Book Review: “Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship”

Alex Counts' combination “memoir, historical reference, and instruction manual” for social impact work offers actionable wisdom and a “front row seat” to financial inclusion’s formative years.

I was a 19-year-old college student when I first encountered Alex Counts, at the Global Microcredit Summit in New York City. Having just finished my first microfinance job, at Banco Solidario in Ecuador, I was understandably — maybe overwhelmingly — inspired, energetic, and hopeful. I wanted to build a career in microfinance, and I wanted to tell everyone about it.

Several years later, as I introduced him for Grameen Foundation’s Annual Microfinance Awards Dinner, hosted by my graduate school microfinance club, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for a legend like Alex to condescend to me, put me in my place, or tell me to talk less and listen more. But he treated me like an equal, and more important, an ally in pursuing a shared vision of a more equitable world. Even after more than three decades in the field, he hadn’t lost his passion or compassion. He wanted, more than anything, to encourage my enthusiasm, and share whatever insights might help me on my way.

That attitude permeates Alex Counts’ latest book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship. The book’s most noticeable trait is a desire to teach and encourage in the face of slow, difficult progress. The book, a 300-page combination of memoir, historical reference, and instruction manual for social impact work, skips from year to year and country to country, recounting anecdotes from the early days of the financial inclusion industry, and drawing out so many lessons that it’s hard to keep track.

These lessons, described with breathless passion and often illustrated with vivid examples, form the book’s backbone, dispensing wisdom on topics like effective fundraising, and the power of good storytelling to motivate and instruct others. He also spends considerable time acknowledging the mentors who helped him on his own journey, and relays the still-relevant ideas they developed decades ago. This theme of leveraging existing resources, in fact, shows up frequently in the book.

Even after more than three decades in the field, Alex hadn’t lost his passion or compassion.

“Addressing the chronic underutilization of existing solutions and resources became a theme of my life. I came to appreciate how Muhammad Yunus, Sam Daley-Harris, and other mentors of mine focused at least as much on activating overlooked systems, idle assets, and forgotten people as they did on innovation,” Counts writes. “After all, aren’t the very poor people served by microfinance themselves underutilized resources that can be made productive if provided with economic opportunity in creative and respectful ways?”

One lesson that resonates for anyone who’s led a project team is the importance of staying aware of your own shortcomings, and being honest about them to your team. Some of the book’s most enjoyable moments come when Alex shares his vulnerability as a leader. In one story, he receives a lesson in humility from his lifelong mentor, Dr. Mohammad Yunus, during a respectful but stern feedback discussion in his early years in Bangladesh. In another, he acknowledges behaving like an “arrogant brat” during his time working for Sam Daley-Harris at RESULTS.

For those of us who’ve worked in the social impact field for a few years or more, Alex’s enthusiasm rekindles our own optimism and energy like a strong cup of coffee on a cold morning. It reconfirms our reasons for entering the field in the first place. As Alex puts it:

“...most of the great problems facing humanity have been solved somewhere -- often in a small pilot project or in the laboratory. Issues like poverty, infectious disease, climate change, and deforestation have all been studied extensively, and, for many of them, proven solutions exist.”
Alex Counts, Author, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind

Lives do improve, we’re reminded. Solutions do exist, all over the place, and it’s our job to identify, understand and scale them.

If there’s a shortcoming to the book, it’s that it tries to do too much, offering so many nuggets of wisdom and interesting anecdotes that you wish for a few more pages to get into the details, and a more navigable structure. Many of the lessons are embedded in stories, making it hard to scan when looking for practical advice, though there are several lists of “Favorite Tips,” which help succinctly organize advice for the reader by thematic categories. Their titles should help explain their deeply introspective, almost meditative nature: “Seven Favorite Tips to Help You Retain Your Beginner’s Mind,” “Four Favorite Tips to Help You Practice Learning Acceptance,” and “Nine Favorite Tips to Help You Practice Living Generously.”

Readers unfamiliar with some of the people who show up in the book may feel the need to do some internet searches, as the book focuses on specific conversations and actions by a handful of personalities, including Alex himself. Conversely, anyone who knows the financial inclusion space well will be thrilled by the opportunity for a front row seat as history is being made.

Overall, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind is a great read for those working in the development sector, especially those who are feeling frustrated, jaded, or in need of a bit of guidance and renewed enthusiasm. If after three decades in the social impact world, Alex has maintained his passion, then there might be hope for us all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Alex Counts is a member of the CFI Advisory Council.

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