Thursday, October 18, 2007

Josh Gough on the Importance of Mentorship and Leadership

This is the text of a speech I gave at the 10/18/2007 Atlanta Mentors Leadership Group meeting.

This details the motivation that Appollo and I felt to create this group and explains the importance of mentorship and leadership. I also discuss a personal story about how my great-grandparents set an incredible example of mentorship and leadership for me and my family and friends. I hope you enjoy reading about them. See to learn about them and to see my great-grandmother's beautiful paintings.


I want to thank all of you for attending tonight and I hope that we provide you with some beneficial information for yourself and those you mentor or lead.

I'm going to answer the questions I've asked everyone to be prepared to discuss by sharing a couple of stories about the person for whose memory I have dedicated this group. That person is my great-grandmother Carola, who passed away in July after 96 years of living every moment as well as she could, devoting every last second of her life toward showing others the beauty of this life. The time I spent with her and her husband Gene, my great-grandfather, taught me as much about mentorship and leadership as I could hope to learn from any text book or management survey study. They've taught me to be a better mentor and leader, and have motivated me to want to continue improving in all aspects of my life.

Before telling those stories, I'd like to introduce myself for those who are new here tonight and also outline the vision for this Meetup group. The mission and goals of the group are laid out on the Meetup site and in the handouts we've provided, so instead of restating what's there, I'll highlight the key points.

My name is Joshua Gough, and my good friend Appollo Hy and I started this Meetup group with the following vision in mind:

The mission of the Atlanta Mentors Leadership Group is to create a network of friends from various professions in the Atlanta area who actively mentor and lead younger professionals and students.

Our primary goal is to create long-term friendships and a network of trusted individuals who can help each other reach their educational, business, and life goals. We will accomplish this through relaxed and fun social gatherings that allow people to get to know each other by sharing food, laughter, resources and contacts, and life wisdom.

Last month at our first meeting we outlined our basic structure for our meetings. Complete notes from this meeting are available on (See the notes here:

Let me review what we decided in that first meeting:

First, we want to hold monthly dinners like this one that will feature time for fellowship, dining, open discussion, and guest speakers to share knowledge and wisdom regarding mentorship and leadership. Appollo and I will take the lead tonight in being the first speakers and we welcome and encourage others to present in future meetings.

Second, we want to put into practice the principles we are learning about by meeting for fun and social activities like hiking, cooking out, educating young people about college and careers, and performing community-service activities together as a team. By doing this we will strengthen friendships amongst ourselves, improve the future outlook for the young people we mentor and lead, and foster a sense of civic duty in ourselves and in those we mentor and lead.

We want to develop our own characters to be stronger and to embody the values we admire in our own mentors and leaders. We will make this possible by encouraging one another and helping each other reach our own goals. There is quite simply nothing that compares to the power of positive people being around other positive people. Nothing comes close.

The role that Appollo and I will play as organizers is to help serve you, the group members, in working to bring interesting speakers, topics, and resources to the group's attention. With that in mind, Appollo will review a very good book about leadership after I finish speaking. And, the handouts list some local Atlanta formal mentorship and leadership programs. They also provide the names of many recommended books and web sites on the subjects. If anyone knows of other resources and materials, please let us know so we can begin compiling a list on the web site.

In this modern age of information technology, we also need to leave a lasting legacy to reach a larger audience with the message of mentorship and leadership. Doing that is becoming easier and easier these days. We will do this by recording our meeting presentations and making the audio or video available on YouTube or Google Video so others can learn and we can look back. We will also share resources and wisdom by keeping blogs about our progress so that we can share that knowledge with others or with new members who join and would like to become caught up with our previous meetings.

OK, now for a little more background about me and what motivates me for getting involved in this Meetup group:

I was born in and grew up primarily in New York state in the Hudson Valley area, living early on with my mom and her side of my family and then later mostly with my mom and stepfather. I came to the Atlanta area in 1994 to live with my grandparents to get residency so I could use the HOPE scholarship to attend school. I graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in Computer Information Systems.

After that I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for four years as a Software Engineer on the Epidemic Information Exchange System, or Epi-X, which is a system that notifies public health officials about emergent disease outbreaks like West Nile or Avian Flu. It was at CDC that I became acquainted with Appollo and we have been good friends ever since. I currently work as a Software Application Architect for a company called GB Holdings, Inc. Our main endeavor is an online auction system for hunting and sport-shooting enthusiasts called It works very much like eBay, but it's tailored specifically to this vertical market. is currently ranked by as one of the top 2,200 most popular destinations on all of the web. Incidentally, is in the top 500.

In my free time I am trying to spend more time outdoors and being physically active, getting more into running, hiking, rafting, and tennis. I'm also trying to learn salsa dancing at a few local ballrooms around town. Appollo has been to a couple of these places and can surely attest to having seen how well I'm improving. (Thankfully tonight none of the ladies I've danced with that have had their toes injured by my wayward feet are here tonight to protest his fine opinion of my progress.)

With that aside, let me say exactly why mentorship and leadership are important to me personally.

Like many of you I would imagine, I have family members and friends for whom I want to serve as a good example. I want to help them learn from my mistakes and from whatever wisdom I gain through life. The day after I turned 13, my mother gave birth to my half-brother Danny. I'll never forget being at my grandmother's house, eating some of her homemade chocolate chip cookies I'm sure when my mom called with the news. At 13, I finally had a sibling. That was a very motivating day for me.

It is hard for me to believe that is more than 17 years ago. I just turned 30, and on the very next day, Danny turned 17. He now lives in the Portland, Oregon area with my step-father Rick and my mother Kathryn, and he plans to go to college out there. I'm going to visit some time in November to help them move into a new house and to explore Portland with my brother. I actually lived in the Portland area when I was 16 for my junior year of high school before coming to Georgia, so I can't wait to see it again.

I also have two half-brothers from my dad and his wife in New York, ages 15 and 10. Here in Georgia I have two cousins, named Matthew and Stephanie, ages 20 and 16. So, this is a very strong part of why I wanted to start this group so I can learn how to be better a mentor and leader and be able to help pass on wisdom and knowledge to my brothers and cousins.

As I mentioned on the Meetup site, I am also a mentor in Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta. It was during late 2002 that I volunteered with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and was matched with Michael in May of the following year. Michael is now 16 and a junior in high school. He plans to go to college to study biology and aspires to become a surgeon. I joined Big Brothers and Big Sisters because I can empathize with the pain and confusion of not having both biological parents together. I got to see my own father quite a lot as a teenager and it helped me a great deal.

But, so many kids these days are not as fortunate. In fact, recent estimates from the National Fatherhood Initiative are that 40% of all children do not live with both parents in the United States. This is a huge problem. But, before it can be fixed, I believe that it is going to take volunteers and communities to help mentor and lead many of these kids toward good decisions and healthy futures.

Michael and I also keep contact with some young college students in Decatur, Anthony, Mario, and Vincent, all 21 or under. They are very motivated to do well in school and in life, and we try to help them out once in a while as best we can.

As all of us know, young people are the future of our communities. Yet, sometimes older generations look at youth and simply see them as misbehaved or uninformed. Well, the truth is that if this is the case, it is the older generations who should be looking at their own behavior to ask why they did not do something to help lift up those who came after them. By serving as mentor leaders, we have the power to help the younger generations prosper and exceed even their most lofty dreams.

The reason for this is that we have been where they are, and we have struggled for years and years on end just to make it to where we stand today. Each of us has traveled a different path in life, but each of us knows that the path is encumbered along the way with many trials and many choices. Each of us has had epiphanies in our lives that left us truly astonished that what once seemed to us utterly impossible to accomplish at age 13, 18, 23 or 28 now seems as easy as breathing.

The image I get in my mind when I think of this is of a stair case that is made of translucent material. It is to your eye completely invisible. But, you see someone standing above you and you ask him, "How did you get up there?" He reaches down and lifts you up to his step. You didn't even know there was a step, but now you're standing on it. Soon, you start finding more steps to climb, but you continue to look back and lift up others as well. That is mentorship. That is leadership.

Therefore, so long as we strive to remember how confusing and how difficult of a struggle it was to climb each of those steps in our own lives, we can become a rock of compassion for those we mentor and lead. These words sound like an oxymoron when juxtaposed, but really they are not.

Let's think about them for a minute.

The word "Compassion" can be defined as "A deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it."

The word "Rock" has multiple definitions.

One definition is "a firm foundation or support".

But, another definition will remind us of our childhood and of the mentors and leaders we have known.

This definition is "to move or sway to and fro or from side to side, esp. gently and soothingly"

As mentor leaders, we must embody all of these definitions for the younger generations. We must recognize and wish to help alleviate the suffering of the younger generations, we must provide for them a foundation of support, and we must allow them to make mistakes and to grow from them, while also helping them rock and roll with the punches however they may come.

Yet, being a mentor leader does not just mean that we only help those who are much younger than us. It also means that we help and learn from those who are our peers in life and in our work.

Before I explain the impact that my great-grandmother Carola's influence has had upon me and others, I want to relate a quick story about this aspect of peer mentors and leaders.

An event that taught me the core truth about helping and learning from peer mentors happened a few years ago when I was still working for the CDC on the Epi-X system. I traveled with one of my coworkers, Carlos, to Fort McClellan in Alabama for a bio-terrorism emergency preparedness exercise. There were lots of different emergency response representatives there from many different organizations around the country, including FEMA. Our task as a group was to simulate an aerosolized attack of bubonic plague released in a Miami shopping mall. To do this we had to have our system back in Atlanta notifying the participants in the control room and various participant team rooms. The system did this by placing automated phone-calls and sending pager and email messages to people. So, Carlos and I were responsible for ensuring that these messages got entered into the system and sent out properly. It wasn't going to be too difficult so long as we kept pace with the "injects" as the exercise coordinator from FEMA called them out.

The exercise was ready to begin and we were instructed to "push the button" to start, and so we did. And...nothing happened! No phone calls. No pagers buzzing. No emails coming in. Faces in the room were quickly showing frustration.

Carlos apologized to the group, assuming responsibility for something totally out of his control. We then got ready to put our "back up contingency plan" to work, which would have utilized a laptop server locally on site that could at least trigger email notifications to the group. So, I started getting this set up when Carlos instructed me to do so. But, thankfully it was just a brief "network glitch" back in Atlanta, and things resumed smoothly, the system began notifying people properly via the telephone, and we saved face for Epi-X and CDC. But, in those few moments where nothing was working and those faces were grimmacing, Carlos and I felt like we had personally let down the participants.

I learned from these few moments that an organization can become crippled by a fluke or a weak link, and while some things may be "out of your control" as a member of a dependent organization, you as a leader have to take responsibility for accepting the consequences and do what you can to remedy the situation or to accept responsibility. I saw how Carlos represented himself and CDC with professionalism and how he sought to serve the needs of the other people there to make sure they could use the system properly and that the exercise was successful. This experience taught me about the importance of accepting responsibility and for exercising teamwork required for mentors and leaders to succeed with their teams.

And yet, helping and listening to the young and helping and listening to our peers is also not the totality of a mentor leader. No, a mentor leader must also learn from and also help those much older. For, when we look to those much older who have been successful, we can already begin the process of "looking back" on our own lives by putting ourselves in their shoes and asking whether we are doing the right things right now.

For this reason I have dedicated this group to the memory of my great-grandmother Carola, whose example of mentoring leadership served many people very well during her 96years of life. Reflecting upon her example has taught me volumes about longevity, humility, and ultimately prosperity and love.

I'd like to now share a couple of stories about her that have taught our family and friends much about living life to the fullest and helping others do the same.

My great-grandparents Gene and Carola Gough were married for 65 years. They lived their lives as willful adventurers, living all around California, Alaska, and traveling all around the world. They also lived for three years in the Congo of Africa where my great-grandfather did big game hunting and worked as part of a work team that built grain silos and other infrastructure for a mission team. They themselves were not missionaries. Carola worked there as a an art teacher. She was an artist who painted several hundred paintings during her life. Our family has been very fortunate that she kept photos of many of them and we've created a web site for her at that showcases her wonderful artwork. During their travels they took thousands of hours of video, tens of thousands of photographs, and kept hundreds of hand-written letters to and from Africa. We're very fortunate as a family to inherit their legacy and our family is working to digitize all of those materials.

But, Carola was more than an artist and a great-grandmother, she was a mentor leader to many people, and I hope I can employ some of her attitude in my own life at all ages. Throughout her life she volunteered to read to children, to paint murals for them in community centers, and to show artifacts and share stories about her travels to Africa and elsewhere with young people. In her early nineties she was still volunteering to read to children in Salida, Colorado. Seeing a newspaper article about her doing that inspired me to volunteer with Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

To speak again of a memorable birthday I forward this time to April 16th 2004, the day before Carola's 93rd birthday. My grandfather, grandmother, and I took Carola out to dinner in Marietta. We enjoyed our dinner and when it was time to leave, my grandfather asked his mom to wait while he assisted her down from the elevated booth we were sitting in. She protested, and ended up tripping and breaking her hip! An ambulance came and the EMT's brought in a gurney to wheel her out of there.

As they lifted her onto it and began to whisk her away to the ambulance she broke everyone's tension and made all of us laugh as she quipped, "Well, I always dreamed about making a grand entrance, but I'm not sure I care for this grand exit!"

That sense of humor is at the core of a person who loves life, and wants others to enjoy it just as much. A mentor leader must embody this kind of attitude.

Last year she broke her hip again and moved to California. In April of this year we threw a big 96th birthday party for her in her assisted living home at which about 30 of her descendants and their spouses and children attended. She enjoyed that very much and it's something none of us will soon forget. Three months later, in July of this year, she fell in her bathroom and suffered a stroke which ultimately lead to her passing away on July 25th.

Many of our family members visited her after her fall in July. At one point, there were four generations in her hospital room: All three of her children: Gene, 73, Kerry, 69, and Linda, 64; her grandson Kevin Eugene, age 47, and me, her eldest great-grandchild, then age 29, about to turn 30.

But of all the memories I have of mentors and leaders sharing wisdom, there is now one which stands tall and above the others as it was spoken to me across the ages, across the generations, and from what seems more like an eternal wisdom than a mere human voice.

This memory will forever resonate within me so long as I continue to live and my greatest hope is that I can someday inspire others if only 1/100th as much.

Carola, aged 96 years and about 3 months, had chosen to forgo being kept alive on feeding tubes or machines after her stroke when it was apparent she could not recover naturally. She asked to go home to her bed in the assisted living home, surrounded by some of her beautiful paintings and her belongings and visited often by her friends and family.

On the night before I was to leave to go back to Atlanta, I was there with her son Kerry, my great-uncle. She had been having difficulty speaking because of the stroke and what it did to her vocal control, but in this conversation she was as clear as could be.

I sat next to her bed and told her I was going back to Atlanta the next day. She told me to call her when I got back to Atlanta to let her know that I had made it home safely. I told her I would.

I told here that she had inspired me to volunteer back in Atlanta. She said, "You mean with the young people?"

I said yes. She said, "Good, that is very important."

I then told her that I and my friend Appollo, whom she had met in Atlanta, were starting a group called "The Atlanta Mentors Leadership Group" and were dedicating it to her and the example of mentoring leadership she had set for us. She said, "Thank you. That is an honor."
I leaned closer to her and told her what I wanted her to know more than anything, saying "Great-grandma, spending time with you, seeing your artwork, understanding how you have lived your life by embracing change, and seeing your example of volunteering with children in your 90's has made me believe that I can achieve any good and noble purpose I set out to accomplish."

These next words from her I will always, always, always remember.

With 96 years, 3 months, and 1 week of life worth of life experience and wisdom and dozens of descendants from her and her husband, she raised her head from the pillow, squeezed my hand and spoke with force and articulation her last instructive words to me:

"You can!"

I thanked her and soon turned toward the door, said good night to Kerry, said good night to Carola and told her I loved her. She said, "I love you too, and drive carefully."

I told her I would, said good night one last time, then left for my car. Both of us knew it was the last time we would see each other. She was my mother's father's mother. Four generations.

Five weeks later I spoke at her memorial and I tried my best to quantify and qualify the life legacy that she and Gene left. I spoke of their dozens of descendants, her hundreds of paintings, the thousands of hand-written letters she had done, and of just what it means to live 96 years.

And, what does it mean? Well, you can look at the time between April 17th, 1911 and July 25th 2007 in other numbers:

  • 35,163 days
  • 5,023 weeks
  • 849,912 hours
  • 50,634,720 minutes
  • 3,038,083,200 seconds
35 thousand days just doesn't sound like that much when you compare it to how many dollars we hope to earn each year, does it? If it still sounds like a long time, consider a thought experiment that will let us visualize just how quickly this time can pass and will remind us that it is not the numbers of days, but how we use them that adorns them with meaning.

I call this thought experiment The Walls of Life. (You may elect to call it the Cubicle of Life if your work situation resembles my own!)

Imagine you are standing in a room that has four walls, each eight feet high, and ten feet long. Each of these walls is covered with wallpaper painted with thin gridlines sectioning the wall into thousands of one-inch squares. From the day you were born, your parents started to take one photograph of you each day, trying to capture the highlight of each day, and they placed a thumbnail of that photo into one of those squares, starting at the top and working down, one by one, day by day. Your entire first year of life would fit on less than four rows top to bottom. When you grew old enough to take care of yourself, your parents transferred the images into your possession and you continued the project in your own dwelling. Before the end of the first 8 by 10 wall, you would have taken enough photographs for 11,520 squares (or days), and you would be thirty-one-and-a-half years old.

If someone had done this very project for Carola, her life walls thumbnails would have already started wrapping around to the fourth wall! At age 30 and 3 months, my own Cubicle of Life thumbnails would not even fill the first wall yet.

If I had such a wall, I'm sure I would not be so proud of all the thumbnails on it. I wish I could say I have done more useful things so far. I wish I had tried to be more open, more outgoing, more communicative, and more understanding. But, it has only been in the last few years that I have really started to appreciate and comprehend the importance of these qualities.

Most appropriately, however, the squares on my own wall that would be filled with the most meaningful and motivational thumbnails could be likened to a fractal that is as much the image of itself at a distance as it is up close. For, my most inspirational memories are those made by looking at the walls of photo collages made by and of my family and friends. In my condo, I have several of these of family and friends hanging on my walls. The same goes for countless other homes and for countless cubicles, office walls, and community center walls throughout the world. These mementos we make for and with each other to remind ourselves of what really matters in life.

And, as you may have guessed, the most cherished of these memories for me came in Carola's home. When I went to visit her there for a few days in October of 2005, when she was 94, she let me stay in her room while she slept in the guest bedroom. All the walls of her room were covered with photographs and collages from the dozens of descendants across three generations that had come from her and her husband Gene over the previous 72 years.

That experience was something that I will never forget. It demonstrated very powerfully that the undisputed purpose of life is to love and be loved.

As for me, I have, I hope, more than two more walls in our thought experiment to fill with thumbnails, and I want to try as best as I can to fill each space with the very best.

When I'm well into my second and third walls, I want to be able to pan back on my life's store of memories and photos and recall this very day, October 18th, 2007, day 11,047 of my life, as one of the most important. The reason will be that on this day I stood here amongst friends, both old, and new, and spoke the following words as a promise to myself and to others:

We will strive as a team to make the most of every day and to help those we mentor and lead to make the memories on their own life walls as satisfying and wonderful as they can be. By showing them compassion and determination, we will empower and encourage them to in turn do the same for those in their own stead.

That way, when all of us look back on life, we will remember this day as the start of many great friendships and as the center of a constellation of shared memories that will always serve to remind us that the purpose of life is to love as much as we can love and to give all that we can give.

Let us begin today by envisioning in our own minds what The Atlanta Mentors Leadership Group's photo collage will look like in 3 weeks, in 3 months, and in 3 years. If we strive to do our best, it will look better than we could possibly imagine.

So, let's do it. And, before we leave let's get a picture of the group to put in square one of what will be many, many more.

I close with one of my favorite all-time quotes, from George Washington Carver:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong, because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

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