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Dwight Cook- Founder at Leading With Pride | Entrepreneur

Dwight Cook

Dwight Cook

"Success is not what you have, but who you are." Dwight Cook

Growing Up Mormon: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Growing up in a small farming town of about 8,000 people, my family followed a conservative Christian religion called Mormonism, officially known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." In our town, 80% of the people were part of this church, which shaped our way of thinking a lot. I kind of believed that there were only two types of people: Mormons and evil.

The Mormon faith is very “family-focused.” Adherence to the standards of the religion is paramount.  Everyone is expected to marry and have large families.  Parents are judged based on how faithful their children are to the religious standards.

People who deviate from the strict standards are often formally excommunicated. People who are very religious in this way are often charitable and help others, but they might not be very accepting or build close relationships with people who don't believe the same things.

My Father was a leader in the church – his title was “Bishop”. We, as his family, were expected to be exceptionally faithful. The church taught that homosexuality is a sin next to murder. People thought to be homosexual would not only be excluded from participating in church activities but would often lose their jobs.

I had my first homosexual experience when I was in my early teens.  Once I understood what the church said about what I had done and the sexual attraction that I felt, I was very suicidal. I kept my feelings to myself and was very guarded around people so that no one would find out. I kept everything to myself.

Working on a farm nearby really saved me during that time. It gave me something positive to focus on. The people who owned the farm were nice to me, which helped a lot.

Loving Upbringing and Pressures to Conform

Growing up, my parents were devoted believers in the Mormon Church. Despite this, they encouraged my sisters and me to pursue careers, going against the church's trend of promoting stay-at-home motherhood. My father, a college graduate managing a government office, and my mother, a receptionist at a potato manufacturing company, instilled the value of hard work in us. College education was highly supported by them, and their unwavering belief in us motivated our success.

The community and church emphasized marriage, but the desire not to disappoint my parents played a significant role in my decisions. Their support became a lifeline during my challenging teenage years, and making them proud spurred my academic achievements. I attended two years at a Mormon university where for the first time found a counselor that I could tell what was going on inside of me. I pulled my life together enough to go on a Mormon Mission.  Young men were expected to spend two years as full-time missionaries trying to convert other people to Mormonism. I was sent to Spain.

Being a missionary in Spain completely changed my view of the world.  I began to recognize and respect different ways of thinking. I went to Spain to convert others to Mormonism, but they revealed the contradictions within the faith to me. I did not like missionary work but adored Spain, its people, and its culture. This experience ignited my passion for diverse cultures and connecting with those unlike me.

After I returned home, I continued my studies in college, focusing on engineering. Later, I got married to a woman I had met during my time as a missionary. We were good friends, and I told her about my feelings toward men. We both were counseled by church leaders to marry. Marriage was the “cure.” So, at the age of 24, I married her.  

We had two lovely daughters. But unfortunately, marriage was not the “cure.” We both decided to go to counseling, and I even went through a kind of therapy that aimed to change my attraction to men.  Eventually, I realized that this therapy wasn't helping, and I started counseling outside of the church. Through this process, I came to accept that I didn't believe in the Mormon Church or its leaders anymore.

I loved being a father, but marriage was tough.  We didn’t fight. We were just not happy together. After struggling for 12 years, my wife and I chose to get a divorce. It was a very collaborative divorce, and we are good friends to this day. I never succeeded in becoming straight, of course, but in the process, I built an interest and expertise in systems and how change happens.  That interest has helped me a lot in my career.

On the work front, I did well enough in school to get some great jobs. I started working with Eastman Kodak, where I worked on setting up new factories. Eventually, Honeywell recruited me and offered to put me through graduate school.

In my early 20s, I shifted from viewing the world as a battle between good and evil to embracing its beauty and diverse people. I grew more open-minded, replacing judgment with curiosity. This change influenced my career, enabling transformative organizational changes based on personal growth.

A Tragic Loss Inspires Openness

One significant event occurred in the early 1990s in a conservative US state. A close friend of mine, who led a support group for LGBTQIA individuals from the Mormon Faith, was found dead at his home. Since he hadn't come out to his family, his passing unveiled his identity and role as the leader of a gay organization. I had to persuade his family to give us the very confidential support group members' addresses.

We were very suspicious about his death. Sadly, his family resisted any formal investigation. Later, his body was exhumed, confirming a homicide, but the evidence was gone, and the culprit went free.

The experience taught me the heavy risk of being “in the closet.”  My friend, his family, and his friends were victims of his closet, and I vowed to myself that I would be open with the people that I love and have relationships with. That has turned out to be a good decision for me.

Embracing Visibility: A Journey of Strength and Impact

To provide our children with a supportive space to navigate life with a gay father, my ex-wife and I connected with a support group for children with LGBTQIA parents. This connection led our family to participate in a documentary showcasing families with LGBTQ+ parents, broadcast nationally when our children were 14 and 11.

The film's release sparked both controversy and positive change. The documentary offered insights from the children's perspective and depicted our lives candidly. However, airing the film attracted social conservatives' protests, including a significant public demonstration in our home state of Idaho. Yet, amid the controversy, our stories of LGBTQ+ resonated widely, reaching audiences beyond the initial broadcast.

The documentary has been consistently aired on cable channels for years, leading to numerous individuals and couples reaching out. They expressed their gratitude and shared how our experiences influenced their decisions to adopt children. The film pushed me to embrace openness and authenticity, leaving behind the confines of the closet. While I lost friends from my previous Mormon community, I gained a new circle of supporters who recognized the strength our family represented.

This newfound visibility became a catalyst for transformation, enabling me to step into leadership roles and tackle sensitive issues. At Honeywell, where I was employed, I was called upon to help implement same-sex domestic health benefits and establish an LGBTQIA Employee Resource Group. Our story became an example of change, fostering understanding and progress within and beyond our community.

Nurturing Growth Through Mentors and Diversity: A Path to Excellence

Managing these events throughout my life taught me the importance of inclusion. Ensuring everyone feels valued and included is extremely important when making organizations work better. It's like a puzzle – you need different pieces to see a more complete picture.

When we talk about diversity, we mean having different kinds of people engaged. This helps us make better choices. Treating everyone fairly is like helping them be their best so they can join in those choices. Inclusion and belonging mean making sure everyone feels welcome and part of the team, so they can do their best work, feel safe, and contribute.

Having mentors or coaches is super important too. Coaches are like guides who can help us in big ways. They make us feel comfortable to think big and take risks. Every time we do well, there's usually a coach helping us. Think about someone going from a tough situation to a better one – they usually have coaches supporting them.

Even in tests or sports, coaches are there to help. Not everyone can be a great coach, and that's okay. It's good to have different coaches and manage those friendships. So, when we work together, respect everyone, and have coaches, things can get awesome.

Fostering Bold Leadership: Leading With Pride in DEI

My career has been one of leading change by transforming teams. I started in Lean Six Sigma and focused on creating great processes. I soon learned that if you build great people, they will make great processes on their own. I began to focus on building people.
I've observed LGBTQIA individuals concealing their identities, which often affects their work performance, leading to guarded or reckless behavior. To help them, I created "Leading With Pride." This initiative aims to unleash the untapped potential within them, enabling bold contributions to their workplaces, families, and communities. "Leading With Pride" stems from a synergy of my career, activism, and collective support. It uniquely contributes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by empowering individuals and teams and fostering impactful results.

In today's rapidly changing landscape, a fresh perspective on leadership development is essential. The old approach focuses on established leaders, perpetuating outdated styles with swift change and diverse demographics, we require quicker decisions aligned with new values and greater engagement. It's time to nurture leadership in diverse youth, fostering empowered mindsets and inclusive cultures where everyone is respected and developed as a leader.

In the end, my journey has been about learning to accept myself and others, no matter what we believe. Life is more colorful and interesting when we're open to different ideas and people.  We get a lot more good stuff done in lasting ways when we work together.

The key message is to embrace courageous, considerate, and inclusive actions. Strive to achieve positive outcomes while nurturing personal growth in yourself and others.

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