Columbus Native Finds People Skills Translate Globally

cover of fall 2012 issue of Focus magazine      From Focus magazine, Fall 2012 >>

 By Bill Sutley
If Joseph Lunsford has learned one thing after working in nations from South America to Africa to the Mideast, it’s that “people are people.”

“If you respect their culture, you can have a very easy transition,” the former Columbus State student said.

He’s now facing one of his greatest cultural challenges as socioeconomic manager for ExxonMobil’s operations in Iraq. In that role, he consults with the corporation’s stakeholders there, working to develop and implement community engagement projects.

“It is imperative that we respect and value cultural heritage, customs and diversity among our workforce and in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “I see this as a cornerstone of our operations, regardless of which country I’m working in.”

He sees the new job as “an opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of the Iraqi people, who have endured years of suffering and turmoil — an opportunity to be truly a servant leader in a demanding environment.’’

Such lessons came early for Lunsford, the sixth of 10 children, whose parents, the late Walter and Sally Lunsford, operated a service station near downtown Columbus and ran three cab companies.

“My parents were always advocates for making a difference in the community, no matter what,” he said. “They challenged us to always exceed

(One sister, Columbus Tax Commissioner Lula Huff, recently joined the CSU Foundation’s Board of Trustees.)

Lunsford got his first exposure to higher education through an early admissions program that allowed him to enroll at Columbus College as a Pacelli High School senior, before graduating in 1973. Encouraged by family, he took the advice of a well-placed mentor, U.S. Rep. Jack Brinkley, and won admission to West Point.

He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1977 with a general engineering degree and headed to Columbus — not to home but to Fort Benning, where he completed Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder and other advanced training. After command postings at Fort Benning and working in Fort Meade, Md., he found his military occupation niche when he was selected for the Foreign Area Officer program.

Along the way, he learned Spanish and Portuguese, spending time representing U.S. interests in Latin America. He also completed a master’s in political science at the University of Florida, focusing on the politics of Brazil, which he visited, meeting his future wife. He went on to become an intern at the United Nations. In 1987, the Army had him return to West Point to teach political science. By 1988, he had reached the rank of major, and his military future appeared bright.

Then tragedy struck on a Thanksgiving 1988 visit to Georgia, when a drunken driver steered her northbound car into the southbound lanes of Interstate 85, near the North Druid Hills exit in Atlanta. The resulting head-on collision with Lunsford’s car seriously injured him, his wife and a sister. His femur snapped, protruding from his leg, and both feet and his left arm were broken. Yet Lunsford concludes he was “very blessed.” 

“The person who hit me was killed, and I survived,” he said. “It was a major turning point in my life.”

Initially, he was plagued by depression. “I was on the fast track in the military,” he said. “I looked at all I had achieved and thought my life was over. I asked myself, `Why me, why me? How can this happen to me?’”

At some point, Lunsford had a revelation, and that was, “Why not me? What exempts me? What makes me so special that something catastrophic could not happen to me? Because of a strong Christian background, I felt like I was chosen for something.”

He remembered how he had been taught that “the real measure of a person is how they deal with obstacles. And then it started dawning on me that life is not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have.”

After grueling physical rehabilitation at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, he got a call inviting him to return to teaching at West Point. He took advantage of the offer and taught while he continued his recovery. He had a rod in his left leg and was partially paralyzed below the waist. Doctors told him it would take time for the nerves to grow.

“It was one of the worst times of my life, but it was during that recovery that I began contemplating my future, and that is how I got interested in ExxonMobil,” he said.

He quietly began an intense job search, focusing on the most respected firms among the 30 publicly traded corporations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Eventually, he decided Exxon was the best fit and medically retired from the military. He joined the oil giant as a marketing planner at its Houston headquarters in 1991, while he was still on crutches or using a cane.

After several promotions and moves, he began revisiting countries from his military career in key positions, helping oversee fuels marketing maintenance for 29 nations in the Caribbean, Central and South America. In 2004, ExxonMobil assigned him to a manager post in oil-rich Nigeria. He worked closely with affiliates and governmental agencies to ensure safety and compliance with regulations to protect the environment. He also assisted with health programs to fight malaria, tuberculosis and pandemic flu. That led to his new job in Iraq, starting in September 2011.

“In Lagos, Nigeria, I became involved in a lot of community work,” Lunsford said. “And this was all the result of me asking myself after my accident, ‘What is life really about?’ It is about making a difference with what you have. If you believe in life after death, you are going to be accountable for everything you do. I believe it is important to do the best I can, in whatever I do.”

He feels his military and corporate experiences prepared him well for his new role in Iraq.

“It’s a very different country to operate in,” he said. “You really have to understand their culture to assist them. You’ve got to listen to the people. You can’t deploy a Western mindset, value, or democratic ideal on them. We need to respect them and their culture.”

One important change with the new posting was the decision for his wife, Cecilia, and three daughters (Fatima, Theresa, and Joanna) to live in Columbus, surrounded by Lunsford’s extended family, with ExxonMobil allowing trips home.

During a visit last December, he marveled at changes in Columbus State’s main campus and said he was encouraged by the university’s growing emphasis on students learning more about the world, including the university’s growing study abroad program.

“I’ve worked with 31 countries, and Americans really need to get out of their shells and see what people from other backgrounds really think,” he said. “We are very blessed in the USA, and as the world grows closer together, it is important to recognize and respect each other’s culture and way of life and know that each of us can make a difference.”


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Caption: Joseph Lunsford during CSU visit. (Photo by Bill Sutley)