By Kelsey McFaul
CF Foundation’s Preston Campbell on unexpected plans and the freedom of surrender
Career paths, five- and ten-year plans, promotion timelines, and goal setting: we have plenty of language and methods for planning how we think our career and leadership trajectories will go.
“We need to be continually growing and acquiring new skills and striving for excellence, but at some point mapping our lives out should come second to letting God map it out for us.”
For Preston Campbell, M.D., cystic fibrosis advocate and current president and CEO of The Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Foundation, this insight is the result of an unconventional path.
“Five years ago as vice president of medical affairs, despite things going very well at the CF Foundation, I had a sense that it was time for me to move on. It was a matter of surrender for me, and I felt I’d given all I could give to the Foundation.”
As head of the medical, scientific, and care programs, Preston began hiring and training world-class leaders to ensure the medical programs would be in the best hands. At the same time, he began reading The Steward Leader.
“Things began to come together for me, and I was excited for whatever was going to come up next. I had a freeing moment when I saw a new future. I knew God was working in my life to really free me and certain career paths and old goals didn’t matter anymore.”
In the midst of this shift in his thinking, in 2015, the CF Foundation’s board asked Preston to take on the role of president.
“I was proud to accept this privilege to serve. Ultimately, I knew my journey of surrender would make me a better president and CEO.”
Preston’s life showcases how steward leaders who are able to surrender to God their need to own, control, and plan can experience great freedom and joy. In his case, giving up the desire for advancement freed Preston to be open to and take a fresh approach to new opportunities.
“I’m now 64, so I came into this new role a little bit later in life than most. I’m happy with whatever happens. What I really want is for the Foundation to be very successful because our mission is critically important.”
That mission is finding a cure for cystic fibrosis, by funding research and drug development, promoting individualized treatment, and ensuring access to high-quality, specialized care. Preston’s internal focus is on equipping employees, optimizing operations, and “solving for when I’m not there.”
And he’s still in the business of hiring exceptionally qualified people and preparing them to step into new roles. It’s a practice that, even for an experienced leader, can raise some anxiety.
“Some days I can sit in a meeting and I’m incredibly happy that the meeting’s going swimmingly without me. And then there are days when it becomes a little bit of a threat to me and I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think they need me.’”
The desire to own the direction of a meeting, supply the solution to a problem, or micromanage a protocol are all temptations for a steward leader seeking to manage rather than to own.
“Here’s this younger person stepping up and growing and doing all these wonderful things; I’m crazy not to be rejoicing in that. So then you take on a perspective that you should have had all along, and you help people grow and take on risk and speak out in their area of expertise.”
A perfect example is the CF Foundation’s recent focus on its organizational culture, an effort spearheaded by Preston, led by another leader, and incorporating foundation-wide surveys and focus groups.
When the Foundation’s five newly solidified values were rolled out in summer 2017, in many cases by foundation employees not identified as leaders, Preston was ecstatic.
“It was without a doubt one of the most exhilarating moments of my professional career….It was breathtaking how the organization came together. When you give people freedom and prioritize what’s really important to our mission—people with CF—it accelerates progress. It was all a testimony to how this can work.”
It’s a testimony as well to a leader’s ability to step back and empower the people around him to utilize their skills and strengths. Freed from the need to get credit, Preston allows and encourages his staff to be proud of their good work.
“When you’re a micromanager and you have to own, you may get 110 percent of people’s time, but you only get 50 or 60 percent of their capability, because you’ve reined them in. But when they know what you want is for them to flourish, you’ll not only get their time but when you push them, they’ll grow. They’ll be able to do more next year than they’re able to do this year, and that’s freeing for them, too.”
But what is the essential thing reminding him of his commitment to stewardship and keeping him free?
“All of the things that happened in my life aren’t because I was smart or better than anybody else. For me, the most important thing is overwhelmingly my relationship with God…It puts everything else into perspective and all the others flow from it.”
On the occasions when he’s asked to speak to young people about their faith, including young physicians, this is the advice Preston gives: “Jump out of your ‘I know where I want to go, what I’m going to do, I’m going to do this and this’ rut, and step into ‘What does God want me to do?’ It’ll be 10 times more amazing for you than if you just go into something because it’s going to compensate you well.”
While many are the career paths, five- and ten-year plans, and promotion opportunities we might envision, it is the Lord who guides our steps—sometimes through a summer camp with CF kids, a 17-year vice presidency, a CEO role just years before retirement.
“Nothing compares to the awesomeness of knowing God and trusting Him. When you’re worrying about everything because you have to control it, there is no freedom. When you release that, great freedom can happen and I come home at the end of the day with energy and joy.”