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“True leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.” Tom Peters
No truer words could be said about our Executive Director, Rick Koepke, who has served in this leadership position at ISTSS for over two decades. Rick has supported over 20 ISTSS Presidents, Executive Committees, and Boards, as well as countless ISTSS volunteers, enabling all who had the pleasure of working with him to effectively carry out the mission and strategic initiatives of our beloved organization. As we are approaching Rick’s retirement, I am taking the opportunity to write this column in StressPoints as a tribute to Rick and his ISTSS legacy. In the preparation of this column, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rick to speak with him about his career with ISTSS, and I remain in awe of his passion for the field of traumatic stress. I also had the honor of incorporating the heartwarming notes of gratitude that ISTSS Past Presidents wrote in contribution to this piece. Summarized wisely and succinctly by Ueli Schnyder, “Rick was much more than ISTSS’s executive director. Presidents were coming and going. Rick was always there. And he not only knew how to do things right: he also knew how to do the right thing.” Additionally, Karestan Koenen noted, “I could not have had a better partner than Rick during my tenure as ISTSS President. He was always available to troubleshoot, offer support, even just listen. I learned a great deal from him on how to navigate group decision making processes that has served me well in later leadership positions. He also always seemed to be able to locate, within seconds, any email related to any issues ISTSS had ever dealt with. I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to work so closely with Rick.”
As will come as no surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of working with Rick over the years, his passion for helping those affected by trauma has been a strong undercurrent and motivation for his work. “Being ED was always more than a job to Rick because he always cared about ISTSS, its mission, its members, and the survivors of traumatic stress that ISTSS has a duty to serve” wrote Dean Kilpatrick. Prior to his role at ISTSS, Rick was a front-line clinician working with mental health consumers. As he transitioned into his role with ISTSS he was pleased that he continued to feel that his work has contributed to the betterment of health. Rick remarked, “I have been able to understand and appreciate that the support that I have given to ISTSS has impacted people who have experienced trauma in a broader way than my individual interactions would have been able to…people have gotten better clinical services because someone connected to ISTSS got knowledge that made their treatment better because of what ISTSS gave them.” Rick also noted how much he has valued his connections to ISTSS volunteers who share his passion and commitment to helping survivors of traumatic stress; “helping and enabling other people to make contributions has been important to me, and I have been really fortunate that the ISTSS volunteers are great, energized, committed, creative, and smart people who really want to make a difference. It has never been about ‘me,’ it has been about who you are trying to help.” Eve Carlson wrote, “Always quietly in the background, most ISTSS members probably don't realize how much thanks we all owe Rick for the Society's success, but we do! So thank you Rick for all you have done to foster ISTSS so that its members could contribute to the field of traumatic stress and the welfare of trauma survivors.” 
Although Rick’s contributions to ISTSS are innumerous, perhaps the most impactful is his work on ISTSS’s financial health. Rick joined ISTSS in a time in which our finances were concerning. If it had not been for Rick’s vision and help leading the Board of Directors and numerous Treasurers to make strategic decisions that have led to the stability of ISTSS’s financial strength, currently, we would be in a substantially different situation. We were able to tighten our financial belt and weather the unexpected storm of the pandemic securely, despite having two years of lost income that would typically have been generated from our annual meeting. Dean Kilpatrick wrote, “ISTSS has never been stronger or more financially stable. Rick deserves considerable credit for that, and he can take his well-deserved retirement knowing that he left ISTSS better than when he found it.”
Intrinsically entwined with ISTSS’s financial health is the success of our annual meeting which generates a meaningful proportion of our income. Additionally, beyond providing income, the annual meeting is critically important as it is central to our mission and identity; a place where collaborations are formed and friendships are made. Under Rick’s leadership, ISTSS’s annual meeting has flourished. Rick remarked, “over the 20-year period of time I have worked with ISTSS, the meeting has evolved: we have greater participation, a wider range of voices, a more global emphasis, a broader range of content, a greater willingness to look at things differently. Being involved in the processes and decision making over the years that have contributed to the success of the meetings has been meaningful to me.”
Rick has a gifted leadership style that allows for the day-to-day decisions to be made, while simultaneously providing the opportunity for bigger-picture strategic thinking. Julian Ford wrote, “Rick has been absolutely instrumental in the growth and continued success of ISTSS, guiding the leadership with a unique combination of patience, precision, and wisdom—and a wonderfully wry sense of humor. We are truly indebted to him.” Additionally, Stuart Turner noted, “I can think of few more challenging roles than providing executive management expertise to a volunteer society, one whose members don’t always want to pull in quite the same direction. Rick has fulfilled this role calmly and effectively, both at times of crisis and at times when more attention has been needed to support the strategic direction of ISTSS.” Barbara Rothbaum remarked, “Rick was a tremendous help as I was preparing to be ISTSS president. Luckily, I was smart enough to listen to him! He was wise and kind and gentle yet clear. He based his comments on his historical knowledge of ISTSS (and other professional organizations), and training so many others in this role. I also had a great time touring Stockholm with him at one of the mid-year board meetings and learned he loves architecture. We wouldn’t be where we are had it not been for Rick’s guidance. We will miss his wise leadership.”
While many may know that Rick holds a graduate degree in social work, a little-known fact about Rick is that he also studied theatre as an undergraduate. It is his theatre background to which he attributes his appreciation and skill at management of large, complex systems. Rick stated, “theatre is a large system and all parts need to work for the production to get produced. There are people on stage that the audience comes to listen to, but there is a lot of work that needs to be in place behind the scenes for the audience to get the experience they came for.” To that end, Miranda Olff wrote, “As everyone will agree on Rick’s commitment to ISTSS, support of the BOD, EC, and especially the president went beyond anyone could expect. He clearly directed us all in the right direction. But I have vivid memories of one point in time where his (and my) sense of direction was slightly impaired. In Kyoto, Japan, we were to meet in a restaurant to prepare for next day’s board meeting. Unable to read the street signs or to make clear to the other where we were in these narrow streets of the old city, it took us forever! But it was worth it and became one of the nicest meetings I had with Rick. Thank you Rick for all your help, wisdom, vision, and support!” In addition to Rick’s ability to dually manage both immediate and long-term direction, he did so with incredible grace. Meaghan O’Donnell wrote, “it’s hard to summarize all the wonderful qualities that Rick brought to his Executive Director role but the particular ones that were highly relevant during my presidential term were patience, knowledgeable, respectful, unflappable, and so very kind…and did I mention patience?” Debra Kaysen noted “I worked with Rick during the pandemic year. Rick was tireless and devoted throughout that difficult year…and unflappable. In a year of tremendous hardship, chaos, and anxiety, Rick was the pillar for ISTSS. Throughout that year I knew we were in safe hands.” Eric Bui also served in the Presidential role during the pandemic and benefited from Rick’s leadership, stating, “Rick’s wealth of knowledge, his commitment and dedication to ISTSS, as well as his reassuring demeanor under all circumstances, made serving as ISTSS President almost as smooth as ‘mailing a letter through the post office’ [French saying, approximate translation]. The experience of serving as ISTSS leader would have been a completely different experience without him… Come to think of it, the experience of being an ISTSS member would have been a completely different experience without him…”
Rick has an incredible depth of historical knowledge of ISTSS, but moreover, he has a keen ability to forecast to the future to help the leadership move forward strategically. Diane Elmore Borbon highlighted that “Rick worked seamlessly with leaders, members, and consultants to develop, implement, and continuously improve our ISTSS strategic plan. He inspired us to develop meaningful goals and has kept us focused on the objectives and strategies necessary to achieve our vision of improving the traumatic stress field and society at large.” When asked about what he thinks ISTSS needs to be have on our radar, he underscored two critical points: the importance of the younger generation and ISTSS’s role in the era of disinformation. “The importance of understanding the younger generation and their ways of interacting and learning, and learning how ISTSS fits into that picture, will be an ongoing set of conversations. To ISTSS’s credit it has put in place opportunities to bring the voice of younger generations into the room, but I do think the need to keep thinking about how people learn, relate, get information, and what is going wrong with the new ways of people communicating, and how can ISTSS respond to that, is critical.” To his second point, he astutely pointed out how the spread of erroneous information can drive behavior and spread rapidly during our digital age. He urged ISTSS to be thoughtful about how we can combat this trend and continue to be a source of scientifically accurate and timely knowledge in this rapidly changing environment.
If you are wondering what our hardworking leader hopes to do in the next chapter of his life, he looks forward to reading books he has purchased over the years but not had time to read, spending more time outdoors, napping, and volunteering. Not surprisingly, Rick’s parents both held volunteer leadership positions in their retirement, and Rick will surely follow in their footsteps. He also plans to become an ISTSS member. If this does not speak to his love and dedication to ISTSS, I am not sure what does. On behalf of ISTSS, I’ll end in expressing our deep gratitude for his steady hand and sage leadership. The future of ISTSS is secure, and Rick’s legacy of leadership is a major contributing factor in the health of our organization.