Dave Smith, On the Road to the Rick Russell Award

Dave Smith and Jim Ellis are recipients of the Rick Russell Memorial Membership Award for the year 2023. The Legacy Magazine came up with an intriguing angle on the story. How about if both men told “his story” about the pathway from a youngster to a man honored in his circle of men. Below is the story from Smith, a man in the men’s circle since 1994.

Dave Smith has had many leadership roles over his long MDI career. For the last four years he has held the position of International S1, first under our former president Ben Estes, and most recently as a member of the current International Core Team. He was completed with honour and was one of two men recognized with the Rick Russell award at the recent leadership summit in Atlanta. Smith accepted the invitation to serve without hesitation and proceeded to transform the position of S1 at all levels of MDI. What was once an administrative support position became, with Smith’s guidance and context, a clear leadership position. S1’s were trained to be leaders under Smith and were crucial in guiding us onto Zoom during Covid. The Rick Russell award is not so much about the do or what the man has accomplished. It is more about the be: who and how he shows up in service of our Mission and Vision. Smith is a quiet, extremely competent leader who is passionately committed to what we do at all levels. He brought discipline, humour, insight and value to our leadership meetings. We are grateful for his service and leadership.

Ian Kennard
MDI President

I am honoured to be one of the recipients of the Rick Russell Award for 2023. Let me tell you a little bit about myself in leadership.

Early Days

Dave Smith – lead vocals.

I was never into sports, and I don’t have experience with role models from coaches. My grade school report card comments from teachers generally sounded like “Can do better,” which really means “Not an extrovert.” The public school system is really geared in favour of extroverted children.

In high school, I was a member of the Drama Club. Under the leadership of the school librarian, I grew to lead small groups of new recruits. Many of my band of students had more creative talent than I had, yet they looked to me for instruction on what to tackle next.

In grade 11, my French teacher had a stroke, and the left side of his face went all droopy. He asked me to lead the French class by telling them (in English) what to read next and what exercises to do for homework. I was surprised and terrified of leading a class of my peers on a semi-daily basis, but soon it was normal. I met with the teacher once per week and delivered what he told me to deliver.

Working World

In my first customer service job, I worked in a private club preparing rooms for private parties. There were two of us who set up tables and linen and then instructed another team to set the tables with silver according to the menu. After a short while, my boss retired, and I assumed her position. There were several ladies in the table setting team who were jealous of me in my position of power. In this job, I learned about how to lead people by challenging them all equally.

I found my way into a technical writing job in the software industry. I was working for a small company that was purchased by a large multi-national company. The large company had standards around which authoring tool to use. We were using Microsoft Word and they wanted me to convert everything over to Adobe FrameMaker. I didn’t know anything about the Adobe product, so I asked the boss if we could hire three or four writers on contract who already knew FrameMaker. Suddenly, I was leading a team of writers. I treated them like they were table setters and handed out jobs to them and checked their progress every day. I did a small portion of the work while I learned how to use the authoring tool. 

I had joined a men’s team by this time. One of my contract writers was failing his assignments because he didn’t know the writing tool that well. I knew that he needed the job. He came to me and admitted that he was failing. I told him that I had chosen him and wanted him to keep going. I told him that I, too, was just now learning how to use the tool. He was moved to tears because he had fully expected me to fire him.

I admired him for the way that he put everything on the line to ask for help.


The Smiths.

My first marriage ended in divorce after one year. Being young at the time, I thought that my role in the marriage was to give her everything she wanted. After she left me, I was devastated and consumed with figuring out how to fix the relationship. I have since learned that this event was the beginning of my curiosity around how human relationships work and how teams work.

Leading Teams of Men

I am in my second marriage now and we have two children. I was married for nine years before I took the Sterling Men’s Weekend. The Weekend and subsequent team meetings taught me what my place is in my family. 

In the Sterling organization, I was recognized as a leader and, within a year, I was the International Weekend Administration leader. Men believed in me and had patience to teach me about leadership. Even from Toronto, Canada, I had a direct connection to the Sterling Institute. I was leading meetings with Administration leaders from Boston, New York, Atlanta and California. I was flown across North America to attend international meetings. This was within 12 months of completing the Men’s Weekend.

This all happened in 1994. During one of the international meetings, I had the honour of meeting Rick Russell and seeing him in action leading men. He taught me what it looks like to lead from my heart.

Many times, I stepped up to lead my men’s team. I learned what keeps a team together and when to step back from trying to change what was happening to the team. At the time, I was not interested in division or any leadership that was higher than my team. My team needed me and what I had to give them.

As a team leader, I started getting messages and demands from the man who was leading “Team Development.” His method was not working for me. He was making demands of me as a leader when he didn’t know what I was dealing with on my men’s team. After this man’s position was complete, I stepped up to this division job to help new team leaders.

At the division level, I had a regional leader to report to. I didn’t like how he was leading and, when the opportunity arrived, I stepped up to take his position.

As a Regional Team Development leader, I received lots of advice from men who were not leaders on how I should be running the regional program. I didn’t take their advice when it didn’t fit with my vision of the program. On the other hand, I had great admiration for the man who was running the International Team Development program. I learned from him, and from the team of regional leaders, that my job as a leader was to touch, move and inspire men into greatness.

Directing his own life.

What I like about leading teams of leaders is that the job is about creating a space where men can step up to be powerful and intentional team leaders.

When this man completed his leadership tenure, I was offered the international leadership role and took it.

Soon after I took the international role, the whole Team Development program was retired and I was out of a job.

I was offered the International S1 job and I took it because I knew the men on the International Leadership Core Team and believed that I could make a difference for them and make the life of the MDI President easier. Along with these responsibilities, I led a capable team of regional S1s. I enjoyed making relationships with those men and serving the regions through their efforts.

I am eternally grateful that men saw the potential for leadership in me. Men believed in me and had the patience to take time with me and be truthful with me.

As a leader, you will get lots of opportunities to make leadership decisions and experience challenges where you can learn how to be a better leader. If you are thinking of taking a leadership job, go for it.

You don’t have to be perfect. Just be honest.

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