Is your success a decision or an accident?

Being a great leader means defining yourself

I just saw one of the most brilliant, toughest SOBs I know get teary-eyed while giving a speech. I’ve known him for years; I have a great deal of respect for him and have learned an enormous amount from him.

Now 70, he told a childhood story about witnessing something that obviously had a huge impact on him in the tough streets of New Jersey. He was at a July 4 celebration with a one-mile race on an outdoor track for five local high school celebrity track stars.

On the first turn, one of the two most likely to win went down hard into the cinder track. As you might imagine, this meant he was never going to win. I can’t do the story justice in this format, but the kid claws his way back, running the rest of the race as though he’s in the final stretch and, as my mentor describes, all audience members are on their feet cheering on this kid as he throws himself across the finish line, falling to the cinder track … missing the win by 2 feet. He came in second. The thing is, this kid was black and, at the time, he couldn’t even walk the streets of his own neighborhood. But this day, he had everyone in the stadium on their feet, wanting him to win.

The speaker’s admonition to those of us in his community was, “Never, never, never give up!” Clearly this was a message that he’d learned, and it drove his behavior his entire life.

There’s a story (or two or three, some good and some bad) that drives us or holds us back. A great friend of mine and extremely talented person had a mother who routinely said, “You can’t do that,” in different forms, and my friend unfortunately took that to heart.

When I work with successful clients and learn their background, it’s usually obvious that they took their stories (good and bad) and turned them into something that supported and drove them.

I’m a coach, not a therapist, so I don’t spend much time looking backward with my clients. Rather, we look forward to a desired state and flesh out how to get there. My mentor, however, made me realize that we all have good and bad stories, and we can let them define us or we can choose which stories we want to listen to and define ourselves.

Being a successful leader is a function of what you know and what you do, but it’s also about who you are — and that can be a decision rather than an accident.

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