iMahal Interview Series:
June 26, 2000
Hello Jim. Thanks for talking with us. As you know, we conduct interviews with successful people so that the iMahal community can learn from them. From what we understand, you are a teacher, a coach, an author, an MBA, and now a social entrepreneur. That's a lot for one lifetime. How much of this was planned, anyway?
The social entrepreneur piece emerged naturally out of my ten years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. My experience with youth sports taught me there was a huge potential to make a positive difference in the lives of kids, who spend many hours on the athletic field. And my time at the Stanford GSB introduced me to lots of successful entrepreneurs, for-profit as well as nor-for-profit. After a while I thought, "Well, if they can do it, why can't I?"
The interesting thing about this is that almost all the time I was following a path that was exciting and meaningful for me without too much thought for what the next step was. And when I started Positive Coaching Alliance, all the various roads I had been on came together in a surprising way: PCA combines education, sports, writing, business and public service in a way that is very exciting for me personally.iMahal: Much of your working life has been focused on helping people to make the world a better place. Were there any particular influences in your early life -- family, friends, or role models -- that instilled in you the drive to do good works?
Thompson: My father was a farmer activist in North Dakota. In the early part of the 20th century the corporate mills in Minneapolis were conspiring to deprive farmers of a fair price for their goods. He got involved with the Farmers' Union movement in the upper Midwest to band farmers together to gain some market power. But my parents were divorced when I was two so he didn't have much day-to-day influence on me -- but his change-the-world genes must have transferred!
In college I came under the influence of a professor of eastern philosophy at Macalester College in Minnesota named David White. He introduced me to M. K. Gandhi and the idea of nonviolence (ahimsa and satyagraha) which has had a tremendous influence on me to this day.
Dr. White grew up in Oklahoma and became so excited about Gandhi's ideas that he refused to go into military service during World War II. He was later pardoned by President Truman but he served time in prison because of his pacifist beliefs. I was so impressed with this very soft-spoken man who seemed to be the happiest person I had ever met.
By the way, one of the most exciting events of my life was a trip to India that my family and I took to India with a group of Stanford MBA students in 1990. To visit the house in Bombay where Gandhi stayed, the garden where he took his last steps, the memorial for him in New Delhi, it was overwhelming.
Later, at Stanford I got to know John Gardner who founded Common Cause and several other major national nonprofit organizations, and authored several important books about leadership, community and self-renewal. He became my mentor and I repeatedly sought his advice when I began to think about starting Positive Coaching Alliance. John has been an inspiration to me because he has influenced so many people throughout his more than 50 years of public service. There are literally thousands of people alive today who consider him to be their mentor. As I think about it, I have probably consciously or unconsciously patterned much of my life since I met him on his example.