Early one morning two weeks ago, I got word that my lifelong friend Dick O’Neill had died. My wife wasn’t up yet, so I couldn’t share the news with anyone face-to-face, so I turned on my Mac and started writing. I didn’t have a goal in mind other than sorting through my own reactions which were emotional as well as political. However, within a few minutes, it began to feel like a blog post that some others who knew Dick might like. So, I posted it.

Last Saturday, we went to his funeral. Attendees would include members of his family I’d first met when he and I were in nursery school and hadn’t seen in sixty years and people that Dick and I worked with in the first quarter of this century. Since I had processed a lot of the personal side of his loss, I figured that the funeral would give me the opportunity to think about his legacy to the world. That revolves around the Highlands Group, which I assume most readers know next to nothing about because Dick insisted on keeping it below the clichéd radar screen. The funeral was going to give me a great opportunity to do that since a number of the people I had met through it were coming to town for the funeral and were planning to talk about taking his work forward after the ceremony. Most of them were people I had never met face-to-face since much of Dick’s global network operated on Zoom (and its predecessors) long before the pandemic forced us all to invest in good webcams, microphones, and lighting.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Funeral[1]

But first, on Saturday morning, as we were heading toward the Beltway, my phone rang. It was my mother’s attorney letting me know that my mother did not have long to live. It was a call we knew was coming—my mother is 102 and has been in failing health for quite some time.

It was also a difficult call because my mother and I have never had a good relationship and haven’t been able to speak without losing our tempers for years. For someone who prides himself on his conflict resolution skills, this is not something I am particularly proud of. But, people who know my sister and me make the case that we turned out the way we did (she is a natural conflict resolution wizard, whereas it is largely a learned skill on my part) because we grew up in her home and could use her as a negative role model.

Anyway, if you’ve been paying attention to my nonstop admonitions about connecting the dots whenever possible, you would have already realized that my mother’s lawyer lives and works in New London CT, the same small city that Dick and I grew up in.

In fact, since Beth Sabilia’s great uncle had been my high school football coach and had been a high school classmate of Dick’s mother, I assumed that she at least knew his family and might even be related to them through its Santoniello wing. Turns out that they aren’t related but that she knew Dick’s brother and sister and their families.

She asked me to give my regards to the family, which, of course gave the receiving line a brief burst of levity and led to a long discussion at the end of the lunch after the funeral which led us to miss the meeting with the Highlands crowd….

Egoless Charisma

Back to what I had planned to write about—Dick’s legacy.

We will not be able to replace Dick because of what I think of as his egoless charisma.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen those two words next to each other, and I know I’ve never done so in my writing.

But Dick was both.

Charismatic not because he was brilliant or had a magnetic personality. People were drawn to him first by his amazing and unmatched range of interests that included national security, peacebuilding, film and television, technology, jazz, and baseball.

But the charisma came because of his egolessness. I’ve worked hard at learning how to “leave my ego at the door.” Dick did it automatically and actually had since we were kids—though the broad interests and heightened creativity did only come after high school, as it does for most of us.

As an adult, Dick’s greatest skill was his ability to identify and attract the “right” groups of deeply thoughtful and curious people. It wasn’t just that he assembled the most amazing Rolodex (how’s that for a dated reference). He did meticulous research, identifying people who were bright, intellectually flexible, and eager to cross silos—long before that term became popular.He also never asked anything of anyone other than showing up to one day and longer events that were so stunning that very busy and very prominent people kept wanting to come back.

He did it systematically. As I understand it, the original charge from the Pentagon that culminated in the creation of Highlands got him to Xerox PARC, the Santa Fe Institute, USC film school as well as the networks of defense intellectuals he was already plugged into.

In fact, I may be one of the few members of the Highland inner circle he found more or less by happenstance. We only reconnected because I happened to sit next a friend at our high school reunion who knew a bit about what Dick was up to and suggested we get together.

His networking was made a bit easier by the unusual contracts he normally had with the Defense Department and, later, the government of Singapore. They wanted him to gather smart, outside-the-box individuals who would expose them to outside-the-box issues that they might miss. They did not want his forums to make recommendations. His job was to gather those weird people, let them interact in unexpected ways, and help his clients (and his participants) come up with cool new insights on the intersectional or wicked problems that his bosses should have been paying more attention to.

And they did. He helped introduce everything from scenario planning to climate change to the American military. He helped the government of Singapore develop its Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning initiative in which the leaders of that tiny country became innovative leaders by trying to identify, anticipate, and creatively react to long term trends that were barely noticeable at the time. And after 9/11, he did more than anyone I know to start regular exploratory discussions between the military and the peacebuilding community, which is obviously near and dear to my heart.

Despite his background in military intelligence, Dick was perhaps most proud of the work he did with AfP. We weren’t the only people who did any of that. However, he introduced us to some of the people who have moved us beyond the 1960s and 1980s mindsets that most of my colleagues and I brought to our work. That included building coalitions with military leaders on issues like disaster relief or post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as taking on broader perspectives that grew out of the tech revolution, systems theory, and complexity science.

It helped, too, that we both had abiding interests in new technologies, the role of startup, and the rapid rate of social and economic change that has taken place during our adult lives. Remember that when we graduated from high school, next to no one had heard of computers. Yet, when we reconnected in 2000, it was as much over common interests and even people we knew in common in places like Palo Alto and Ann Arbor.

The Personal is Indeed Political

I also frequently found myself thinking back to the other formative connection that turned what was a competent middle tier academic in the early 1990s into a full time social change activist thirty years later—the Beyond War movement.

Some of the people I met or learned through Beyond War were on the fringes of Highlands, but that’s not the point I want to make here. Rather, in very different ways, both Highlands and Beyond War all but forced participants to understand that we can’t separate the personal from the political.

Everything we think or do matters. For Beyond War, that meant living your entire life on the assumption that you had to solve conflict wherever it appeared in your life. For Dick, it meant a curiosity that included questioning just about everything you assumed to be true. Both were all about personal growth and using the way you grew to change the world as a whole.

Catalytic Convening and Highlands 2.0

When we reconnected in 2000, our friendship just seemed like a cute and curious addition to our very different lives. He occasionally invited me to events, including one in which a group of us were asked to anticipate the next great security threat to the United States and somehow came up with the idea that airplanes might fly into tall buildings.

That was in mid-2000.

A year later, our work moved from the cute and curious to critical. I was scheduled to have a book launch party on 9/13/2001. Over my objections, Search for Common Ground decided to go ahead with the event because its leaders suspected that we were going to have to think more creatively about international conflict resolution, which is what my book sort of tried to do.

Dick came. For reasons neither of us could remember, we ended up doing the Q and A together. It was hard to tell which of us was the career military officer which the career peacenik.

We worked together mostly behind the scenes to bring my peacebuilding “tribe” into loose and informal leadership with his friends at the top of the defense establishment. He then joined me on the Alliance for Peacebuilding board of directors where he was instrumental in bringing systems theory and complexity science into our work, which, frankly helps our community grow in ways we could never have dreamt of otherwise.

Almost everyone who knew Dick has a story like that to tell which is why a group of us are planning to continue the Highlands Forum which operated so far below the radar screen that there is almost nothing on it on the internet. It was set up in 1994 as an informal cross-disciplinary network established to explore security and related issues in light of the new technologies, changing security environment, etc. In the 30 years since, its scope only expanded.

Dick and I often referred to everything we did together as catalytic convening. At AfP, we saw ourselves bringing together disparate and diverse groups of smart people to explore difficult new ideas that cross ideological and issue-based silos just as he had done with Highlands.

Once it became clear that Dick was not going to have a miraculous covery, a group of us from all “sides” of the Highlands community began meeting to plan how we could continue his work. All we have done so far is to meet a few time on Zoom (and some of us now live at the funeral) and hold some preliminary Highlands events on AI  and other security threats. And set up the legal infrastructure for a nonprofit, which the original Highlands was not.

We won’t be able to replicate what Dick did because none of us have Dick’s egoless charisma. At the same time, we don’t have the limits that his contracts you usually imposed on him. In particular, not only can we convene and catalyze, but we can also begin doing things other than just thinking and talking.

That started happening as we socialized after the funeral. When some of us who had never met in person before realized we had common interests we hadn’t known about—ranging from someone who lives a mile or from me to reconnecting with the brother of someone I had worked in peacebuilding a decade ago to discovering that two who hadn’t met before had a deep personal and professional interest in Serbia.

The opportunities for catalytic convening through Highlands, AfP, and beyond will only grow in the months and years to come.

Dick would have loved it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

[1] Aging theater buffs will recognize this bad literary allusion to a play that opened when we were first-year students in high school. We, of course, called ourselves freshmen then.