Leadership Interview – Patrick Coleman


Patrick Coleman

Last Friday I had the great pleasure interviewing Patrick Coleman, Head of Acquisitions at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

For people who are familiar with Minnesota and St. Paul politics, Coleman is a well-known name. Pat Coleman comes from that prominent family in St. Paul. His father was the former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Nick D. Coleman, and served as senator from Ramsey County from 1963-1979.

His older brother is the political columnist Nick J. Coleman. His second youngest brother is the current St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. His other siblings include Maureen (died 55 years ago at age 2), Brendan (lives in Prague), Meghan (Doctor of Chiropractic in Mankato, MN), and Emmett Coleman (Comcast Vice President).

I first met Coleman last year while working on a digitization project for MnDOT Library, funded by the Minnesota Digital Library. Coleman shared resources from the MHS Library collection that I needed for the project. We met a couple of times and had interesting conversations about books, politics and his family.

Coleman is one of those few people I have met in life who emanate positive energy, who have a big heart and a gentle soul. I do not necessarily know them well, but the first impression and my intuitive sense tell me there is something special about them. Coleman is definitely a gentleman.

Last month when I was looking for someone to do a leadership interview for my Emerging Leaders Institute assignment, Coleman came to my mind. When I contacted him, he happily agreed to meet with me. I was so thankful that he took time from his very busy schedule to do the interview.

So last Friday, over a cup of coffee, he answered my questions and shared his background, his experience and his leadership lessons with me.

Because of Coleman’s unique family background, I had to start with a couple of unique questions that I don’t ask other interviewees.

“Are leaders born or learned? How much does nature or nurture play a role in becoming a leader?”

“It’s a combination of both,” says Coleman.

Coleman is the second of seven children in the family. As a kid, Coleman spent more time than any of his siblings at the Capitol listening to his father and other politicians debating. However, instead of following his father’s footstep and becoming a politician, Coleman is more attracted to the world of books, literature (especially Irish literature), Minnesota history and nature. His brother Chris has the natural talent to be a leader. He speaks well in public, connects easily with people and makes them feel heard and understood. He makes tough decisions. Making tough decisions that do not make everyone happy is the hardest part of being a leader for Coleman.

Growing up in a family with members well known in the community has its blessings and also challenges.

“Obviously there are a lot of opportunities, such as meeting with political figures, getting to know a lot of people. But there are also challenges. People have higher expectation of you and make assumptions and judgment about you. You are expected to do well and behave a certain way.”

When I asked Coleman whom he admired as a leader and who has inspired him to become a leader, he introduced me to a few people – Kathleen Vellenga, Peter Magrath, Nina M. Archabal, and Peter D. Pearson.

The first person Coleman mentioned was former state Rep. Kathleen Vellenga, “She got a lot done, with a big heart.” Kathy was a house representative from Ramsey County and served seven terms from 1981 to 1993. Coleman managed several election campaigns for Kathy, “a great person and a great leader.”

Peter Magrath is a higher education administrator who has served as president at multiple American universities. He was the eleventh president of the University of Minnesota, serving from 1974 to 1984, when Coleman’s father was the Minnesota Senate Majority Leader. Later Magrath married Coleman’s stepmother, Deborah Howell, who was an editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Washington Post. In January 2010, while the couple was vacationing in New Zealand, Howell was hit by a car and died tragically. Magrath is a family friend and has become a father figure to Coleman. “When I have questions and need someone to talk to, I go to Peter.”

Nina M. Archabal, who served the Minnesota Historical Society for 33 years and 23 years as its director, was a great leader in good times and bad times. She experienced rapid growth and financial hardship during her long career at MHS and had to make some tough decisions. “She handled it well.”

Peter D. Pearson, president of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, is another inspiration for Coleman. “Pearson helps make The Friends a nationally recognized, award-winning organization, the best of the kind in the nation.”

“What are the most critical attributes to successful leadership?”

Coleman says leaders need to have abundant energy. They have to believe, to really care about what they believe, are engaged and involved with passion and energy.  Peter Magrath is such a person with a lot of energy.

Successful leaders are smart and competent. They constantly challenge themselves and look for opportunities to change, to grow and to contribute.

“What challenges do you see that leaders face in government?”

Coleman says the main challenge is money and economy. The second is communication. In the old days, legislators used to fight on the floor, but they would go out for lunch together and still be good friends, despite their different points of view and personal beliefs. Now politicians demonize each other and say all bad things about each other. This prevents them from working together effectively and moving forward.

For someone like Coleman who started handing out campaign literature at the tender age of four, being civically engaged is an important responsibility of every citizen. “I can’t imagine not going to vote and not being an active member of the local community.”

In response to my question about his experience as a leader, Coleman says humbly: “I don’t feel like a leader.”

Even though Coleman does not officially hold any prominent title like some of his family members do, he is a leader in his own right.

Coleman is involved in the following non-profit organizations on the board of directors.

Currently, Coleman is enrolled in the spring 2012 class of Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program at Georgetown University in DC. It’s a leadership development program designed for leaders working in nonprofit sector. Once a month he flies to DC and stays there for three days to attend classes. It’s an intensive program, with attendees from around the country and a few from other countries.

“I am the oldest student in the class,” Coleman says. Some people think he is crazy. At age 58, it’s time to take it easy and enjoy life, but instead he has taken on more challenges, while paying everything himself, including tuition, flight and hotel. “It’s never too late to learn.” I can’t agree more with him.

“What are some of the most important lessons you have learned as a leader?”

“To be a leader, you have to be willing to get involved in things that will positively affect your community, impact the world or make a difference in someone’s life.” Coleman adds. “Knowledge is power. Continuing learning and challenging yourself is one key factor in your ongoing development as a leader.”

Coleman has a big heart for books and nonprofit. He still wants to do more and better at an age when most people are thinking about working less or even retirement. I admire his youthful energy and his desire for making a difference.

Not surprisingly, one of the proudest accomplishments in Coleman’s life has something to do with books. He played an important role in saving the Minnesota Book Awards from disappearing.

The Minnesota Book Awards was created over two decades ago by The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.  Over the years it was led by several different organizations, at one time by the Minnesota Center for the Book. In 2000, due to financial crisis, the Minnesota Book Awards could not be sustained. At the time, Coleman was serving on the Minnesota Humanities Commission board. He shepherd the Minnesota Book Awards over to the Minnesota Humanities Commission for a few years. Eventually the Awards returned to its original home with the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.

In 2009, Coleman was honored with the Kay Sexton Award for his contributions to the state’s book community.

Coleman has been an acquisitions librarian at MHS for 33 years. What’s his favorite part of the job?

“Spending money and buying hard to find books that add value to our collection.”

If anyone wants to donate to the MHS to help preserve Minnesota history, Coleman would be happy to hear from you.

Coleman shares his love for Minnesota’s history and books through his blog 150 Best Minnesota Books. He is compiling a list of the 150 best books in Minnesota.