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Leadership’s Houbolt to step down in 2013

Jan Houbolt remembers every face and every name of every person who has gone through his Greater Baltimore Committee Leadership program, and the year they enrolled. That’s 54 participants a year for the past 24 years.

Jan Houbolt has been the executive director of the GBC’s Leadership program for 24 years.

And now it’s now Houbolt’s turn to be remembered.

At the end of next year, he will retire as executive director of The Leadership, a 10-month program that facilitates discussion among Baltimore-area professionals to address key challenges in the region. He will leave a legacy evident throughout the entire area, as reflected in the individuals he has mentored — who called him “a tremendous leader” and “a phenomenon” — and the impact they went on to have in their communities.

“I can’t think of anybody with his unique combination of strengths, including passion for solving problems and for people, and his deep sense of humanity,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who this year was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. “He has taught so many of us how to live life seriously, but not take it seriously. He is the best example of authenticity I know.”

Hrabowski, a member of the Leadership class of 1985, said he met Houbolt decades ago when the executive director invited him to address a new Leadership class. They made a lasting connection, Hrabowski said.

Houbolt said in our increasingly polarized society, his overarching mission has been to break down barriers that impede effective dialogue on sensitive but crucial topics, such as race or education.

“The thing I love about this [program] is, we’re able to bring together people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum to create an environment where they can explore more deeply the issues that Baltimore is facing and have them leaving feeling motivated to go out with the knowledge and new relationships they made to improve the quality of life in Baltimore,” Houbolt said Wednesday.

The impact of that approach, said The Leadership Board of Directors Chair Paul Wolman, has been “exponential.”

“He’s not afraid to stir the pot,” Wolman, president and CEO of Feats Inc. and a member of the 1997 Leadership class, wrote in an email. “I’ve seen him effectively wake people up after 30 years of accepting what they have always known. He seems to be able to help people move from familiarity to comfort to trust — to that place where the real conversations and open struggles take place — that place where real magic can happen.”

Mark Furst is a 2005 alumnus of the program and co-chair of the search committee tasked with finding Houbolt’s replacement.

“Jan was never directive with people,” said Furst, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland. “He never told you what you should do, but he led you on a path of self-discovery. What GBC Leadership has done under Jan’s leadership is help people chart their path for how they can make a difference.”

Houbolt said he doesn’t claim “universal success,” but according to those who know him, he’s come pretty close.

“His legacy, I think, is spread through the almost 1,000 alumni who have come through the program under his wing and have branched out and done immeasurable good for the community,” Furst said. “He’s done as much to spur conversation and introspection as anybody else I can think of in Greater Baltimore — conversation about really important issues.”

One of Houbolt’s strengths is his obvious zeal for the program, several people said. And indeed, Houbolt makes no distinction between what he does for a living, and what he lives to do.

“I’m lucky that my avocation is the same as my vocation,” he said.

As for that famous memory, Houbolt acknowledges his “peculiar” ability to recall details, but insists his memory is selective.

“I keep slipping and calling my dog by my son’s name,” he said, laughing.

Houbolt is a graduate of the program himself — he enrolled in 1984, its inaugural year. At the time, he was director of the Maryland Food Committee, the organization that created the Maryland Food Bank. He has also been a professor of sociology at the University of Baltimore and the College of Westbury, in New York.

After he completed the program, he realized how much he would enjoy the executive director position, he said, adding “and they were foolish enough to give it to me,” in 1989.

“I didn’t think I would be here this long,” he said. “It just turned out to be such a wonderful experience.”

In late spring, the GBC Leadership board formed a 10-person search committee comprised of program alumni from a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise — very much like each class, which Furst said was important to board members.

After initial preparations over the summer, committee members have launched the search process into high gear, Furst said. They have put out an alumni questionnaire and will collect input from stakeholders throughout the community.

“We’ll be getting a feel for where they see The Leadership moving forward so that when we develop a job description, we make sure that we find someone who can build on the legacy that Jan has nurtured,” Furst said.

The search committee will begin accepting applications for the position in January.

“We’ll need someone who appreciates the importance…of creating an environment that encourages participants to open their minds and listen to different perspectives,” Hrabowski said. “I wish for the nation the environment we have in The Leadership.”