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Mourning the Loss of a Truly Exceptional Leader


Have you ever had one of those moments where the sky seems less bright, the hill gets suddenly steeper and energy appears to decline as if there is less oxygen to breathe? I felt that way when I got an email June 13 telling me that Laurie Moran had passed away.

I know I was not alone in that feeling of loss. Many of us knew that Laurie had been fighting cancer for some time. She did not hide her illness, nor did she use it as a way of asking for sympathy. Laurie faced cancer the way she faced many things, head on without making a big deal out of it.

And she seemed to be beating it. I watched her come back from earlier rounds of treatment and we all hoped her progress would continue.

But it was not to be. At 56, she had given so much and she had so much more to give. But it was not to be.

As her family, friends and church mourn her loss, we as a community and region are lessened by her absence. But as I once heard Laurie say, “Pete Shelton [her father] did not raise me to run pity parties.” And I won’t start one right now.

Her death does lead me to reflect on what makes someone an exceptional leader because to me, that is what she was. We all have our own “Laurie stories” and these are just a few from one person who admired and worked with her.

As with any exceptional leader, Laurie first put mission above self. Her public mission was to make this region a better place for everyone. As Dr. Gary Miller said upon hearing of her death, “This region has lost its number one ambassador.”

As the founding president of the combined Danville-Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, she became one of the first to lead real collaborative change in our region. In addition to her leadership on many critical regional efforts ranging from workforce development to early childhood education, she played important leadership roles in state and national organizations that brought positive recognition to our region — such as the National Workforce Solutions Advisory Board of ACT, Virginia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and the National Association of Workforce Boards, all of which she chaired.

This list could go on and on.

And contrary to what it may seem, she did not say yes to everything. When asked to take on a new responsibility, she would say, “Give me a few days to think about it.” She would ponder how the new activity would affect her other responsibilities. But if she said yes, you could count on her to get it done.

She served on the DRF board since 2015 and as recently as a month ago, we were asking her to take on more responsibilities. After a few days of consideration, she told Greg Hairston, our board chairman, “Yes, I think I can do a good job at that and it fits my priorities.” This was even as she was fighting cancer. Mission above self indeed.

Second, as an exceptional leader she took on issues or positions that the rest of us might like to have seen go away.

I watched Laurie do this time after time in the 10 years we worked together. She was never a “bomb thrower” for change; instead she was the “change agent” looking for the most promising leverage points to produce incremental progress.

Rather than complaining about talent shortages, she committed thousands of hours at the local, regional, state and national levels working to improve the systems of workforce development our region has.

Laurie rarely told you what to do, but she helped you discover the right way forward through questions and funny stories. She helped you to have the perseverance and courage to do the right thing. She did not share her judgment, she advised. But if you asked her to judge, she would.

 

Seven years ago, when a University of Wisconsin/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report showed disturbing health outcomes in our region, Laurie began to convene business and community leaders on how we address those issues. She argued that poor health has a direct impact on business success in the region. A linkage that other leaders did not see at first.

This led to the creation of the Health Collaborative, which continues as a combined effort of more than 50 organizations, working together, making solid progress on improving health outcomes in the region.

Laurie’s quiet courage was also evident in several situations where she and others observed sexual harassment. She neither ignored the inappropriate acts, nor did she use public confrontation. She worked behind the scenes to make it clear that such acts would not be tolerated. Others would have said, “Boys will be boys,” but Laurie knew from personal experience that it is not right and she took appropriate actions that ultimately led to the appropriate consequences.

Exceptional leadership isn’t always neat and tidy but it is always necessary.

Third, exceptional leaders pay attention to the future, as well as to current opportunities and Laurie did that better than anyone else. I know of no one in our region who has done more to mentor people in new roles as well as mentor the next generation of doers. Since her death, Facebook has been filled with tributes of people she mentored. I have been privileged to be in numerous conversations in the past week where I heard stories of how she reached out to people at critical moments.

Laurie rarely told you what to do, but she helped you discover the right way forward through questions and funny stories. She helped you to have the perseverance and courage to do the right thing. She did not share her judgment, she advised. But if you asked her to judge, she would.

The loss of “Laurie the Mentor” is the greatest loss I fear for our region in the near term. If Laurie could give us advice right now, she would probably tell us that this is the time for us to step up, even as we grieve. Laurie would tell us to fill the hole and do our best work. Don’t wait for someone to tell us what to do but step forward and do the work that needs to be done.

This is how I want to remember my friend. As the person who pushed the entire region forward in doing good work and important work that is transforming our community.

The Dan River Region is a better place because Laurie Moran lived here and led here. While we grieve this loss of an exceptional leader, let us not give up. Laurie would be disappointed if we did not continue onward and become the place that she always envisioned us to be — a place of prosperity, opportunity and community.

May we all honor her legacy.

Karl Stauber is the president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Danville Register & Bee.

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