A message from Colin Rule, CBI Board Chair
Twenty years ago, as I sat in the back of CBI’s Mount Auburn office trying to tame the recipient address database for CBI’s newspaper Consensus, I had no idea that one day I’d get the chance to serve as chair of CBI’s board – or that my friend and officemate, Stacie, would take on the job of managing director at the same time. My biggest challenge back then was trying to get the copier to work. But here we are, and I couldn’t be more honored. I was a huge fan of CBI back when I was in graduate school in the late 1990s (I still remember feeling star struck when I passed senior staff in the hallways), but, if anything, I’m a bigger fan of CBI today than I was back then.
It also would have been hard, back in 1998, to imagine the state of our world today. There was such a sense of optimism then: humanity seemed to be on the march toward a brighter, more enlightened future. The Internet was a relatively new phenomenon at that point, and many pontificated that it would usher in a new era of understanding and connection around the world. It seemed like the dawn of a new age of enlightenment (remember, this was before Tinder or Facebook or mean tweets).
Well, as we know, that’s not quite the way things have worked out. In spite of CBI’s great work over the past few decades, our society is now more divided than it has been at any point during my lifetime. Every time I turn on the news, I brace myself for a new blast of outrage and/or accusations. It feels like we have leaders who not only don’t understand the importance of consensus building, but who are actively undermining it at every turn. Social norms that have provided a foundation of trust for generations are now routinely flouted, and each side seems to harbor such suspicion of the other that we can’t even find a common set of facts that we can use to start a conversation.
And now, on top of that, we're reeling from the ramifications of COVID-19, which has further isolated us in our homes, making in-person consensus building feel like a relic of a distant past. People who have long eschewed the use of technology are now being forced to use it as a result of shelter-in-place orders. We see daily reports of the hardships arising from the pandemic, and we want to help, but we’re told we should just stay at home to slow the rate of infection.
In an environment like this one, it’s easy to get discouraged. It can feel like building consensus is impossible when we’re isolated by a virus, all truth is relative, and leaders are purging and demonizing their opponents instead of listening to them. Or even that consensus building is so yesterday: we just need to pick a side and join the battle instead.
But, in fact, I believe that the work CBI does is more important now than it has ever been.
Once the baton of the board chair was passed from Hannah Riley Bowles to me, I called several of my friends and colleagues who had previously held the position (such as Michael Wheeler, Michael Lewis, and Susan Carpenter). They gave me great advice around how to add value to the great work being done by CBI every day. But what I took away from those discussions was that each of them had faced unique challenges during the period of their tenure as chair, challenges that were closely tied to the state of society at the time. Many of those challenges seemed daunting back then, but CBI persevered and even become stronger as a result of confronting, addressing, and resolving them.
In the midst of these ruminations, I recently received news that my fellow CBI board member Francis McGovern passed away at his home just a little north of where I now sit here in California. This came as a shock, because Francis had participated in the CBI board meeting just a few months ago, and he was his witty and gracious self. It doesn’t yet feel real that he is gone.
If you never met him, Francis was a true gentleman and a pioneer in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). His innovative work as a special master and mediator working on more than 100 complex mass tort claims gained him international respect and renown. For almost fifty years, Francis played a key role in finding resolutions to many large cases that others considered intractable. As his friend and partner Kenneth Feinberg put it, “Francis McGovern was a founding father of the modern ADR movement.”
Francis also modeled the values of our field: warm, open, empathetic, encouraging, and optimistic. He was a person who loved ideas and was generous with his time. He also had a great sense of humor, which made him very fun to be around and a great collaborator. His colleagues and friends at Duke Law School noted that Francis was almost always the smartest person in the room, but he never acted that way. He always gave others credit, even when the ideas were his – and he never got discouraged.
Francis’ legacy and inspiration are a model for us in confronting the challenges of our era and forging ahead with CBI’s mission. Just like Francis, we can’t let ourselves get discouraged, and we can’t let the cynicism of our age distract us from our mission. We have to stay optimistic, encouraging, and resolute. One of the biggest challenges of building consensus is that it never ends; there is always more to be done. We need to rise above the struggles of our era and innovate new approaches that leverage all the tools at our disposal.
The lessons learned from CBI’s work and the work of the ADR field more broadly are as true today as they were 20 years ago, when I sat in the back office stacking old copies of Consensus. We have to stay focused, keep our eyes on the prize, and maintain a holistic perspective – because this era will soon pass, and there will be a lot of rebuilding to do. CBI will be at the forefront of this rebuilding, and I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get to it alongside everyone at CBI.