On 1st October, Gordon McInally was officially declared as Rotary International President Nominee. The Scottish Rotarian will take office in July 2023. Ahead officially being selected, Rotary magazine Editor, Dave King, spoke to Gordon about his journey in Rotary, what lies ahead and his hopes for his time in office.
How did you hear the news from Evanston that you had received the nomination to be Rotary International President in 2023-24?
I was in the garden at my home just outside Kelso in the Scottish Borders. We have a big garden pond and I had just been in the pond in my waders cleaning out the duck weed. I didn’t take the call in the pond, but I took the call just after I’d come out of it.
How it works is that the nominating committee makes their decision, and then the chairman phones the successful candidate asking if they would be willing to take the position.
It is one of those Road to Damascus moments. Maybe it’s my nature, but I didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to think I might have been successful. But, then again, I would have been disappointed had I been unsuccessful.
I guess as I took the call and then spent time back on Zoom with the committee later, there was a sinking in process for a short while as the impact of what was happening hit home.
I didn’t go into the process blindly. I knew the commitment and it is one of those things that you would not enter into without being prepared to make the commitment.
As you can imagine, it was a fairly significant phone call to receive. It’s a bit like the Prime Minister phoning you on the Sunday night after an election and saying ‘I’ve got a job in the cabinet for you’!
How did you cope with the fall-out once the news was known?
It was very energising to receive all the emails and texts I did from Rotarians and friends across the world. Over the years of being involved with Rotary, I have drawn a lot of strength from the support and the encouragement of many, many friends. People have been very encouraging.
I suppose us Scots are a little guilty of hiding our light under a bushel. It’s not about self-promotion or anything like that. But when people say you would be well capable of doing a job, it does energise you and gives you strength, there’s no doubt about that.
So why are you doing it?
Well, I just believe so passionately in what Rotary does, can do, and stands for.
There is no doubt that we are at a pivotal point for the organisation. From my point of view, one of the most important things is that I am going to follow Jennifer Jones as Rotary International President. I get on well with Jennifer. I think we are on the same page and I have always preached the gospel of continuity.
I joined Rotary when I was very young. There was no Round Table in our town, so I was a member of Rotary when I was 26. I was club President when I was 33, District Governor at 39 and President of Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland by the time I was 46. So I have done things at a relatively young age, although in this instance, I won’t be younger than the preceding President of Rotary International!
I am not into ego. It is not about me. It really is about Rotary. I dislike the term ‘my year’. Somebody has already said to me “your convention will be in Singapore” and I said “no, Rotary’s convention will be in Singapore”. I would much rather talk about Rotary’s years rather than ‘my year’.
And I do believe with Jennifer preceding me, that we can get that continuity going which I tried to achieve at District and Rotary GB&I level.
In fact, if whoever follows me who has the same feeling for continuity, then it might just catch on! We might get away from travelling in one direction one year, another direction the following year, only to end up get back to where we started in the third year.
Surely there are easier jobs to do that becoming President of Rotary International with the commitment on a scale which you have not been used to before.
This is all part of the commitment you are prepared to make. Heather and I are very lucky that we have a lot of friends in Rotary, and a lot of friends who are not yet in Rotary, and there is no doubt we will miss these people for a while, but nothing is forever. Although I won’t be as young as Jennifer when I take over, I am still only 64 so I would like to think I have got a fair few years ahead of me yet!
It is a commitment you are prepared to make. You don’t go into it blind and it’s an opportunity for me to take. I am a great believer that there is a “plan”, and perhaps this is the right time for me to do it.
What is the selection process like? Is it like the Spanish Inquisition?
It’s not as bad as the Spanish Inquisition. The nominating committee comprises 17 people and so it is pretty daunting to go before that size of panel. You have to make a presentation, they ask you a series of questions and you then make some closing remarks.
It’s a daunting experience, especially for someone like myself who, prior to two years ago, had not been in front of an interview panel other than for a Saturday job in Safeways in Edinburgh when I was about 16!
I had my own dental practice, so I was always on the other side of the interview table. It was an interesting experience, but I think it is a robust process, and it has become more robust because the time was when there were no interviews and it was done solely on CVs.
There was once a perception that choosing the Rotary President was not so transparent and it was almost done on Buggin’s Turn.
I can see why there was that perception. You see people at every level who have ambitions and do things to fulfil those ambitions. I would like to think that in the 37 years I have been in Rotary, I can put my hand on my heart and state that I have never actively sought a position by compromising in what I believe. I don’t think that is right. I like to go to bed at night and sleep with a clear conscience.
Is the selection process completed in one day?
Historically it would have been done in one day, face-to-face in Evanston. But for these last two years the interview process has been conducted virtually over several days. The committee came from as far west as California and as far east as Taipei and Japan, so there were time difference factors to consider in the process too.
What lies ahead for you over the coming months?
I am still very much at the bottom of the learning curve. In normal times, there would be a week of orientation in October in Evanston. I will also attend the Rotary International Board as an observer, so we are trying to align the orientation with the Board meeting to avoid shuttling backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, burning up gases and spending money which could be saved and spent in other ways.
After that, there is the preparation phase with the International Assembly in January where the nominee has a small part to play. There is a gradual progression through to next July and my becoming President-Elect.
Now you have had time to think about being selected, how do you feel? Is it excitement, a sense of relief, a feeling of apprehension? What sort of emotions do you have?
I am excited about having the opportunity. I would be lying if I didn’t say in the first few days there was a degree of apprehension, but I think that is a good thing. It’s not a question of saying “that’s it, I’ve got it!”. This was never about ‘getting it’. It is more about what I can do in the position as President, what I can do for Rotary and, more importantly, what I can do for the people whom Rotary serves. Because, at the end of the day, that is what this is all about.
What shape will the world be in come July 2023 when you take over as Rotary International President?
That is the $64,000 question. The hope is that we will have moved forward. But it’s a bit like the polio campaign in as much until we are all safe, nobody is safe. The pandemic is still some way from being over.
And I do think one of our big roles going forward is advocating for equitable vaccine distribution.
I was so upset the other day when I saw hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccines had passed their best by date and were being destroyed. You would think somebody could have had the wit to think that these vaccines were approaching their best by date, so let’s get them into places where we can actually get them into people’s arms, rather than letting them go down the drain.
That is something we have got to be conscious of. I think through the Foundation we will continue to support Covid-related grants and initiatives.
It’s also about getting clubs back into business. Some clubs haven’t met regularly during the pandemic, even on Zoom, and it is really important we re-engage with these people again.
I have heard some people say: “I just want to get back to normal and back to the way we used to do it.” We can’t afford to go back to doing things the way we used to do them. We really have to learn from what has happened this last little while and make the best of both worlds.
And that’s why I am really encouraged when I hear clubs talk about hybrid meetings. We have probably moved forward five or 10 years in the last year in terms of the way we do things. Who is to say even if there had not been a pandemic, 10 years from now we might not be doing things like hybrid meetings?
The pandemic has focused our attention and made us realise that these technologies are out there and we should make best use of them.
We had these “Kelso Conversations” during the pandemic. That was an opportunity to bring in speakers from all over the world who would not have come to Britain to speak to a Rotary audience for half an hour on a Thursday night. Because we were able to do this by Zoom, the “Kelso Conversations” became increasingly popular and people got a lot out of it. Through the Kelso Conversations, we were able to attract a wider audience from beyond Rotary, putting Rotary up front and centre in people’s minds.
Clearly, over the next 20 months, you are going to be thinking about themes and focuses which you will adopt for the President’s year.
I certainly am. Historically my interests have lain in health, probably because of my professional background, and children. There is also a big conversation to be had over mental well-being and I am really pleased that mental health is being spoken about more openly now, because it was once so taboo.
Harking back to continuity, the other thing I want to do is to have a conversation with Jennifer and find out what her plans are because I don’t want to be taking us in a totally different direction. That’s not abdicating any responsibility, that is thinking strategically and trying to say ‘why do something for 12 months when we could achieve more by doing something for 24 months – or more?’. I am not so ego-driven that it has to have my name on it and finished by June 30th, 2024. Far better that things are done properly and that things are effective.
To be fair, you can look at some of the President’s themes in recent years, and there is a thread which binds all of them – ‘Be the Inspiration’, ‘Rotary Connects the World’ and ‘Rotary Opens Opportunities’.
The theme meeting happens around January. When Mark Maloney was thinking about his theme for 2019-2020, who was sitting on his shoulder giving him ‘Rotary Connects the World’ for 2019-2020 when half way through that term we had to connect the world because of Covid?
With Holger Knaack’s theme “Rotary Opens Opportunities” at the height of the pandemic from 2020-2021, let’s not forget the opportunities which the pandemic has given us. And that’s what I mean when I say let’s not talk about getting back to the way Rotary was, let’s talk about moving forward.
There’s the expression ‘build back better’. RI Director Nicki Scott talks about ‘build forward better’. In other words, don’t look back, look to the future. And I think that is the right philosophy.
We don’t want to live on Zoom forever, but by the same token we need to make both meeting online and face-to-face work for so many different reasons; environment, cost, everything. We need to get the best of both worlds.
Where was your first club?
I joined Queensferry Rotary when I was 26 and, with the exception of a three year period when I was a member of the, now sadly defunct, Kelso Rotary Club, I am still there. I grew up Portobello and after going through a rough patch, this seaside part of Edinburgh has become a very bohemian area with lots of lovely private enterprises. It’s a lovely little place.
I was District Governor in Southern Scotland (District 1020) in 1997-98, and Rotary GB&I President in 2004-05, the Rotary centenary year.
Do you have hope in your heart for the future of Rotary?
Absolutely. I think Rotary has a great future ahead of it – if we are prepared to recognise that this is 2021, and not 1971 or 1921. We have got to be relevant for today’s society. That is not disrespecting the traditional Rotary clubs – they have done great work and many of them will continue to do great work. There are people who want to be a part of that traditional club style.
The opportunities that we have got now with the new model clubs and flexibility positions us very well to move forward. But we have got to do it.
As I was preparing to go before the nominating committee, I was looking back at some of the things I was saying 16 or 17 years ago when I was Rotary GB&I President. I used to go round talking about the “three Cs” – one was communication, the other was centenary and the third one was change. I was saying at that time how it was important that we change, how we need to engage another, younger demographic and at the same time not ignore the 40 or 50-year-olds who might be interested. Because I sometimes think we are a little bit guilty of wanting to recruit people in their late 20s and 30s yet we ignore some of the middle ground which comes after that.
A lot of what I was saying then still remains the case. We are very good at talking, but there comes a time when the talking has to stop and we have to get on and do things.
Some might say you are coming into the job at a perfect time, after the pandemic, with a clearer Rotary vision, a more settled world, and following on from Rotary’s first female President.
I am a great believer that everything is “of its time”, maybe this is my time to be doing it. That’s not to say I think I am the only Rotarian out of 1.2 million in our organisation who could be doing this job. I am just so privileged to have the opportunity to do this at this time.
How would you describe yourself and how would friends describe you as a person?
I would like to think I am out-going, and I can relate well to people right across the spectrum, which probably comes from my professional background. It doesn’t matter if you’re a peer of the realm or somebody off the street, everybody is worthy of their place.
I would hope people consider me to be reliable, dependable, and someone who delivers. I like a laugh as well. After all, you have to like a laugh when you support Hibernian Football Club and the Scottish rugby team!