A recent article in the Times suggested that Americans’ mistrust of each other has reached an all time high — that we live in an era of unprecedented cynicism. Maybe so. But we submit that this generalization obscures a more meaningful truth — there are people in our lives, every day, every year, who inspire not only trust, but also awaken in us our best selves.

As we head into the new year we thought it would be enlightening to highlight a few individuals whose leadership this year meant a lot to our lives and to the lives of others. They are our leader heroes of the year.  Who are yours?

  • Fred Werstlein: Volunteer leader of an initiative that will provide to people experiencing homelessness an agency to help them acquire jobs that actually pay a living wage. Always in service to people who live in crisis and who face terrible odds, Fred unfailingly personifies good cheer and that rare commodity — grace.

  • Julia O’Grady:  Mid-career doctoral candidate and professor that changes lives. Transitioning from a career as a dynamic non-profit leader to complete her PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill, Julia is igniting the flame of curiosity in young minds by following her passion for teaching.  David is thankful that his daughter was one of them!


  • Debbie Friedman:  Head of Macy’s Leadership Institute, Debbie is the most gifted person we know at appreciating and getting the most out of peoples’ unique talents and abilities. She does this with her own staff, and with us, her consulting collaborators. In other words, Debbie models the behaviors Macy’s wants other leaders to emulate.


  • Reverend Craig Schaub: When David broke his femur, his pastor was the first voice he heard by phone upon awaking from surgery.  His invitation to “explore the meaning behind the accident” transformed the tragedy and ensuing recovery into a spiritual process of discovery and possibility.
  • Steve Block:  Senior Associate Dean at Wake Forest Health Sciences, a leading academic medical center. Steve is on the leading edge in transforming how medical students are trained, which is no small feat. With his optimism, logical approach, and boundless energy, Steve works through entrenched attitudes and resistance to change better than anyone we know.


  • Jo Ellen Carson, Executive Director, Leadership Winston.  A master at leading from behind, Jo Ellen gently guides the volunteer efforts of hundreds of well-meaning volunteers to deliver an annual life-changing experience to Winston-Salem’s emerging community leaders.


  • Kathy Apple: As Executive Director at the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Kathy influences nursing policy at the national and state levels. Equipped with more compassion, patience and determination than most leaders, Kathy helps to unify the voice of diverse stakeholders who are helping the nursing profession adapt in significant ways to the challenges in the health care environment.


  • Jaime Gould:  As a Life Coach, Jaime sees the potential in others, and consistently stands for them to live into that potential…. even when her client loses sight of what they are capable of.


  • Bob Wilmers:  Chairman M&T Bank.  This 80-year-old visionary continues to lead the community bank he built based on integrity, collaboration, and talent. His philanthropy includes the “adoption” by the bank of an entire Buffalo, NY neighborhood-in-need. The bank is helping to transform three schools and related social support systems by providing “cradle to career” solutions for over 3,000 children.


  • Marty Goldberg: Despite an 87-year-old chassis that is no longer under warranty, Rob’s father does not let aging or physical ailments prevent him from actively engaging in the world around him. Marty’s interests and curiosity have only enlarged with time, keeping his mind razor sharp, and making him a model of aging gracefully in an ungraceful world.

Of course, these ten people are not the only ones who have inspired us this year. Who knows, maybe you’d be on the list if we had more room!

But to us, the more important question is: who might say these things about us next year at this time?  What can we contribute to others’ lives next year so that we might be considered their leadership hero?

And you? Do you have a hero from 2013 that you’d like to acknowledge?© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008