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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

LNJ Part X: New Beginnings

December 2015 – Commencement
This blog is the final entry in a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the last several weeks I’ve posted a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.

This is the final blog entry for my year as part of Lead NJ’s 2015 class. It’s been a year of learning and listening for me, and a year of meeting people from all walks of life who are leading in extraordinary ways; it’s bittersweet to be graduating.

At Lead NJ, the outgoing and incoming classes are graduated and inducted in the same ceremony, providing a glimpse of what’s to come for new classes and a chance for the soon-to-be alumni to welcome newcomers and share the still-fresh experiences that we’ve had. Inside the auditorium we sit with our classes; our side is laughing, chatty. We all express in one way or another how fast the year has gone, how we’re all a bit sad that we won’t be seeing each other each month anymore. The new class is quieter, a little hesitant, as the commencement begins.

understand tilesSeek First to Understand

Bill Pappalardo (LNJ ’13) of JBA Architecture and Consulting gave a keynote speech in which he shared some of the leadership lessons he reaped from his experiences as an LNJ Fellow. Those included the importance of mentoring high school- and college-aged students by encouraging them to push through difficult times; empowering colleagues to do their best and to take risks; and to “upset your protégés” by challenging them, by poking at their arguments and beliefs in order to push them to question things outside of their experiences. Pappalardo recalled one of the directives he was given as an incoming LNJ Fellow: Seek first to understand.

As Pappalardo shared the lessons he’d learned I began reflecting on my own. Some lessons were immediately apparent and arrived as “Ah-ha!” moments. Others coalesced only through this blog project, which required that I sift through and synthesize the information I’d absorbed and forced me to seek broader contexts in which to position what I’d learned. There were times over the course of my year in Lead NJ when I actively sought to understand, and many more where I now realize I was pushed to do so unconsciously. Some of the key lessons I’ve learned this year are to:

  • Look at my assumptions of what I think is important to understand and question if those assumptions would change with a deeper understanding of an issue;
  • Seek out diverse and conflicting viewpoints to my own. I will learn more about my challenges with the help of others, and collaboration and communication across fields will get me closer to solutions that work for the greatest number of people;
  • Reframe risk – we overestimate the consequences of possible failure;
  • Embody a “Yes, and…” mentality – try lots of things. The greatest change-makers are the ones who fail over and over again, but they also have the best chance of discovering what works;
  • Stay flexible – this will let me leverage the wisdom of other perspectives and my own discoveries;
  • Dive deep – understand the systems that make up our world.  Doing so will help me to change them;
  • Share my story and listen to the stories of others – they are messy, complicated and personal.  This will lead to true understanding;
  • It is my responsibility to push for change.

Leadership-in-Action-2014-wordle449x303Leadership Without Action is Sterile

As each member of our class was called up to receive the graduation certificate, we were congratulated by Lead NJ President Mark Murphy and several board members. Each of us in turn then shared with our class and the class of 2016 our Leadership in Action projects, which I focused on in my July blog entry.

“Leadership is an orientation and an attitude used to size up and seize opportunity,” Mark said as he introduced the Leadership in Action projects. “Leadership without action is sterile,” he continued.  I was struck by the breadth and depth of the projects my classmates will soon undertake. Some projects are directly related to my classmates’ work, others were based on personal passions. Here are a few to illustrate the range of what our class will tackle:

  • Supporting foreign-born and undocumented immigrants with affordable financial products;
  • Creating a pro bono program at the law firm for which my classmate works to provide a structure for colleagues to give back;
  • Implementing the use of driving simulators in schools to reduce teenage driving fatalities;
  • Teaching children to be “Upstanders” not “Bystanders” when witnessing bullying by speaking up and speaking out;
  • Making New Jersey one of the top ten states to have charging stations for electric cars;
  • Involving very young children in volunteer opportunities to build a habit of community service and giving back;
  • Creating a pathway to allow high school students to graduate with a water operator’s license;
  • Providing programs in which young people can design our “future cities” that they will then be able to build;
  • And so many more…

I’ll be working to strengthen the bonds between generations of Lead NJ alumni to foster collaboration and innovative partnerships around the state, because I believe we can have incredible collective impact on the challenges that face us.

just-the-beginningBring All of You

As I cheered each of my classmates I took great delight in the joy we expressed as a group. We celebrated the contributions of each individual, encouraged each other, made each other laugh. Yes, the bonds we shared were built from a respect born out of thoughtful engagement with each other, out of a willingness to share knowledge and experiences in a civil way. But those bonds will last because we also followed the charge we were given a year ago this month by Mark: “Bring all of you,” he urged, meaning that we should bring our stories, bring the experiences that have made us who we are, bring our frustrations and passions, bring our prejudices, assumptions, our willingness to listen and learn. If we do, we will better understand each other, and, buoyed by that understanding, we will be able to lead more intelligently, compassionately and innovatively, together.

I’ll close with Mark’s words to the class of 2016: “We are cursed to live in a cynical age, an age where we hear, ‘These problems are too big, too complicated to solve. Why bother?’ We, together, stand in defiance of that.”

It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of Lead NJ and to learn alongside such tremendously talented, compassionate and inspiring leaders. I wish the best to future classes and look forward to the commencement of this new chapter as a member of the Lead NJ alumni.

With gratitude,

-Kacy O’Brien, LNJ ’15


Image: Listen, Understand, Act by Steven Shorrock, Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site.  For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at:

Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.

lead nj logo   Dodge JPG



“Attending Asbury Park’s Call to Collaboration was my launch for my girl-centered mentoring program. It was an informative and educational experience that I will forever value. I appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with community members from all walks of life.”

– Angela Ahbez-Anderson – Board Member & four-term President, Asbury Park School District (Asbury Park)