Ann DeBusk: A leader of leaders

DeBusk honored for fostering and enriching a community of involved citizens

The success of any organization, business or community is largely dependent on how its top leader provides inspiration and motivation to the people they lead. But who equips and inspires leaders? For Palo Alto resident Ann DeBusk, embracing the role of a leader of leaders is second nature.

Both her parents emphasized the importance of giving back and were role models in taking leadership positions in many community organizations in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up before moving to the Stanford University campus with husband Bob DeBusk.

"It's critical to have a community where there are volunteers who serve on boards and commissions and people who care about the community," DeBusk said. "I think you need to continue to feed a community with enlightened, committed people who are willing to step up and take responsibilities."

This instilled sense of enriching her community has earned her this year's Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award.

After graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelor's degree in history and earning a master's degree in education from Stanford, DeBusk taught high school history in the Newton School District in Massachusetts and the Sequoia Unified School District in Redwood City for years. When she left teaching, she started becoming involved in the Palo Alto community, first with Leadership Palo Alto where she was the executive director. Then she founded American Leadership Forum - Silicon Valley, which brought together established leaders across sectors, geography and ethnicities to work for the common good of their communities, as well as Silicon Valley, she said.

DeBusk guided Leadership Palo Alto and its first class of local leaders through its inaugural year, 1987. The 10-day immersion program, which occurs over a year, provides fellows with an in-depth understanding of Palo Alto life, including local economic, social and government challenges, according to its website.

Each class learns about the major issues in Palo Alto, DeBusk said, and "creates what they want to learn, and then the goal is for people to get more involved in the community."

Although DeBusk enjoyed working with Leadership Palo Alto, she knew the critical issues were regional and "that you can accomplish a lot through a regional approach." So DeBusk went on to start and head American Leadership Forum - Silicon Valley with Joe Jaworski after Roger Heyns, then-president of the Hewlett Foundation, recommended her.

"You can't have a community without volunteers and people who care, so (Leadership Palo Alto) was on a local arena, and American Leadership Forum took people from the whole valley," and its goal was "to get people committed to working for the common good," she said.

DeBusk proceeded to build American Leadership Forum's core program in 1988. She established a board -- with no resources -- and in 1989, she launched the organization's first class of fellows. The 21-day program, which happens over a year, brings together senior-level people from all sectors, including mayors, CEOs, nonprofit executives, members of Congress and the state legislature, and other business and civic leaders for monthly classes and a six-day wilderness retreat.

Program participants (who are nominated) are empowered to serve as catalysts in their communities to encourage regional stewardship and collaborative problem-solving to address public concerns, according to its website.

"My great joy was not only when the first class came together and met, but also I could see the very high-quality people and (I knew) this was going to be very powerful," she said. "And then in the wilderness, getting to the mountain top together ... with that first class was just very moving because that was my vision the whole time: to get there and then things would fall into place."

DeBusk knew it was going to be a challenge, but the people involved made it easy for her to provide the guidance and spirit to ensure the organization's mission to build a better Silicon Valley community would be accomplished.

"We really became a family," she added.

Her genuine interest in other people and in building communities has made her an effective leader, she said.

"It's one of my big commitments, to listen and to really care about these people, and life is pretty lonely if you're really high up in an organization and so this was a place where they could share thoughts," she said.

DeBusk left her post as American Leadership Forum president in 2000 but remains involved with the organization as a senior fellow and adviser. The group celebrated its 25th anniversary in October 2013, having graduated 550 people.

"It's lovely to see it continue to thrive and good people bring in more good people," DeBusk said.

And as for her award, she said she's "honored to be honored."

"I know so many people who have been (lauded) in the past ... people who I admire a lot and like a lot," she said. "I think the group that is being honored now is a really good group."

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees.

Allan and Mary Seid: A family affair

Gib Myers: Nurturing startups, philanthropists -- and bison on the range

Bob Harrington: Neighborhood champion praised for commitment to bettering the community

Barbara Carlitz: Kudos to a serial board chair

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