(Note: An education fund has been established to ensure the future education of Dr. Guillot’s 10-yr-old son, Spencer. For more information and to make a contribution, please visit: GoFundMe.com/SpencerGuillotFund)
Thirty five years ago I wrote a dozen or so essays for my high school English teacher during my Junior year. Tonight for my friend and mentor, I’ll write one more.
Dr. Michael Guillot was a man of extraordinary talents, and the loss to the education community of New Orleans with his passing is incalculable. Educator, guidance counselor, education administrator, certified fund-raising executive, organizational development expert, non-profit advisor, education reformer, visionary, husband, father, NCAA hoops enthusiast, and friend only begin to scratch the surface.
What made Mike so uniquely special was that he took on all of those roles with infectious enthusiasm. The difficulty in eulogizing someone like Mike Guillot is that a simple list of accomplishments, of which he had many, doesn’t begin to convey the sense of how the people in his presence were made to feel. When you spoke to him about an organization, an idea, or you as an individual, you always walked away feeling as though greatness was not only possible – it was probable – if we were willing to push the limits of our talents. He knew that we were better and capable of more than we believed. He saw potential.
I first came to know Mike in 1980 as a junior at Archbishop Rummel High School in New Orleans, LA when he taught English composition. He was a demanding teacher. His 8 golden rules of composition were to be followed precisely, and even one violation garnered an automatic failing grade. As I recall, half of those compositions were written at home, but half were completed in class under the pressure of time constraints. I must say honestly that many a student mumbled the name Guillot under their breath in frustration when grades were distributed.
But Mike’s passion for quality of the written word and his genial demeanor helped ease the bite of his demanding approach. Also, it’s funny how the passing of time brings with it a greater appreciation in life for those who expected and demanded our best – those who understood that there were no shortcuts on a journey to excellence – and trying to convince ourselves otherwise was a terrible disservice to our higher selves, and to our creator.
A year later when Mike served as my Senior year homeroom teacher, I recall an intramural volleyball game. While other teachers sat casually in the stands and observed, I remember Mike standing by the net, clapping his hands exuberantly, urging us on, trying to rally his homeroom boys to victory. We went ahead and won game 1, lost momentum and lost game 2 in a close one, and got clobbered in game 3. I remembered thinking, “He sure does seem excited about this. It’s just an intramural volleyball game.” But for Mike, there were no mundane events, and no moments in life that didn’t matter. He was always present and engaged when he was in your presence. He always helped you understand that in life there were no dress rehearsals. Every day was the real deal.
Mike Guillot wore many hats during his career. He served as teacher, guidance counselor, and administrator at several schools in the New Orleans area. He began to develop expertise in assisting educational institutions and nonprofits in setting up their fundraising programs. In 1989 he founded Virtual Development Group, taking on the practice of fundraising consulting as a full-time endeavor. Over that 16 year period, he assisted so many education and nonprofit organizations in refining their mission, structuring their fundraising programs, and in providing guidance on board selection and management. For a time after relocating to North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he worked for nonprofit organizations there, including a stint as V.P. of Patron Services for the North Carolina Symphony. He also developed and taught a series of Nonprofit Management Program courses for Duke University’s Nonprofit Certificate Program. He would return to New Orleans education in 2010, while continuing his work toward a Ph.D from Antioch University, work that he completed in the fall of 2014. After a brief tenure at Holy Cross High School, he accepted the position as President of De La Salle High School in New Orleans in 2012, a position he held until his death.
Mike’s impact on De La Salle H.S. in three short years was impressive, where all of the skills that he had amassed during his career came together. With an eye for innovation and excellence, he began to build classrooms of the future centered around the 4 C’s of 21st century education: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking, serving as a model for education reform efforts. He was a rare visionary talent in education – someone with not only the understanding of the necessary changes needed in the classroom as the antiquated “repository of information model” of education gives way to skills and project-based learning – but also one with the skills, understanding, and drive to secure the resources and buy-in to turn ideas into reality.
It was in 1981-82 during my senior year at Rummel when Mike served as my homeroom teacher that we found the common joy that would serve as the link connecting our friendship through the years. When Mike played the annual Rummel teachers’ March Madness NCAA basketball pool in 1982, he shared his predictions and the daily standings with his students. I showed him my bracket as well, though he made it clear that the “official contest” was open only to teachers and alumni. I would later learn that some of the current students had coerced their teachers into allowing them to enter, but Mike held firm in his adherence to the rules, and I never let him forget that he was the cause of all of my office pool futility for years to come. In what I would later refer to as my March Madness “Guillot curse,” I became the “unofficial” winner of the 1982 Rummel teachers’ March Madness competition. After Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper that gave the NC Tar Heels the championship and a comparison of my bracket to the winner, Mike sheepishly proclaimed, “Wow, you would have won our pool.” I was doomed.
I joined the pool officially in 1983, my first year as an alum, but I had no chance. But each year in March, Mike and I would find one another, catch up on our careers, lives, and families, and join in whomever’s company or organization had an open competition. Some years we’d play my office pool, some years we’d play his, and some years when neither organization we were affiliated with held a March Madness competition, we’d just compete against each other for an oyster po-boy and a Barq’s root beer. One year it was me, his son Ted, and Mike – $5 bucks a head – winner take all.
But it really was just an excuse to reconnect.
I have been fortunate enough to have had a front row seat for Mike’s wonderful journey of excellence for more than 3 decades. As our friendship grew, I came to think of Mike as my compass. Whenever I came to a crossroads in life, I turned to him for guidance, encouragement, and support. Like any great guidance counselor, he didn’t give direct advice, only asked the right questions that made the choice of the appropriate path seem obvious. I have been successful in life by often choosing the more difficult path that would help challenge me and grow my skills, a “lifetime of continuous learning” model that Mike exemplified and that I tried to emulate. I will always view this brief social media exchange that Mike and I had during teacher appreciation week with great pride:
It would have been easy to lose touch after Hurricane Katrina rolled through New Orleans, but thankfully we serendipitously bumped into each other at a local bookstore shortly thereafter. We gave each other a hug, exchanged our stories, and updated contact info so that we could stay in touch.
Once when I had reached one of those crossroads in my professional career, I turned to Mike for counsel. I dropped out of corporate America for a time to pursue my passion for writing, public speaking, and consulting. And when I began to conduct research for a book espousing the life benefits of music education, I knew that I would want to get Mike’s perspective and thoughts and include them in the content for the book. You see, Mike was a great proponent of the arts in education, his own life shaped by his participation in choir as a youngster. Secondly, Mike was of a generation whose experiences were profoundly shaped by the music of their time, a “golden period” as Mike described it, where the arts provided a conduit for social change. I knew that Mike would express those thoughts in an articulate and clear manner.
When the book was completed, I sent him a note to thank him for his contribution. I confided that although I was proud of the work professionally and felt as though I was making a difference, I wasn’t sure if I could make a living. His response:
“As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success.
Talk to you soon,
It was comforting to hear Mike’s words and they gave me a sense of great clarity. I knew my mission at that point. Mike made it clear that when you had a calling to make a unique contribution to the world and challenge yourself, you should trust your intuition and not let fear rule the day. And things did work out. I would return to the corporate world a much more polished, skillful, and valuable employee years later, and I owe a great deal of that success to the lessons learned from my association with Mike.
As Mike migrated back to education and began to implement his own vision for education reform, I took great pride in his accomplishments. We shared a belief that sweeping changes were needed in 21st century education. I would later invite Mike to join a panel of New Orleans professionals whose success was influenced by music education that included Sheriff Newell Normand and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. Again, Mike so eloquently shared his thoughts and experiences, as well as his vision for 21st century education:
I was privileged to serve on a peer review group near the end of his Ph.D. work, just prior to his dissertation defense. I know that even when there were professional sacrifices in the pursuit of his degree, he persevered because he believed in the work and the need for a practical model for non-profit leadership.
I once spoke to Mike about his career as a non-profit and organizational development consultant. He said, “Craig, essentially I still consider myself a teacher.”
That was his life, inside or outside of the classroom.
When we experience a death that seems so untimely, we point to our understanding of God and the fact that we don’t always understand our higher power’s plan. I would like to believe that the impact of the life well lived by a great teacher can be measured by the students who were impacted. So what lessons do we take away from Mike’s exemplary example of life? Here are a few:
1. Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking – become the model of education that Mike envisioned – live those concepts and integrate them into your work every day. It would be a shame if the reforms that are so necessary in 21st century education that Mike had envisioned and begun to implement at De La Salle High School in New Orleans lost momentum with Mike’s death. I just saw an article in TIME magazine recently citing a survey of CEOs and once again it’s these so-called soft skills that students lack coming to the workplace. In my own experience I can say that I echo his sentiments, and we shared our like-minded thoughts on the subject often. I would implore not just the administration and teachers of De La Salle High School, but all of the educators in this city to explore 21st century skills and education reform models and to make meaningful changes to both the environment and curriculum to better prepare our young men and women for the future.
2. Read Mike’s dissertation and share with your colleagues in the non-profit world. It’s available for download at Antioch University’s website, and Mike was uniquely qualified to complete this work. The One Less Traveled By: A New Model for the Nonprofit Leadership outlines 10 building blocks for Nonprofit leadership, but there are life lessons for us all in this work, with Mike’s distinct voice evident throughout. He gave his heart and soul, his time, and he sacrificed in many ways to see this work through to the finish. When I think of how unfortunate it is that we lost Mike only months after he achieved this esteemed honor of education, I take solace in the fact that he DID complete the work prior to his death and that we can share his research.
Mike was intent on conducting practical research. Whether you’re involved in nonprofit leadership or not, read this work. The document is filled with great lessons of society, community, purpose, and life.
3. Emulate Mike’s model of a commitment to a lifetime of continuous learning. If we can all become ambassadors of learning, pursuing a cycle of an insatiable thirst for education followed by a burning desire to share our knowledge and experience for the good of others, we’ll honor his memory appropriately.
Mike’s approach to social media was an indicator of his thirst for knowledge. I had a conversation once with a mutual colleague regarding how frequently we enjoyed the material that Mike posted on his social media feeds. Thoughtful essays, music and art reflections, productivity tips, education ideas, leadership doctrines, and business case studies were commonplace if you connected with Dr. Guillot (@meguillot on Twitter). Social media like most anything, can be good or bad – a great resource of enlightenment or a breeding ground for negativity, criticism, and even hatred.
For someone with such an insatiable appetite for learning as Mike Guillot, social media and the web were simply tools for more efficiently accumulating and organizing knowledge based on your interests and professional needs (He once informed me of the newsfeed tool Zite with the enthusiasm of a child with a new Christmas toy).
Make social media an extension of the values, goals, aspirations, interests, and beliefs you hold dear in your offline existence.
4. Live every moment with enthusiasm for the task at hand and for the people who share those experiences with you. Mike contacted me once to let me know that one of the children of the members of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary had contacted him to discuss his sentiments regarding Music and Social Change that she’d seen in excerpts from my book. He wanted me to know that sometimes our actions can have very unexpected ripple effects in ways that we could never have envisioned, and provide affirmation for the validity of the work I’d completed.
Such is the nature of every interaction of every day. The manner in which we inspire and support each other’s efforts, ideas, and passions can have a multiplier effect on those whom they impact, and so it goes. Don’t ever lose sight of effect you can have, both positively and negatively, on those around you.
5. Make a commitment to the arts – in education and in life.
Mike Guillot was a believer in the importance of the arts, both for the critical role that they will play in 21st century learning and preparing our students for the creative economy for the future, but also for the role that they play in the quality of life. He shared his thoughts on both.
(I’ve included excerpts of Mike’s interview in the text below. Here’s the audio interview in its entirety:)
“I would sit in front of the stereo listening to Beatles songs, trying to figure out what they were playing. I still listen to their music and think they are as powerful an influence on art in general as anything that’s happened in the last 50 or 60 years,” he said.
“Art reflects life,” said Michael. “It was expressing that era of heightened change, of personal discontent, of grappling with core issues, of looking around you and not making a connection between what you saw and what you felt. Some of that had to do with justice issues, of race. Some of it had to do with equity issues – how come so and so has this and other people don’t? We claim to be the land of opportunity. Part of what we were striving for to identify in those days was how equitable was that opportunity.
“And of course, we were pressed on by a war,” he added.
“That war for me and many other Americans was not just an abstract exercise. We knew people who had lost their lives in that war and their families who had been affected. And of course I was at the age where I was eligible for the draft, so it was not an academic exercise. So to find any art form, but particularly one as accessible and as present as popular music to begin to tussle with those issues [was important].
“At the same time you had the Beatles; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Pete Seeger. You had the emergence of folk music becoming protest music, and popular music sort of echoing those themes. So Rock and Roll goes from just a mere expression of youthfulness to an expression of serious political and sociological issues,” he observed. “It was a profound time. Many researchers call these periods golden periods, where a convergence of things happens.
“You look at Athens, you look at Rome, you look at the Renaissance, periods where art and civic and commerce and all these things come together. The 60s and all that it meant represented that time in the world. The first time the world had to stop and look at itself since WWII, and not necessarily liking what it found. You had a lot of art trying to tussle with that.”
6. Commit to excellence in all that you do. Don’t settle for less than your best.
Mike took an important lesson from his own experience in music that would shape his life and career. When I asked Michael to articulate the takeaways of his experience with and observations of music that he now applies to business, his thoughts first returned to the vocal ensemble and of the lessons of his influential vocal instructor, Mr. Malcolm Breda.
“In high school I got involved in a superior vocal ensemble,” he recalled. “We had a wonderful director who taught me how to read music, Malcolm Breda. He saw what we were doing, even though we were a small high school, as being at the highest level. He wanted us to see this as a pursuit of excellence.
“We rehearsed all day long, and it really became an important organization in my small school. He taught us how to read music and how to understand what the intent of the composer was. He introduced us not only to the fun music to sing, but also some challenging pieces. I really enjoyed the four years that I spent there. He saw that excellence and joy could be part of the same pursuit,” he said. “That you could work hard, demand the best of yourself and the others you were with, and that would not diminish, it only enhanced your joy.
“That was an important lesson for me to learn. And I think it is [an important lesson] for young people where they tend to associate hard work with pain. I was taught that hard work meant that you could stand in front of a group of people and perform, and they would love you.”
Having the opportunity to observe world-class musicians up close has given him a greater understanding of and appreciation for their dedication to the little details that are considerable in aggregate.
“When you look at professional musicians or artists at any level, what you rarely see is the amount of time and energy it takes to get to that level of virtuosity. As a business person you begin to appreciate that. How many scales does Leo Kottke have to perfect to get to that level of excellence on the guitar? It’s unthinkable.
“Yet that’s indeed the journey in front of you. Every day you have to be willing to do a whole compendium of little things that all add up to greatness.”
7. Believe in the goodness of mankind. Every conversation that I can recall with Mike seemed to have a tone that would best be described as hopeful. When we spoke of the workplace of the future, he spoke of the humanity of the workplace and the idea that the workforce of the future would be driven not by technology, but by people. When we discussed education reform, he didn’t speak in cynical tones regarding the resistance to change that he might encounter, but rather about the excitement that could be created by the innovations that he envisioned.
It’s much easier to go through life with a positive attitude when you’re an optimist rather than a pessimist. And you’re more likely to inspire those around you.
8. Enjoy life’s simple pleasures. I once wrote in this forum that if you can’t find joy in the simple things in life, the joy you find in fancy, expensive things won’t last. Mike’s life exemplified those sentiments. His sharp, sarcastic yet playful wit, his love of college basketball and sports in general, his joy in strumming the guitar or singing a favorite song, and the beauty of stroll through the streets of New Orleans were some of Mike’s favorite things that I knew from our friendship. His family and friends echoed those themes in my conversations with them and in their written thoughts as well.
9. Courage is a virtue. In the best-selling book Good to Great, author Jim Collins discusses a principle that great companies exhibit known as the Stockdale paradox. The concept was derived from his conversations with Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war of the POW camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.
Quoting Admiral Stockdale, Collins writes, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
While Mike was an optimist with a wonderful attitude and great enthusiasm for his work, he understood that leadership carried with it a responsibility to confront and acknowledge realities of your situation and organization, and to make difficult decisions. Great leaders and great organizations understand that problems ignored and not addressed head on don’t simply fix themselves. They have the potential to drain your organization (or yourself) of its resources and sap employee or stakeholder morale.
10. Live a life of purpose. And finally, I’ll go back to the words that Mike shared at a time when I needed them most on mission and purpose: “As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success.”
Similarly, Mike referenced this quote in his dissertation work:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to
be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Threnody
In his nonprofit consulting work, Mike guided his clients toward focusing on a mission that would inspire their team, their current and future board members, and that donors would enthusiastically get behind and support. Once again, focus on purpose, resources will follow.
In the book Man in the Mirror: Solving the 24 Problems Men Face, author Patrick Morley discusses the difference between goals and purpose:
“Goals are what we do, purposes are why we do what we do…One of the most perplexing problems men face is that met goals tend to become an unrelated string of hollow victories…you have to keep setting new ones, because achieving them doesn’t provide any lasting satisfaction.
To be satisfying, our goals need to reflect our examination of life’s larger meaning. The plain truth is that most men either don’t know their purpose in life, or their purpose is too small. A man can do nothing more important than to wrestle with the purpose of his life.”
So my final suggestion is to encourage our youth to follow the pursuits that feed their soul and have an impact on others. We are great at celebrating those who exit the doors of our educational institutions and become well paid engineers and lawyers, and no harm in that. But let’s celebrate those who pursue educating impoverished children in 3rd world countries or inner cities. The struggling artist who believes they have a gift to share with the world and perseveres in the face of commercial obstacles. Or the social worker who helps victims of domestic abuse for only a shade above minimum wage. Let’s celebrate the honor in those pursuits with equal fervor.
Pursue a life well lived, in honor of the teacher who showed us how.