From the leadership

Dan Calarco on why he gets to know his colleagues first as people, a lesson he credits to a beloved friend and mentor

This past March, I lost a very good friend and former colleague who had been battling cancer.

Moustafa Mourad was an incredible person, who dedicated his life to helping poor and marginalized communities around the world. He and I were the first two employees of the international arm of a non-profit organization we started, and we spent about seven years working together. Much of the leader I am today, I owe to him. 

Making Groucho proud. Moustafa Mourad favored suspenders, a bowtie, glasses, and a mustache. 

Moustafa was the kind of person who had magnetism—everyone he met wanted to be his friend and to work with him because he was such a kind, funny, and loving person. He was also a genuine character: Standing barely over 5 feet tall, always clad in suspenders and a bowtie, with Groucho Marx glasses and a mustache, he immediately made an impression. 

"When we can relate to each other and develop an individual bond, that’s when we look forward to going to work, and because we and our co-workers are invested in each other’s success, we can achieve great things.”  

I would typically write his speeches and presentations, and he would give them to community groups in which our non-profit had projects. He would usually get up in front of a group of community members, say a few words about how he was so pleased to be there, tell some anecdote about himself that would tangentially relate to the community or the people, and then give the presentation I prepared for him. 

We had been working together for about two years when our organization finally had enough work that I would have to take the lead on some projects because there wasn’t time for us to travel together; we’d have to split up. I felt ready—I had watched Moustafa give our presentations a hundred times. I had even written them, and I would prepare all the briefing documents for him, so I knew the communities like the back of my hand. 

Travel buddies. Calarco and Mourad explored the world as the first two employees of the international arm of a non-profit organization they started. 

On a snowy winter afternoon on a First Nations reserve in northern Canada, I gave my first presentation to a community group. It went horribly—no one wanted to participate in our project. That night I sat in my motel room thinking of what I did differently from Moustafa. I realized those funny little anecdotes he would tell had a profound purpose—they were what drew people to him, why folks wanted to work with him, and how he would relate to the community. 

The next day, I had my second community meeting. I started things off talking a bit more about myself, how I grew up on Long Island in the 1980s and was an ardent supporter of the New York Islanders, who had won four consecutive Stanley Cups. I brought this up because this was a hockey town; nearly everyone in this small community played hockey, and they were Edmonton Oilers fans who, also in the 1980s, won four Stanley Cups. 

We immediately started joking and teasing each other (the Islanders’ four cups were in a row, the Oilers’ were more recent), and the meeting went a hundred times better than the last. Around town, people would call over their friends when they saw me to say, “Hey, this guy is the Islanders fan I was telling you about!” And we’d have long conversations in their living rooms about hockey, technology, and their lives. 

Let's shake on it. Mourad, center, taught Calarco that showing a little humanity—being relatable—is important in every aspect of life. 

Over my career I would then always find a new way to try to relate to the communities I was working with. One of the most rewarding was when I was working in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. My grandfather had served there in World War II, and when I relayed that to the community members I met, they asked me to come back the next day and had a small ceremony so they could present me a medal, ribbon, flag, and certificate of appreciation for his service. It was incredibly moving, and when I told my 94-year-old grandfather about it, he beamed with pride. 

Fast forward a few years and I’m in IU’s executive leadership institute, where I took the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment, to learn that my No. 1 strength was individualization. When one of the coaches heard this, she asked me, “I bet you looked at the roster of this class ahead of time, didn’t you?” I responded, “I didn’t just look at it, I made flash cards with everyone’s name, picture, and something about them, so I could better relate to them!” 

Individualization has become a key part of who I am, even though it doesn’t come naturally to me. I work at it every day, and I truly believe in finding a way to relate to each person I’m working with. I miss Moustafa dearly and was devastated that I never got to say farewell or attend his funeral because of the pandemic. Still, the memories and lessons I get to keep. 

I look forward in my new role to getting to know my team more as people. To trade stories with Beth Norzinskay about our crafting projects, hear from Kelly Zimmerman about her latest movie night, or maybe one day when it’s safe, actually throw a frisbee with Jake George again.  

Because when we can relate to each other and develop an individual bond, that’s when we look forward to going to work, and because we and our co-workers are invested in each other’s success, we can achieve great things.