Phil Coltoff – author, professor, and executive leader – has dedicated his career to social service and youth development.

Crediting South Bronx, where he grew up, for teaching him about friendship, leadership, fear, love, and developing a sense of self, Phil has carried lessons from his youth into his career in social work and education.

With a welcoming, laid-back personality and a rough New York accent, Phil smiles and speaks with the calm vitality of a man who believes in his life’s work.

The best kind of leader doesn’t take themselves so seriously,” he said through a grin.

As leader of Children’s Aid Society from 1980 to 2005, Phil created programs in public school reform, creative arts, and teen pregnancy prevention. By proving the value of such programs to governments and local communities, he increased the organization’s budget tenfold, creating models that have been replicated thousands of times across the U.S.

As a professor, Phil has continued following his passion at the NYU Silver School of Social Work, where he inspires students by sharing his experience and knowledge in his courses on non-profit executive leadership.

What we must do, he says, if we are to live our best lives, is define our purpose. And getting there, he explains, requires self-reflection.

When you look at yourself – and I’m not suggesting you contemplate your navel all the time – what are your basic values?”

Phil’s example offers hope for what we can accomplish, for who we can become, when we define our focus and clarify our motives. 

THE JALEPEÑO: Let’s discuss your work in youth development.

PHIL COLTOFF: In my book, The Block, I connect my experience growing up in the South Bronx – the relationships, the issues, the development – to what I thought was essential for social work students to learn.

My concern is that the theory of social work has been the bio/psycho/social. The social aspect has become secondary to the biological and psychological, at times even non-existent, in terms of theory.

The biological has taken a significant place in understanding ourselves – function of the brain, function of genes, etc.

I‘m not quibbling with that, but the nature v. nurture configuration has shifted toward nature, based on research and our understanding of the organic makeup of human beings.

The psychological has always been important in social work for understanding human behavior, needs, and function.

But, the social, the “nurture” component – family, community, environment, economics, peer relationships – have become subordinate, which is why I wrote The Block.

THE J: Because you believe so strongly in the importance of “nurture”.

PC: Because I believe strongly, and because it was my experience. It’s about growing up in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s in the South Bronx.

Group relationships, friendships, developmental stages – what things are like when you’re a kid, an adolescent, relationships with girls, schools, developing a social ideology. Exploring how that happens.

I use my own growing up as the jumping off point, in the attempt to generalize these issues to make them relevant for others.

THE J: How’d that go?

PC: To that extent, it was successful. The feedback I got has been very good and very touching. People of all shades of success have reconnected with me.

People from Chicago, Milwaukee, wherever, said “You were talking about me. When you talked about friendship and leadership and growing up and fears and love and development of the sense of who you are, you were talking about me.”

THE J: Why is it so important to consider how we experience love, leadership, fear, and friendship early on in life?

PC: It’s part of healthy development. I’ve said to students,

Tell me about your life – where you grew up, siblings, what was it like? Do you remember a trauma? Something that happened in your family? The first time you felt a crush on somebody? What was that like? How did you deal with it? What’d you do? You have to help people get to where they want to get to.

THE J: Helping them recognize inflection points in their life?

PC: Yes. Trying to have them get to what really matters. What’s important? What do you think about when you think about your youth? The image you had of yourself when you were 10, 15, 18. Because when we’re 30 or 40 or whatever, we have found all the camouflage.

We see ourselves as a professor or a biologist or a surgeon or whatever we’ve become, and that’s fine, that’s part of it.

But I ask: What was it like when you were 10? What’d you think about yourself? Were you liked by your friends? How did the kids in your neighborhood think of you? As a fuddy duddy? A good athlete?

What was your own self-perception?

I try to get it through stories. I believe in science, but anecdotes tell the story much better.

So, when I think of youth, I think of this full composite of what makes us us. And how we feel about ourselves.

The way in which we feel is usually the way in which we behave. We want to feel good about ourselves.

Can you imagine life without a group?

I’m not taking anything away from individual determination, but think if you didn’t belong to some group – a political group, a music group, an athletic team, a friendship group – can you imagine life that way?

What sense would you have of who you are? Life is group-centered, but a lot of people don’t think of it that way.

The way we felt about ourselves at 12 doesn’t go away. It takes on different form and we treat it differently, we add substance or camouflage to it.

But how we grew up and how we were seen by our peers, friends, teachers, our families – have created a self-perception that has carried over into all aspects of our lives.

That is what youth development is about: acceptance, feeling good about yourself, feeling love, feeling competent.

THE J: You say the way you feel is the way you behave. And also the way you feel and behave might determine the way you’re perceived when you interact with others.

I come to this conversation excited, eager to get to know you and hear your stories, and I hope that comes off and we have a nice conversation. But if I’m dismissive, disinterested, sleepy, you’ll perceive me differently and our conversation and its outcome will change.

PC: Absolutely. We live in this environment where we’re always thinking about how we’re coming across to others. It doesn’t’ mean we don’t have a good sense of ourselves, but it relates to the interaction of people with each other.

We learn through interacting – the feedback we get from parents, teachers, friends. This determines how we think and feel and behave and where that takes us.

In The Block – I remember the fight I had, the girl that rejected me in fifth grade and what that did to me. I remember my first feelings of love, my first date, as so important to my makeup.

It fits into this larger picture of what it is that we then provide for youth. What should our schools be like, our after-school programs?

Every young person, male or female, gets part of their sense of self-image, self-competence, around how they perform in groups.

THE J: When you’re on a team, working toward some collaborative goal, what is learned that’s so important?

PC: Being able to try to do well, whatever the task. Whether you’re the best player or not, it’s the feedback you get from the other players, whether they are 8 year-olds in little league or college players.

Are they encouraging you? When you make an error and lose the game – what’s the reaction? How do you deal with that feeling of rejection or pain?

What do you expect your teammates to do for you? Your coach?

The most important thing a coach can do when a kid makes a mistake is put their arm around the kid. It does much more than words. It says “You’re accepted, you’re not a bad person, you’re not the error.”

Psychologists would call this the “gestalt” of that whole experience – playing, being accepted, having a position, knowing this is your team, these are your uniforms, the totality of feeling a part of the group.

THE J: You’re part of a whole, you have a role to play and you want to try to do it well. Thinking of accomplishment in terms of group success.

PC: Right. And many are not good athletes. Where do they fit? By acknowledging those who are and becoming part of the team even though they may not be playing, finding ways to help.

But we want them to be part of something, and share in the success of that, not to be left out.

We need to recognize that. How do we build that feeling, that confidence? How do kids feel about each other? And how does that make the difference about how they’re going on to the next stage?

Kids fall in love. And not just in the more mature sense of love.

They fall in love with the leader in their group, the kid who is the best athlete, or the best listener, or the kid who is the nicest, who’s only going to give you a good feeling about yourself.

That kind of feeling comes naturally to some, and we need to learn from that so we can use those lessons purposefully when we’re working with little kids or adolescents.

Sometimes just knowing a child’s name, when dealing with many kids, makes all the difference in the world.

THE J: Is the importance of teamwork easily forgotten? There seems to be a tendency, in the hustle and bustle of adult life, to feel isolated amongst the crowd, looking out for number one, reverting to self-centeredness.

How do you deal with that?

PC: That’s part of living in our larger and very competitive society. Getting older can create more and more isolation.

People in apartment buildings never get to know their neighbors.

We live in a society that, in some ways, encourages alienation. Technology encourages alienation. People hardly ever walk together without being on cell phones. Even in restaurants. There’s very little conversation going on. Very little connection.

It’s not surprising that people have adjusted to the society of “me”, thinking only in terms of very narrow scope of who they are.

It’s unhealthy. It doesn’t give a sense of purpose, a sense of who you are in terms of community, in terms of a value system.

Caring for others – not just philanthropy, but altruism – needs to be encouraged. Kids have it until it’s killed. Until we do away with it and say “Oh no, it’s competition, not cooperation. It’s color war.”

The most important thing for me as a teacher is to help students understand the full nature of the dynamic of change, of growing up, of being part of something larger than you, of feeling good about that, making a contribution, having a humanistic view of life, rather than a territorial view.

It’s the teachers, the adults, the non-profit execs that need this training too. We can very easily slip into a mechanized lifestyle – going to work, socializing, focusing on product outcomes, quarterly earnings.

And it’s not that those are unimportant things.

But if we can help people know who they are, what they are, what they love, what they’d like their children to become, all these other things can take on a better hue, a better focus.

THE J: You’re encouraging leaders to reflect on their own motives, their own loves and values as a way to better inform how they live their lives.

PC: And to resist the temptation to become traditional managers. The non-profit world is not junior varsity. It’s a $2 trillion industry. 16-17% of our work force.

So when you look at leaders of organizations – whether it’s The Red Cross or the local community centers – they need business organization, strategic planning, fund-raising skills, etc., all of which are fine, but you can do them so much better if you understand why you’re doing it.

THE J: The purpose.

PC: The purpose. The mission.

You have to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Why have good management, team-building, community outreach, if you’re not thinking about what the clients need, what the kids need, what the service is for?

To get there, I try to get people to better understand themselves. What gives you pleasure? Why is that important to you? Getting people in touch with themselves.

THE J: Knowing your purpose can help you manage day-to-day stresses.

PC: Exactly. Self-reflection. Sometimes people like to reflect on other people’s lives.

Conscious use of self. What are you thinking? Why are you doing certain things?

What is it that I’m doing that matters and that matters to me? So everything is not just impulse driven. And that’s so important in working with youth.

THE J: Without purpose, you can lose sense of autonomy over your own life.

PC: You drift. This sounds like a group condemnation and I don’t mean it to be:

Most people go about their lives being self-protective, trying to be safe. Taking fewer risks, including the risk of self-reflection.

You go home and focus on your immediate surroundings, don’t worry about the community or your neighbors, or what’s going on in Afghanistan or Charleston. You create this cocoon of what feels safe.

You develop your rigid routines, your schedules, your meals, your television shows, then you look up. What happened to those five years? Those ten years? Why don’t I feel good about myself?

Those that are lucky catch themselves. What do I want to do differently? Am I happy in this role, this marriage? It’s the others who have dug a ditch and covered it with cement that are stuck who never reached for what they could be.

THE J: You can easily become lulled to sleep in the patterns of your own making, developing a wall around yourself, creating your own version of Plato’s cave, with this whole world right outside.

What are some ways we can catch that?

PC: For a societal approach, you have to get in touch with young people. Getting in touch with yourself, feeling good about yourself, understanding your potential, understanding you can take risks. As you get old, the risks change.

That’s the whole approach about youth, and why we need schools that teach with a humanistic approach, that teach thinking and feeling.

I’ve gone as a witness to AA groups. You see how people open up. Whatever the form – self-reflection, individual therapy, social orientation – a chance to ask yourself before it’s too late:

Who am I? What am I? How have I gotten here? What have I become? What do I want to do with the rest of my years?

Whether that is 40 or 30 or two years, what do I want to do? What makes me happy? What makes me feel good?

THE J: Encouraging people to dig in to their own motivations and interests, to stay vulnerable to their intuition.

PC: Exactly. And that’s part of your willingness to take risks. The risk of being rejected, of not having your ideas accepted, not being as successful as you’d like, but trying, and not giving up on humanity – on the way you treat yourself, your family, the people you’re working with.

Essentially: How do you become – if you aren’t already, or if you’ve lost it – a good person?

THE J: How do you think about success?

When you look at yourself – and I’m not suggesting you contemplate your navel all the time – what are your basic values? Money or title alone are usually not enough.

When you look at people’s happiness, it seldom has to do with how much money they have. Seldom.

THE J: How do you measure your own success?

PC: Most of my career is behind me. I feel good about what I’ve done. I enjoy the feedback on my books, and students who say I inspired them.

I think the key, for me, is to 1) not become complacent and 2) not become self-absorbed, which is easy to do when you accomplish things. A lot of that attention is superficial.

I want to continue to feel and be productive. To offer whatever I have to others if it’s valuable to them. And to give myself a sense of purpose.

THE J: What traits do the best leaders have?

PC: Those who have an appreciation for who they’re leading and why. And an understanding of the followship that comes with leadership, who are aware of the responsibility of being a leader.

The best kind of leader is one who doesn’t take themselves so seriously and become a narcissist.

THE J: What are some misconceptions about the non-profit world? If you could shout it from the rooftops, what would you tell us?

PC: Very good question. We work very hard. We’re as gifted, as limited, as every one else who is not in the non-profit world.

It’s very hard work. It requires the same level of intellect, of analysis, of commitment as any other part of society. Non-profits are the first responders.

Can anyone imagine New York without the hospitals, the nursing homes, the juvenile justice programs, the Y’s, the daycares, the after-school programs, the little leagues? That’s all non-profit volunteerism. It’s the glue.

It is complicated, difficult. It deals with the young, the aged, the immigrants, the disabled. We wouldn’t have a functioning society without it.

THE J: What’s the best way to get involved?

PC: Learn about it, get connected to it. Volunteer. Or form one. See what’s important to you and what’s important in your community.

THE J: Are there any books that inspired you to focus on social work?

PC: A lot. I could go on. But the best for me was by Earl Conrad, Scottsboro Boys, about racial discrimination.