Kurt Tunnell: A Champion of Servant Leadership

Five years ago, I walked into the offices of Bricker & Eckler where I was first introduced to Kurt Tunnell. I did not know Kurt or even know of him prior to this meeting. These were the early days in my tenure at Relā and our founder, Harvey Hook, was giving me the ‘Columbus tour’, making sure I met as many leaders in the community as possible.

The purpose of our meeting also included introducing Kurt to our first leadership development programs, NxGen.

I’ll be honest, I was intimidated in those early days. My community sphere was small by comparison to Harvey’s and to Kurt’s, even though I didn’t know how small in comparison until much later. So walking into this prestigious law firm was scary.

Until I sat down with Kurt.

Kurt was unassuming, kind, welcoming and warm. His demeanor immediately set me at ease and I was so excited to hear him talk about how passionate he was about the leadership development program he’d been working on for the law firm. His commitment to developing others and including all in the learning process was clear and genuine.

We didn’t end up working with Bricker but Kurt and I kept in touch here and there over the next couple of years via an email or two each year.

When Kurt announced his ‘second half’ on LinkedIn, I noticed he said something about servant leadership consulting. In the time since Kurt and I met, I wasn’t sure if he was aware of our organization’s shift to a focus on servant leadership, so his announcement was of particular interest to me. I reached out to congratulate him and simply asked if I could learn more about what he was up to. I fully expected a written description and that would be it.

But no. Kurt preferred connection. He reached out almost immediately and asked if we could get coffee and get up to speed on each other’s lives. A few weeks later we met at a Starbucks inside of a grocery store – it was the fall of 2017.

Kurt shared passionately about Malawi, servant leadership and developing the next generation of leaders, but more specifically, the rising stars of the nonprofit world. So when I shared with him the community impact of Relā – providing professional development for nonprofits who can’t afford it – he looked at me and said, ‘We should do something together on this!’

And so we did. At first, Kurt and I met regularly to discuss but pretty soon, Kurt said we needed a plan. At his memorial service on September 5, I learned I was not alone in being on the other side of this conversation with Kurt Tunnell!

We created a draft of a plan and gave it a working name of The Nonprofit Leadership Academy. Eventually, we took it to Michael Corey (Executive Director, Human Service Chamber of Franklin County) and Dan Sharpe (VP, Community Research and Grants Management, The Columbus Foundation) to find out what already existed and how our plan could fill gaps and not create redundancies.

Additionally, Kurt as well as the rest of us, was committed to not being in charge. He and I were passionate about making this a collaboration not another nonprofit entity. No. He instilled in my mind this one important concept: We do this FOR the nonprofit community TOGETHER.

I agree. We all agreed.

Kurt was doing some traveling over the summer this year so we all agreed to table the plans and discussions until he returned. He emailed the three of us Friday, August 30 – just one day before his tragic accident. He wanted to get things in motion again and set up our next discussion.

When I heard the news of his death the next morning, I could only sit in disbelief. All day I kept looking for the REAL news story, that there had been a mistake, that he was ok and surviving his injuries.

Kurt and I met at a time when I was questioning so many things professionally and even with servant leadership. He single-handedly kept me on course. He mentored me and encouraged me to stay on this path and to not quit; that all I needed was another goal, bigger than myself. He truly understood what it was to LIVE servant leadership, not just talk about it.

Thank you, Kurt, for a life well-lived. We will continue this work – we will continue to serve.

Comments are closed.