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 The book, a 300-page combination of memoir, historical reference, and instruction manual for social impact work, skips from year to year and country to country, recounting anecdotes from the early days of the financial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: