Ned Eames is the founder and CEO of Tenacity in Boston, Massachusetts. Tenacity works with less-advantaged urban youth to enable post-secondary success through a combination of literacy, life skills development, family engagement, and fitness/tennis. Tenacity is celebrating its 18th year of helping over 30,000 students build a foundation for lifetime achievement. High school graduation rate is 95% and college enrollment is 70% for Tenacity’s school year Pathway students.
Tennis is a key teaching and learning tool for the program that Ned experienced first-hand as a competitive tennis player. He was captain of his university tennis team; in 2013 Ned received the Education Merit Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame and was inducted into the USTA New England Hall of Fame.
The motivation to expand the potential of urban kids
When Ned was in high school, his family lived in public housing for several years. His dad felt it was important that the family understood the challenges and disadvantages that lower income families faced. It gave Ned valuable insight that became the basis of Tenacity’s mission: while there were clear differences in communities suggesting “haves-and-have-nots,” and “we versus they,” he perceived an inner “oneness” that all kids shared, regardless of income or status. So when Ned started Tenacity he determined to develop a structure that would identify and expand the qualities of oneness that contribute to achievement. Today, Tenacity calls them Core Life Skills and describes them as essential for young people to make healthy choices and remain strong, especially when faced with challenges. Among these valuable internal resources or assets are empathy and respect for others, acceptance of responsibility, a desire for teamwork. These are core assets for every life.
An inner reservoir of values has provided guidance and strength
“Since launching the organization, the challenges have felt overwhelming at times, and demanded of me more than I thought I could ever deliver,” admitted Ned. “So I constantly strive to tap into an inner reservoir of positive qualities that help me stay focused, such as conscious poise in the face of adversity, persistence to the mission of service to others, and even a willingness to let go of ‘my way’ or how something should be done.”
Leading into the first year of Tenacity, in 1999, Ned thought that if he could help 18 kids, that would be enough. And he was the one who, along with key others, created the programs, taught tennis, did fundraisers, worked with the city. Today, there is a board of 22 civic leaders and a staff of hundreds planning and executing programs, plus monitoring and mentoring thousands of kids, families, and graduates.
Facing the challenge of success: How big is too big?
After several years of success with students and the community, there emerged various points of view about the pace of expansion and growth for Tenacity. Some saw the demand for all that Tenacity offered to be met with a plan for substantial growth; others felt that the focus should be on modest expansion as a way to ensure its well-known and proven quality.
Ned knew that the way forward – whatever it was to be – must come from a place of calm and mutual respect in order to foster understanding and even inspiration, and that required a truly self-less approach…starting with Ned. The temptation was to defend a certain position and path forward, but that would only justify one side, not bring the team together. No better time to practice the core life skill of teamwork than right in this leadership situation!
What came strongly to Ned was the idea of practicing more “unconditional love.” He sees it in the family engagement sessions of students and parents (required twice a year), when a parent who wants so much for their child to succeed in school and life will do anything to support that endeavor. “I realized I had to do something like this – to be willing unconditionally to persist and accept the solutions forward that would be envisioned by a broader set of leaders and contributors.”
This presented a new dynamic: letting go while hanging in there in times of uncertainty! Ned needed to remain committed to the execution of the mission and fully present for board, staff, partners, and contributors while letting go and collaborating with the growing number of staff and board leaders.
“This was unknown territory for me at first, to broaden and share the leadership and trust that appropriate solutions for the future would be revealed. As I learned to remain fully committed in the context of shared leadership, I felt a growing confidence that we could work successfully through hard challenges and move forward in new ways for the growth of the organization. It is better for Tenacity, and I’m grateful for my personal growth.”
Life lessons learned through challenges and achievements
“From my perspective, it seems that the pace of life today is so fast and so instant – and the pace of work is so complicated and distracting with a more-is-better craziness and stress – that it requires discipline to live your life by being satisfied with a quality life. Organizations especially have to constantly wrestle with demands of growth, but it needs to be balanced with quality and core values. Each organization must work out a balanced approach to its relationship with growth,” explained Ned.
“Every effort begins with each of us as individuals. Whether we wrestle with growth as individuals or as members of an organization I think it is important to regularly ask ourselves, ‘What is the growth required of us as individuals, as employees, or as leaders this year?’ Being willing to grow in relationships, in work, in volunteering – I think that is a quality life and a necessity.”
For more information about how to support Tenacity’s objectives in helping less-advantaged urban youth to gain post-secondary success through literacy, life skills development, family engagement, and fitness/tennis, go here: Tenacity