The S.B. Questionnaire: Ken Saxon

Talking Nonprofit Success and Self-Care with the Creator of Leadership From Within

Ken Saxon at his Santa Barbara office.
Paul Wellman

Last year, after 13 years of running the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, I was feeling a bit burnt out. But then I joined an amazing group of 28 leaders from around Southern California to take part in five immersive retreats that focused on encouraging self-care and building trustworthy relationships in the nonprofit sector. It’s been reinvigorating.

The program, called “Courage to Lead,” was developed by Ken Saxon. “Executive directors in the nonprofit world like to take care of everybody else’s needs but subordinate their own,” explains Ken, who also runs the Emerging Leaders and Katherine Harvey Fellows programs under his Leadership from Within organization.

“When people talk about burnt-out, to me, at its core, that comes from a feeling of being alone,” continues Ken, whose retreat sessions help people like me find common threads of need amongst my unique set of colleagues. “There’s so much we can achieve in collaboration, when I see the quality of relationship that comes out of our work, when I hear of people helping each other with issues they’re dealing with. People trust each other.”

The success of Ken’s work can be seen in the ascension of such graduates as State Assembly Member Monique Limon and City Councilmember Jason Dominguez, among many others. “I see the nonprofit sector as a network, and we’re investing in this network – in the leaders of the network – to grow their capability, to grow their sustainability to make our community a better place,” he elaborates.

Ken himself is a tall, centered, loving, and sweet man who likes to read poetry out loud. His expressive eyes and soothing demeanor are the perfect attributes to encourage a group of driven, hard-working personalities to let down their guard, trust one another, and get some work done. “When you’re in a trusting relationship, you’re able to get below people’s own agenda, and come together,” says Ken.

Originally from Baltimore, he studied European history at Princeton University and then worked in Dallas, Texas for the largest real estate developer in America. He came to California 30 years ago to attend Stanford’s business school and then built an “old-fashioned” warehouse storage business in Silicon Valley. Though he says the company was “not very sexy,” it was very successful. “I love solving people’s problems, but what interested me most was the people side of business,” he explains. “Getting a great team together, investing in them. I always felt the best investment we could do was in people.”

As we part ways, Ken, who is doing so much good for public-minded leaders in our region, tells me, “I have a natural quantitative mind. My brain is analytical and logical, but ultimately people are far more interesting to me than numbers.”

This nurturer of leaders answers the Proust questionnaire.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I just read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. A couple of things I strongly identified with were all the ways he brought people together in community and mutual betterment, and his commitment to his own development and self-knowledge. He also lived a long life filled with meaningful work and relationships, which I hope to do.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Reflectiveness. I’m nothing if not intentional.

What is your current state of mind?

Grateful and hopeful is my nature, but as someone who passionately believes in civility in public life and that America is better when we celebrate all people and work together across difference, I’m somewhat perplexed. In this particular moment in time, grace and civility and compromise are not being rewarded, at least on a national level. But I’m ever the optimist….

What do you most like about your job?

I like getting to know and invest in nonprofit and community leaders who care for so many. I admire their choices about what to do with their lives. Without leaders like this, our world would be a lot colder and more disconnected than it is, and there would be much more human suffering.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Hanging with my family and dog, spending time in mountains, and eating McConnell’s Ice Cream. In the last few years, I’ve taken an annual trip into distant wilderness: hiking in Patagonia, kayaking in Southeast Alaska, climbing and biking in the Dolomites, and trekking the Inca Trail in Peru. I love adventuring in these gorgeous natural places, but part of the happiness in this kind of travel is that it forcefully disconnects me from my work and electronic devices.

What is your greatest fear?

The loss of people closest to me. I know love and loss go hand in hand, but I can’t think about it.

Who do you most admire?

People who dedicate their lives to serving others quite different from themselves, and who do so with courage and persistence. A couple people that come to mind are Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles and Bryan Stephenson in Alabama. And the fact that they were both able to write their tales so gorgeously (Tattoos on the Heart and Just Mercy) is the icing on the cake.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Our house on the Riviera. Each morning nature offers up a one-of-a-kind work of art right outside our window. It takes my breath away every day.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Earnest and authentic. Like the participants in our Courage to Lead and Emerging Leaders programs that I help run.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Disingenuousness and self-righteousness. (Think Ted Cruz.)

What do you most value in friends?

Honesty and laughter.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I ask a lot of questions. Some people appreciate it, but to some others I think it’s really annoying.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be a great joke teller, but I just don’t have the gift. I can’t even remember any.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m trying to change things about myself all the time. I’m encouraged by the discoveries around neuroplasticity in the adult brain and habit formation. Most recently, I’ve become an avid reader again after many years of not making much time for it.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Co-parenting two caring, thoughtful, kind human beings.

Where would you most like to live?

Exactly where I do.

What is your most treasured possession?

An abstract family portrait my wife had painted by a local artist, based on a drawing my son made. It has great sentimental value to me.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My wife. I’m very lucky to share my life with someone who makes me laugh just about every day. And now that Jon Stewart is retired, she has no competition!

What is your motto?

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

On what occasion do you lie?

I’m pretty obsessively honest, partly (to be really honest) because I’m such a bad liar!


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