A member of the first class of 40 Leaders Under Forty in 1994, Steve Thompson continues to work tirelessly to make central Illinois a better place. Since his days coaching wheelchair sports at the University of Illinois, he has made it his personal mission to help others—especially those with disabilities or who don’t have the resources many of us take for granted.
Under Thompson’s leadership as president and CEO, Easterseals Central Illinois has dramatically expanded its line of services and service area. He’s led successful capital campaigns and overseen the number-one Easter Seals telethon in the country. He led the creation of the Autism Early Diagnostic Clinic in 2003, and has continued to expand autism services through the Easterseals Learning Academy and other initiatives.
In 2019, Thompson is leading the centennial celebration of Easterseals—celebrating 100 years of providing exceptional services to children with disabilities, developmental delays and other special needs, as well as their families. Peoria Magazines is proud to name Steve Thompson the 2019 40 Leaders Under Forty Alumnus of the Year.
What was it like to receive the 40 Leaders Under Forty Award in 1994?
I was honored to have been named to the inaugural class of 40 Leaders Under Forty in 1994. I recall fondly the group photo taken at the Hotel Pere Marquette and feeling humbled at being surrounded by so many accomplished leaders. I also recognized 40 Leaders Under Forty as a great way to acknowledge and encourage aspiring young leaders while inspiring others. I believed then, as I do now, that the Greater Peoria area is fertile ground for nurturing and growing leaders. Frankly, I also remember wondering if the program would be sustainable in the long term. At this point, I think that question is more than settled.
How are you different today than you were then?
Time brings more life experiences, both personal and professional. These experiences have shaped me and given me a broader perspective, better understanding and greater appreciation for people. I certainly have a much greater awareness of the adversity and challenges that everyone faces in life.
It’s rare these days to stay with the same organization for as long as you have. What drives you and keeps you tied to Easterseals?
Most of my career with Easterseals Central Illinois has been as president and CEO, serving at the pleasure of the board of directors. I’m grateful to the board for their confidence and ongoing support, which accounts for the longevity of my tenure.
Leadership always includes a passionate sense of purpose. For my wife and me, our passion has always been helping children reach their full potential. That passion is fueled by witnessing firsthand the progress Easterseals helps make possible for those we serve. It is sustained by the belief that there is so much more we can do to create better outcomes, better opportunities and a better future.
I think many people mistakenly equate passion with enthusiasm, excitement and high energy—but it is much more than that. An often misunderstood element of passion is simply perseverance: staying the course, refusing to give up or get sidetracked, and remaining faithful to the passionate sense of purpose that brought you to the work in the beginning.
What career achievements are you most proud of? What do you consider the biggest challenge of your career?
Easterseals has a long history of responding dynamically to the needs of children with developmental delays, disabilities and other special needs. A commitment to innovation, collaboration and sustainability have been among the guiding principles of Easterseals for 100 years. I am proud to have been a steward of those principles and trust they will remain hallmarks of Easterseals for years to come. I am also proud of the partnership between our outstanding board of directors and foundation trustees, our many generous donors, committed volunteers and our exemplary professional staff. It is a powerful combination that produces outcomes far greater than the sum of its parts.
The biggest challenges are those common to healthcare. The growing complexities that surround the effective and efficient delivery of therapy services, funding shortfalls, the dramatic rise in the incidence of autism, a shortage of highly trained and specialized staff, keeping pace with technology, and reaching the underserved in both urban and rural areas, all while being mission-driven and financially viable, are among the many challenges that organizations like Easterseals face.
You have worked with hundreds of community leaders, with many different leadership styles, throughout your career. What characteristics do you believe make for the best leaders?
It has been a rare privilege for me to have worked alongside some extraordinary leaders over the years. I consider them all personal friends and valued mentors. Leadership styles certainly differ, but in my experience the best leaders exhibit many common qualities, attributes and competencies. Among them are vision, integrity, humility, strong communication skills, emotional intelligence, authenticity, a strong bent for taking action (often with a sense of urgency) and an entrepreneurial spirit.
How do you balance work, community, family and faith?
Years ago, I viewed my life through the lens of my priorities—what was most important to me. I found that this approach required me to think in a sequential and subsequently limited way. There was some personal self-satisfaction in putting my life in sequential order of importance, but life isn’t lived sequentially and I found it did little to help me in a practical way. Later, I embraced the notion of life balance. While better than the sequential approach, I discovered that it too had limitations. I equated balance with “equal” or achieving a state of equilibrium. I felt like I was in a perpetual balancing act, with something always out of balance.
Now, I view family, faith, work and community more from an integrated, God-centered perspective. With God at the center of my life, I view all of my roles and responsibilities emanating outward from the center. And the lines between these roles and responsibilities are blurred. It’s a little hard to describe and far from perfect, but it has given me the freedom to live in a more integrated and much less compartmentalized way.
What advice do you have for young leaders trying to get involved in the community?
Be disciplined in leading yourself; succeed at home and in the work you have chosen. Build meaningful relationships, find places where you can add value to people, learn to lead without position or title, be a good follower, help solve real problems, do something that energizes you, and find a place where there are teams of people working together to make a difference—who know how to get it done and how to make it fun.
Anything else you wish to add?
As Easterseals celebrate 100 years of progress in 2019, we are eager to launch our second century of service by casting an aspirational vision for the future where every child is 100% included and 100% empowered. More than mere words, we are committed to engaging our community and demonstrating in tangible ways that, together, we can realize this compelling vision for the future. PM