For Zita Cobb, good leadership is about working to progress the public good and involves bringing people together to collectively improve their lives. Cobb, Co-Founder and CEO of Shorefast and Innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn, has made this mission her life’s work. She discussed the many ways this sentiment has been put into practice for the 2023 Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership hosted by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. Dusya Vera, Executive Director of Ihnatowycz Leadership, introduced Cobb by highlighting: “Our world is in dire need of inspiration so that we can all strive to do more than we think we can do; but this will require strength of character. In Zita, we see such a role model – one for the young and young at heart.”
In her address, delivered on October 30 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and again on November 14 at Ivey, Cobb shared details of her amazing journey. This journey started at her birthplace of Fogo Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. She then went on to have a successful career in the tech industry before returning to Fogo Island where she established Shorefast in 2004 with two of her siblings, Alan Cobb and Anthony Cobb. Through her address, entitled Putting Leadership in its Place, Cobb encouraged students to think about Canada as a collection of communities, each community with its own assets and inherent value, that are the building blocks of our country. She spoke about how, through acts of everyday leadership within these communities and “with an eye on the past and two eyes to the future,” we all have important roles to play in the ongoing building and development of “place.”
Leaders are the deepest believers
An eighth-generation Fogo Islander, Cobb detailed the struggles the Island went through when the influx of commercial fishing vessels collapsed the stocks of Atlantic cod to an endangered level. She recalled that, as a child, she saw how Islanders’ deep belief in their community’s potential inspired them to step up and take on leadership roles to address the crisis.
“Leaders are the deepest believers ... they believed in the inherent value of the place and believed that, if it was given half a chance, it could flourish,” she said.
In addition to collaboration, Cobb said this process required a great deal of transcendence and integrity because not all community members initially agreed on a common path. Ultimately, the Islanders put their differences aside to start the Fisheries Cooperative in an attempt to help rebuild Fogo Island’s economy – a move Cobb called “an act of leadership.”
“Sometimes it takes more character to support the leadership of others than it does to fight on for your way of doing things,” she said.
The power of place leadership
Following the lead of those who came before her, when Cobb returned to her roots on Fogo Island, she began her work by focusing on the Island community’s inherent assets– their strength, its traditions, and culture. She then determined what infrastructure the Island needed to thrive.
“Places have power to hold us together, to hold our relationships with each other, with nature, with the past,” she said. “We look for ways to connect our work to the work of others, to link practice to thought leadership, to systems, platforms, and networks. By working this way, we are investing in innovation.”
By focusing on “place” and leading with courage and accountability, Cobb and Shorefast have sparked a renaissance on Fogo Island, proving that economic prosperity, community development, sustainable practices, and cultural preservation can go hand in hand. Under Cobb’s leadership, Shorefast has spearheaded initiatives such as the renowned Fogo Island Inn – a unique, world-class hotel created from the fabric of Fogo Island. This is in addition to youth mentorship programs, environmental stewardship initiatives, programs to support local craftspeople, and more. Cobb’s dedication to the holistic development of her birthplace has garnered international recognition and serves as a model for sustainable community development worldwide.
A challenge for the next generation of leaders
Cobb challenged students to think about their “place” in the world, “because we all come from somewhere; even shareholders come from somewhere,” and how they can invest in these places to build a stronger sense of community. Like her ancestors who were facing economic hardship, she acknowledged we are also facing significant challenges in present day such as climate change, housing, and mental health. But, Cobb said when leaders are dedicated to recognizing the inherent assets of those around them and placing a focus on place-based economic development, they have the power to bring people together under a shared vision and improve lives.
To close her address, she left students with a vision for the future and a call to step up and make a difference as global citizens.
“What each of us does tomorrow in the places we live and work will shape the future of one of the most nature-rich and culturally vibrant countries on the planet," she said. "Our leadership will make the difference between a middling future or one that is a leading example of a successful democracy with resilient communities from coast to coast to coast.”
In 2006, Ivey established the annual Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership to salute Tom d’Aquino’s outstanding contributions to national and international business, public policy, and the volunteer sector. We are grateful to Mr. d'Aquino for his ongoing support of the Institute and this lecture.