began in 1980 when he was elected to the SC House of Representatives. By 1994, Wilkins had worked his way through the ranks, making history by becoming the first Republican to be elected Speaker of the House since the Reconstruction. He retired from the House in 2005, taking on the new challenge of serving as ambassador to our neighbors to the north; Canada. Undoubtedly, Wilkins’ success was fueled by the leadership capabilities he possessed. But while some say great leaders are born, David Wilkins credits his style of leading not only to God-given ability, but to the people and experiences encountered throughout his journey. “Leadership”, Wilkins stated, “like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder”; simple words from an unarguably proven leader. Humility. “The best leaders are the most faithful servants” In a trip to Afghanistan in 2007, Wilkins remembers General Rick Hillier, commander of the Canadian Forces during their aid to the US following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, thanking his troops during a Christmas meal.  Hillier had re-instilled pride in the Canadian troops during his reign as their leader, and remarked to Wilkins that “You can only lead if you’re willing to walk beside your troops”, for “he who thinks he leads but has no followers is only on a walk”. Courage. “Courage is grace under pressure” – Ernest Hemingway Shortly after September 11, 2001 David Wilkins and his son Robert stood in the Oval Office, face to face with our country’s leader. President George W. Bush was not elected as a wartime president, but he was going to shoulder it. Without anxiety or angst, the President remarked that he didn’t know whether Americans would stay with him or not, but he was going to do what he had to do to bring reassurance during those tough days. Through and through he remained steady at the wheel. Selflessness. “Leadership is not the position you hold, it’s about the people you touch” 72585.  David Wilkins still recalls the number tattooed on the forearm of David Shentow, lone survivor of his family in the Nazi Death Camps. To this day, Shentow remembers the exact moment he thought his life was all but over, only to be rescued hours later by an American G.I. offering him a piece of gum. It was an agonizing time for Shentow, as it was for 11 million other Jewish families, and it is agonizing to this day for him to remember the harrowing details, but he retells his story to the masses every day. Why? Wilkins shared, “History repeats itself, and if not him –who? If not now – when? Leaders can be born of the deepest scars.” Relationships. “Trust is the essence of leadership” – Colin Powell Relationships matter. How you treat people matters. The relationship between Ambassador Wilkins and Canada’s Prime Minister Steven Harper was one that would lead to the swift and decisive termination of decades of dispute over lumber tariffs with Canada. The relationship was one of trust; trust that Ambassador Wilkins had the best interest of both counties in mind, and trust that the decision was the right one. Preparedness. “Be a leader worth following” What David Wilkins recalls most about working with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the effort she took to always be prepared, no matter the topic or situation. She always left him feeling challenged and wanting to push himself harder. She put in the time to be prepared and well versed in the things she was engaged in and in turn, encouraged those she led to follow in her steps. Perhaps the most compelling takeaway from Ambassador Wilkins’ address was simple, but powerful; “Leadership is not a talent one possesses, but a gift one has to give.” It’s safe to say that everyone in attendance left that morning, motivated, asking themselves “how am I making things better for the people who follow me?” The Greenville Chamber's Friday Forum Series is designed to help business professionals connect, learn and grow with networking and educational opportunities. The next Friday Forum, featuring Tim Pecoraro from the idea group (2013 Minority Business of the Year) will be held July 25th. Learn more and register at


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