Creating a culture of unity

A profile in leadership: Marquette alumnus shares life lessons while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates

By Brian Dorrington

On the day John Rakolta, Jr. sits down with us, the United States Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Marquette University Engineering graduate is more than 7,100 miles and five decades removed from the campus he once walked.

Dubai and Milwaukee aren’t exactly known for their commonalities, but the lessons Rakolta learned and the streets he once roamed immediately come back to him. It is as if he is beginning his senior year.

“3306 Highland Avenue,” he says with a smile. “My Sigma Phi Delta fraternity house.” He reflects on his time inside the house where he met some of his best friends, and he shares a poignant moment when he stood up for an African American fraternity brother — the first time he ever experienced racism.

“It was subtle, but I felt it,” he says. His memory then moves a few blocks south to Wells Street.

He begins, “Wells Street was where I came into contact with a whole different universe of people. That is where I learned the way that the world really works and had the opportunity to hear from the marginalized. Those were such formative years. College is the first time you put your values on public display.”

These Marquette values and formation shaped what Rakolta now calls “the most rewarding moment of my life.” That moment came about three years ago inside a frigid city bus at the crack of down.

Inside the frigid bus
Sitting side-by-side with two African American children and their mother, Rakolta was just getting starting on a journey that would shake him to his core. “I kept hearing that one of the biggest barriers for our Detroit School children was taking the bus to school,” he says. At the time, he was serving as chair of a volunteer leadership board to reform the embattled school system.

“I felt that the best way to truly understand their experience was to join them. It turned out to be the most incredible ride I’ve ever taken in my whole life.”

It wasn’t that the ride was a good one. Rakolta and the children navigated several bus transfers, dark streets and brutal weather. It took them more than an hour and a half just to arrive at school.

“We get off in a part of town with no streetlights. It’s dark as hell,” he shared in a previous media interview.

After finally arriving at school, it dawned on Rakolta that the children would have to repeat the journey the opposite way home in the evening and every day thereafter.

“That ride changed everything,” he says. “It gave us a new breath of life to reform our schools.”

Beyond the bus ride, Rakolta also took on a racially divided board and developed a culture of unity when he started hosting dinners at his house — each dinner included six African American board members and six white board members. “Over 10 years, we hosted 80 dinners and welcomed 800 people into our house. We delved into racial issues, and I learned more than I ever have in my life,” he says.

Lessons from loved ones and those who came before him
Thinking about what inspires him today, he mentions his wife, Terry, of 45 years. “Without her support, encouragement and a million other things, I would be nowhere,” he says.

When discussing his favorite leaders, Rakolta points out Malcom Gladwell who once said, “Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.”

Citing his parents and immigrant ancestors, Rakolta fills his sentences with a mixture of Midwestern grit and down-home storytelling.

When talking about his entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic, he points to his grandfather, who ran away from Romania when he was 13 years old. “He believed the streets in the U.S. were paved in gold. USA was the land of opportunity.” “My grandfather worked well into his 80's,” he says. “Hard work is the hallmark of my family.”

A loud alarm goes off on the ambassador’s phone just as we hit the 30-minute mark of our conversation. It is a harsh reminder that we are in the middle of a global pandemic.

The temperature has climbed to 106 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 p.m. in Dubai, where their time is nine hours ahead of Milwaukee. The alarm, which blares from the phones of all 9 million citizens of the UAE, warns that it is officially a half-hour from curfew when all must be inside their residences.

The alarm opens the door for me to ask the ambassador an important question: How do you lead in a time of immense uncertainty?

“There is no playbook,” he says. “We are all plowing new ground. In a time of crisis, it comes to bear that leadership matters. When there are no clear answers on the horizon, someone needs to step up with a vision. We have a team of people who need to trust each other and have open lines of communication. We have worked to create an environment where people feel free to express themselves and be disagreeable,” he says, citing Gladwell once more. “Disagreement can harness itself into a powerful team. I call it creative intellectual tension.”

The man who oversees 1,000 Embassy personnel arrived on our Zoom call wearing a dark suit and a red power tie. He is flanked by a United States of America flag on his left shoulder and a United Arab Emirates flag on his right. Just when it seems we are watching a world-wide news conference, his small dog makes a brief entrance on camera as if to remind us that he is a normal guy.

I ask him about the most important skill needed when he first began serving as ambassador in fall 2019.

“I needed to listen,” he says, “to really be a better listener than I was back home. When you work in the same field for 50 years, your listening skills can atrophy. My listening skills have to be at the top of my game here. These are some of the brightest, most competent people in the world.”

Faith and values, hand in glove
Moving ahead in our discussion as the Middle East approaches its curfew, I ask, What have been your biggest challenges?

“Balancing privacy and testing for the coronavirus,” he says without hesitation. “People in the USA have a strong fundamental belief in the privacy of the individual. When you start mass testing, that can conflict with privacy. But, we don’t hold testing above the right to privacy. In learning about the people in the UAE, I had to support some decisions that were different than ones I may have come up with.”

The UAE has been lauded for its diagnosis efforts, testing nearly a quarter of its entire population with some of the fewest deaths in the world.

“When you start making decisions that can go against the grain, it creates some tension,” he says. “Sometimes there are no clear, easy answers. That is when you have to fall back on your values. My faith and values are hand in glove, very much connected. I rely on my values to steer me in uncertain times in my life, like the time we have here today.”

Bringing more people under the tent
For Rakolta, leadership starts by respecting each individual. “All of the mottos of the various schools I attended, including Marquette, focus on this important aspect,” he said.

“As a leader, every person will form his or her own opinion about you. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about my values,” he says. “I pray openly when I have guests over for dinner. I will ask them if it is ok if I say a prayer. They always welcome it. I am respectful to other religions, such as Islam or Judaism. I don’t make any bones about it. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. When I speak of faith, I don’t use the word religion. I say spirituality, because it brings more people under the tent.”

Building for good; putting people first
Prior to his current role in public service, John ascribed to his company’s motto of “Built for Good” and demonstrated this belief by keeping people his top priority.

“My experience in the private sector has helped me considerably,” says Rakolta, who served as the former CEO and still owner of a privately held company that built world-wide auto assembly plants, hospitals, government buildings and manufacturing plants. “You develop a broad perspective of how different cultures bring talent and solutions to the equation. I have always put people first my whole life.”

When discussing other attributes of strong leaders, Rakolta started by emphasizing that actions speak louder than words.

“In leadership, anybody can say it. You have to live it. And, it is even more important that you have to practice it. You have to walk the walk. A leader has to sacrifice and keep people safe. And, a leader also needs to be proactive and bring a sense of calm, optimism and hope into the equation. We all live for and hope that tomorrow, we will see a better day.”

Fusing the brain, heart and soul
When offering another reflection on the impact his alma mater has had on his life, Rakolta leans in and begins telling a story about a time when he wasn’t exactly on the right track.

“Let’s just say, I was fully enjoying my newfound independence,” he says with a chuckle. “Well, my father came out to school and surprised me. He pulled me out of bed and dragged me to the dean’s office.”

It’s funny how some life moments become seared memories.

“I was sitting in the office beside the dean that day — his first name was Theodore and his last name was incredibly long. We all called him ‘Teddy alphabet.’”

It was in that moment that the still-groggy teenager was reminded of the life-changing opportunity in front of him.

“They set me on the right course,” he says.

He improved his approach in the classroom, noting, “My civil engineering education was a godsend.”

He brings those engineering lessons from so many years ago to his work every day.

“I look for data to create a foundation of certainty and truth. I apply it every single day of my life and use data to think clearly and come up with verifiable conclusions in a logical, unemotional way.”

Unwelcoming thunder
The setting for the final lesson that the ambassador shared with us came in the basement of the aforementioned fraternity house. Sitting anxiously beside two other hopeful fresh-faced freshman pledges, the group heard the thundering sound of feet stomping above them.

The Sigma Phi Delta fraternity members were at the end of their selection process — only one more frosh would be welcomed as a new fraternity brother with 12 having already been selected. The foot stomping represented that they had consensus and had made a decision.

Awkward silence followed the thundering footsteps. The hopeful Rakolta was not picked.

“I was devastated,” he says. “It was a humiliating experience.”

The next year, a sophomore now, Rakolta ran into an active member of the fraternity outside of Schroeder Hall. He asked Rakolta to re-pledge. The year prior during the pledge process, the aspiring members had to gain signatures to prove their desire to get to know the other fraternity brothers.

“He told me that I only had gotten 17 of 55 signatures,” Rakolta says. “I knew then that I hadn’t worked hard enough to get to know the guys. The lesson I learned was that if I admit my mistakes, there is always a chance of recovery. There is no shame in admitting something wrong. Recovery is to own it.

“Marquette allowed me to make mistakes, correct my course and fused my thinking into one — brain, heart and soul. In addition to an excellent education, Marquette taught me to have huge concern for the poor and marginalized people of the world. When you put all of this together, you come out well prepared for the world.”

Editor’s Note: Special thank you to Nadia Ziyadeh and Carol Bourne for setting up our discussion. Also, we thank Ambassador Rakolta for spending 70 minutes with us to share his lessons on leadership on his birthday when we were scheduled for only 30. This interview took place on May 26, 2020.

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